Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Letters to the Editor

Not a Zero-Sum Equation

"The Income Gap" [by William Sundstrom, Fall, 1998] deals with the redistribution of money made by the "haves" of society. Economics is not a zero-sum equation. The best way to narrow the gap is to teach and encourage every member of the society to take advantage of America's unique opportunity. The wealthiest Amer-icans own their own businesses, but we do not teach our youth how to do this. Your next article on this subject should discuss helping the poor to better themselves rather than suggesting that they take anything away from more successful members of society. Historically, capitalism works. We need to learn more about how to use it.

James Pratt Fredonia, New York

Inequality the Result of Policy Choices

Kudos for publishing a thoughtful analysis of a controversial topic in "The Income Gap." Unfortunately, there was one critical argument missing from the "Why Should We Care?" section: namely, because our government's policies helped create this inequality.

Each of the reasons offered as explanations for the rise in inequality have a significant policy dimension. Rapid technological change, increased globalization, reduced membership in labor unions, the stagnation of the minimum wage, and the decline of income-transfer programs did not happen in a policy vacuum through purely "market forces."

A close study of U.S. economic policies in the 1980s would demonstrate that, in almost every case, the interests of lower-income people were consciously subordinated to others' interests in fashioning policies on these very issues. The inequality we see now is, in large measure, the cumulative result of these policies.

Many of us who read your journal personally benefitted from those policies-whether we supported them or not. As a nation, we have a responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of our policy choices. This is another basic ethical principle that requires us to address the income gap.

Tim Iglesias Oakland, California

polar extremes

"The Welfare of the Community" [Summer 1997] by Joseph Westfall presents arguments for and against social welfare. The trouble is that it presents such polar extremes in the two arguments that it does not advance the discussion to a rational resolution.

In the argument against social welfare, Westfall states, "If people's actions result in a drop in their well-being, that is their personal responsibility, and they should take the brunt of the repercussions." This is true only up to the point where the person has lost so much well-being that the necessary conditions for the rational agency of that person are in jeopardy or lost. This condition is not one of laziness but of incapacitation. It is reasonable at this point for society to help the person re-establish the conditions for the exercise of rational agency.

The argument for social welfare makes the statement that all people have a right to have their basic needs met and should be provided with such goods as food, clothing, and shelter if they do not already possess them. The problem here is the clever shift from the need for basic goods to bring a person out of incapacity to the absolute, unconditioned need for basic goods, making those goods an entitlement. Why rescue a person incapacitated by poverty only so that the person can become permanently dependent upon the state and so lose that rational agency that was supposedly rescued?

Anthony B. Diepenbrock San Jose, California

We hope you will engage in a dialogue with us about the articles and cases you read in Issues in Ethics. Please include an address and phone number in all communications. We do not print anonymous letters, and we reserve the right to edit letters for clarity and length. All submissions may be posted on our Web site. We can be reached at:

Voice Mail
Web Site
Regular Mail
Issues in Ethics
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
Santa Clara University
500 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95053-0633