Acton Commentary

Panem and the Polis

Earlier this week, Pope Francis logged onto his @Pontifex Twitter account to declare that “inequality is the root of social evil.” This was of a piece with his November apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” in which he asserted that “inequality is the root of social ills.” Within the deeper context of his exhortation, it is evident that Francis is not advocating for equality in an absolute sense. He is, rather, discussing the kind of unjust inequality that results from structural evil. In this way, observes Francis, injustice carries within it the seeds of social unrest. This is as true for unjust inequality as it is for unjust equality. For as the formal principle of justice teaches, there is no greater injustice than to treat unequal things equally and equal things unequally. Or as Aristotle put it following Plato, we must “treat like cases as like.”

Inequality as such, especially when understood as a reflection of a diversity of talents, dispositions, and gifts, is not an evil, but is rather the source of rich social strength. Thus, observed Pope Leo XIII in the 1891 social encyclical Rerum Novarum, “But although all citizens, without exception, can and ought to contribute to that common good in which individuals share so advantageously to themselves, yet it should not be supposed that all can contribute in the like way and to the same extent. No matter what changes may occur in forms of government, there will ever be differences and inequalities of condition in the State. Society cannot exist or be conceived of without them.” Likewise the Dutch Reformed theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper put it, “the mere fact that God created a man and a woman proves indisputably that identical uniformity was not part of the plan of creation. So we may draw no other conclusion than that the rich variety among people, in terms of aptitude and talent, came forth from the creation itself and belongs to the essence of human nature.”

It is when inequality is unjust that it becomes a pestilence to social life. Likewise, there is such a thing as social unrest that arises because of unjust equality. This is particularly true in cases where equality is circumscribed for a few and which thereby excludes the masses. The common sense nature of this is manifest in the observation of Kevin Starr, a professor of history and policy, planning and development at USC: “You can’t have a city of just rich people. A city needs restaurant workers, a city needs schoolteachers, a city needs taxi drivers.”

Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is a stark illustration of the effects of tyranny based on formal injustice, which, in Francis’ words, come to expression in a political economy “of exclusion and inequality.”

In the Hunger Games, the social sin of the fictional nation of Panem is that it has violated this truth: it has created a class of labor excluded from political, economic, and social life. Panem is an archetypal extractive political economy, a tyranny of elites upheld by the coercive power of police brutality. The residents of the districts are expected to provide for the material comforts of the Capitol elite with the fruits of their toil. This is essentially an institutionalization of theft, in which those in the districts are systematically disenfranchised and dispossessed by the political elites. Panem’s Capitol is a city of rich people who are served both within the city and in the districts by an underclass of permanent bondservants. Aristotle’s description of unjust inequality serves as an apt summary of Panem: “Thus arises a city, not of freemen, but of masters and slaves, the one despising, the other envying.”

The Capitol

The instability of Panem’s tyrannical social structure arises precisely from the injustice of this system, an inevitable consequence of deviating from the norm of equality before the law and solidarity in practice. This is evident when compared to an Aristotelian vision of the polis, which was understood to be the defining feature of human sociality. Aristotle famously described the human person as a “political” being (zōon politikon), sometimes translated as a “social animal.” But for Aristotle, this meant more than the mere relationality and codependency of the human person as expressed within, for instance, the context of the family. The political nature of the human person meant existing within a defined set of social relationships, institutionalized in the interaction between urban and pastoral settings, which allowed for a self-sustaining social organism. The polis was thus not limited to the urban center, which depended on the agricultural output of farms for its existence. Rather, the polis included the city as well as the surrounding farmland. And, most significantly, a farmer was no less a citizen of the polis than was a city dweller.

This did not mean that there was absolute equality, of course. There were rich and poor in the polis, and there were people who pursued a variety of vocations. But in terms of their identity as participants, with rights and responsibilities, the class of members in the polis was not limited by urban vs. rural residence.  As Andrew Szegedy-Maszak of Wesleyan University puts it, the polis always “included both the urban center, called the Astu, and the landscape around it, the farmland, the agricultural area. No matter if you were living in downtown Athens, or out in Dhekelia, you were equally a citizen of Athens.” Something similar should be true of Panem, but instead citizenship privilege is limited to the elite class of Capitol residents.

There were other restrictions reflective of the particular Greek cultural setting, of course, which mirror in some ways the systematic exclusion of Panem’s social structure. The citizen of the Greek polis was always an adult male. The citizen was also always a native, and even more significantly was also a freeman. So even in Aristotle’s ideal vision of a polis there were various forms of disenfranchisement, including slavery. Since participation in the life of the polis was characteristic of humanity, a consequence of these kinds of institutions meant that those who lived under them were, by definition, less than fully human.

And yet in spite of these defects, the Aristotelian polis did reflect a central fact of human social life that remains relevant for discussions of demographics and changing landscapes in our world today. The positive ideal of the Greek polis and the negative example of Panem show that you cannot have a city simply of elites, and that the rights and responsibilities of citizenship cannot be limited to a particular economic class. This kind of formal equality is the basis for social justice and human flourishing. As Aristotle put it, “justice is the bond of men in states,” and so injustice will always and everywhere sow the seeds of social disorder.

Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. His most recent book is Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action).