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communism Lady liberty in rear view mirror

In what sense is “equality” a rational objective? Can it ever be achieved without aggression? It’s certainly admirable for individuals to treat all others fairly and without bias against personal traits. A society composed of individuals possessing that kind of integrity is one in which “equal opportunity” exists in an intuitive sense. Such a society would yield market outcomes that are free from personal discrimination.

There are many social pitfalls when central authorities attempt to enforce this sort of equality. There will always be minor and even random cases of treatment that someone considers unfair. Any effort to adjudicate such incidents comes at a great resource cost. The potential for moral hazard in pursuing grievances is also strong, and the enforcement authority may well have biases of its own.

Stronger forms of equality are even more difficult to achieve in a free society. There are many barriers to “equality” that most people would regard as natural, like genetics and the integrity of the family. And like family, many other barriers to equality are cultural virtues, such as educational and occupational rewards based on merit. The institution of strong private property rights provides an effective system of incentives that fosters efficient resource allocation, promoting economic growth and human well-being, but it’s rewards will not be distributed equally.

Institutionalized tampering with any of these features for the sake of equality tends to legitimize envy as a cause of social action. And the intrusions require design and enforcement of a system of social “overrides” by a central authority possessing police power. Needless to say, this must involve elements of aggression and tyranny. These overrides introduce significant risks to individual freedom and the functioning of markets, and are likely to cause widespread destruction of welfare. In that sense, forced equality cannot be a rational objective.

These points are developed more fully in “The Menace of Egalitarianism“, a piece by Llewellyn Rockwell Jr. at the Mises Daily blog.

A libertarian is perfectly at peace with the universal phenomenon of human difference. He does not wish it away, he does not shake his fist at it, he does not pretend not to notice it. It affords him another opportunity to marvel at a miracle of the market: its ability to incorporate just about anyone into the division of labor. … Indeed the division of labor is based on human difference.

Rockwell goes on to explain the law of comparative advantage, which allows more productive and less productive individuals to profit by specializing in areas for which each has the lowest opportunity cost. And when producers compete for rewards, as Rockwell notes, average consumers (and rich ones and poor ones) are the ultimate beneficiaries.

Outcomes such as the inequality of wealth and income are not only impossible to avoid, they are natural consequences of economic freedom. Several earlier posts on Sacred Cow Chips have dealt with this topic, and can be viewed from the Home page by typing “inequality” into the search box near the top. For his part, Rockwell discusses the “Wilt Chamberlain” problem, whereby private demand to witness great athletic prowess results in a shift towards an unequal distribution of income:

… the pattern of wealth distribution is disturbed as soon as anyone engages in any exchange at all. Are we to cancel the results of all these exchanges and return everyone’s money to the original owners? Is Chamberlain to be deprived of the money people freely chose to gave [sic] him in exchange for the entertainment he provided?

The fact that “equality” is seldom well-defined as an actual objective should be met with skepticism. Here’s more Rockwell:

It is precisely this lack of clarity that makes the idea of equality so advantageous for the state. No one is entirely sure what the principle of equality commits him to. And keeping up with its ever-changing demands is more difficult still. … Equality is a concept that cannot and will not be kept restrained or nailed down.”  

He takes a dismal view of “cultural inequality” and “equality of opportunity” as worthwhile causes for invoking the power of the state. For example, two families in different economic circumstances will generally confer different opportunities to their children. Dylan Matthews at Vox makes the same point in “Equality of Opportunity“, though Matthews’ analysis is weak in several respects. The point here is that there is only so much that can be done to correct for unequal family-related endowments without undermining the integrity of the family (not to mention property rights). This has long been a bone of contention with respect to the design of U.S. welfare programs. But the problem is much deeper:

In the course of working toward equality, the state expands its power at the expense of other forms of human association, including the family itself. The family has always been the primary obstacle to the egalitarian program. The very fact that parents differ in their knowledge, skill levels, and devotion to their offspring means that children in no two households can ever be raised ‘equally.’

Robert Nisbet, the Columbia University sociologist, openly wondered if [John] Rawls would be honest enough to admit that his system, if followed to its logical conclusion, had to lead to the abolition of the family. ‘I have always found treatment of the family to be an excellent indicator of the degree of zeal and authoritarianism, overt or latent, in a moral philosopher or political theorist,’ Nisbet said.

And here is Rawls himself expressing doubts, as quoted by Rockwell:

It seems that when fair opportunity (as it has been defined) is satisfied, the family will lead to unequal chances between individuals. Is the family to be abolished then? Taken by itself and given a certain primacy, the idea of equal opportunity inclines in this direction.

The quest for “equality” is a creeping force. It infects economic life in a way that makes widespread gains in welfare difficult to achieve, diminishes expectations and fosters social devolution. It also leads to demands for eliminating useful distinctions, which can only be erased though aggression by the state. This forces a convergence toward the least common denominator throughout the culture. I believe the following statement by Rockwell rings true:

The obsession with equality… undermines every indicator of health we might look for in a civilization. It involves a madness so complete that although it flirts with the destruction of the family…. It leads to the destruction of standards — scholarly, cultural, and behavioral. It is based on assertion rather than evidence, and it attempts to gain ground not through rational argument but by intimidating opponents into silence. There is nothing honorable or admirable about any aspect of the egalitarian program.