In his State of the Union Address, President Obama placed economic inequality center stage.  He framed this issue in terms of fairness or justice to the poor.  If our goal is to help people escape poverty, though, we need to ask some more urgent and personal questions.

A debate about the “gap” between rich and poor isn’t a debate directly about people—it’s about, well, a gap.  Focusing on the gap between individuals distracts us from focusing on poor individuals themselves.  Rather than pretending that economic inequality is the main problem, we need to do better at both targeting real injustice and helping all citizens move up the economic ladder.

As I argue in the current issue of National Affairs, reframing this debate will require questioning some basic assumptions about poverty, equality, and justice.  For example, it means challenging the common notion that “inequality per se is inherently unjust, and therefore that the gap between rich and poor is as well.  That perceived injustice in turn spurs support for redistributionist policies that are intended to make levels of prosperity more equal across society.”

Inequality as such is not evidence of injustice.  It’s too simplistic to reduce the concept of justice to mere equality without asking “equal in terms of what?”

America’s founders knew that, while human beings are equal in some key respects, they’re not equal in every respect.  Every human life, by virtue of being human, is equal in dignity and worth.  Thus, when it comes to our standing before God and the law, and the value of individual lives, justice demands equal treatment of all.

In most other contexts, however, justice calls for treating different people differently.  “The natural rights and duties of man belong equally to all,” wrote James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an original justice of the Supreme Court.  But Wilson noted, “When we say, that all men are equal, we mean not to apply this equality to their virtues,             their talents, their dispositions, or their acquirements.  In all these respects, there is … great inequality among men.”

Since all of us possess equal dignity and an equal claim to life, every person should have access to at least the basic resources required to sustain life in his society.  Responsibility for establishing a baseline of dignity lies with a variety of social institutions—including families, churches and businesses as well as government.  Above this threshold, a just government also has an obligation to protect people’s freedom to exercise their differing abilities and faculties, and also to protect the property they accumulate as a result — even if these holdings vary widely.

A simple but overlooked principle sums this up: Where people are equal, it is just to treat them the same; where they are different, it is unjust to treat them the same.

The attempt to provide material equality to all citizens through government redistribution doesn’t heed this principle.  The redistributionist ethic in question actually risks doing injustice by failing to take account of key differences among individuals and depriving them of the rewards of their successes.

In part 2 of this post, I’ll show why the redistributionist approach also wrongly assumes that the key problem is the economic gap itself—that is, that unequal wealth as such causes hardship for the poor.

To help the poor we should focus on them directly, targeting not the gap that lies between them and the rich but the true causes of their poverty and the effective paths to their flourishing.

Read more of Messmore’s piece, Justice, Inequality, and the Poor, in National Affairs.