The Bugaboo of Equality

People talk a lot about equality.  Equality of opportunity.  Equality of results.  Equality in the eyes of the law.  Equality in the eyes of God (for those who lean that way).  And so on.

Some people are so caught up on equality that they’re willing to see everyone worse off so long as things are more “equal.” If asked if they would prefer $100 if someone else was getting $500 or if they would rather $50 if the other was also getting $50, entirely two many would take the later “equal” choice even though both people, including themselves, is worse off.

In 1835, Alexis de Toqueville published the results of his extensive study of the American system of government titled “Democracy in America.” (Some people want to quibble over the title–“Democracy” vs. “Republic.” However, regardless of the label applied, his study was quite thorough in the day and went into great detail in particular in why the results of the American Revolution were so very different from those of the French Revolution.)

He wrote:

“In America the aristocratic element has always been feeble from its birth, and if at the present day it is not actually destroyed it is, at any rate, so completely disabled that we can scarcely assign to it any degree of influence on the course of affairs.  The democratic principle, on the contrary, has gained so much strength by time, by events, and by legislation as to have become not only predominant but all-powerful.  There is no family or corporate authority.  America then, exhibits in her social state a most extraordinary phenomenon.  Men are there seen on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect or, in other words, more equal in their strength than in any other country of the world or in any age of which history has preserved the rememberence.”

Note that de Toqueville was basing his observation when slavery was still extant in the United States.  But do note that Great Britain only abolished slavery in 1833, just two years before “Democracy in America” was published.  France had abolished slavery during the Revolutionary government, but it was restored under Napoleon, and only finally abolished.  De Toqueville was French and since slavery was still extant in the French Empire, perhaps he did not see slavery as a mark against what he said about equality–with which he referred to free men.  It is not my purpose here to go into a long treatise on the subject of slavery and its eventual abolition in the Western world.  Suffice to say that the great minds of the day were stumbling toward what seems obvious to us in hindsight–that the ideals of the founding of the US were simply incompatible with holding other people as property.

In any case the relative equality of free men was sufficient to impress itself on de Toqueville who was born only a year after Napoleon seized power in France.  The Aristocracies of Europe would have been the norm for him as opposed to the young United States, where, as just one example, relatively unschooled backwoods frontiersman Davy Crockett was serving in the House of Representatives (defeated for re-election in 1831 but regained the seat in 1833).

America was more “equal” than her European counterparts either contemporaneously or historically.  However one thing was abundantly clear:  de Toqueville was not talking about equality of outcomes, not the “equality” preached by the nascent socialists of the French Revolution (“Fraternite, Liberte, Egalite”) and certainly not the “equality” claimed as a goal by later writers expounding on those themes–Marx, Engles, and many to follow them.

The problem with equality of outcome, despite the claims of many who think it would be “fairer” than other systems, is that the very mechanism needed to enforce the equal outcomes requires some group of people to collect production, to ensure that people take the more demanding, dangerous, and unpleasant jobs (since “equal outcome” means you can’t offer them more payment to do those jobs, all that’s left is force), and distribute it “equally” to others is inherently subject to abuse.  Once that power is given to someone there is nothing to stop them from distributing it unequally at their own whim.  Perhaps the first ones will be paragons who would not think of using that power for their own ends, but what about the ones that come after?  The position will be highly attractive to those who would abuse it so they will seek it.  And sooner or later one of them will succeed.  If history is any guide “sooner or later” will mean “from the start.”

Even the attempts to partially “equalize” usually make matters worse.  In the US, the more government has interfered with the economy in the name of “equality” the more unequal things have become.  And yet the proponents never attribute the rising inequality to the failure of the programs, let alone recognize that the programs abet it.  They decide that they simply haven’t done enough with their programs.  There does not seem to be any point where they will look back and seriously ask if what they’re doing isn’t making the problem worse.

So we’re left with equality of opportunity.  And already people complain that we do not have even that.  There are already those in positions of influence (college professors) complaining that parents who read to their children, who have a loving home for their children, give them an “unfair advantage” over those who do not.  So, of course, the only thing to do is to try to “equalize” this.  Which brings us right back to the problems of enforcing equal outcomes.

Yes, I give my daughter a loving home.  I read to her when she was little and taught her to love reading.  And I work hard to give her opportunities that she might not otherwise have had.  I make no apologies for this.

However, there is a more basic way in which equality can have a meaning, and that’s equality under the law.  Specifically that the law does not put artificial, arbitrary obstacles to some people and in favor of others.  This allows each person to achieve according to their own drive and ability.

The term for that is “liberty.” Government, in that instance, has the role at most of establishing a basic framework of rules that apply equally to everyone.  It does not impede some, or favor others.  A referee, not a player.

As the late Milton Friedman said: “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”

So if you really want equality, stop trying to enforce it from above and try freedom instead.


One thought on “The Bugaboo of Equality”

  1. Just over the transom, from Marginal Revolution:

    One point which many people are missing is that small but growing gender differences with development are only one minor effect of a much bigger phenomena. In a primitive economy, everyone does more or less the same thing, subsistence farming. Only in a market economy under the division of labor can people specialize. Specialization reflects and amplifies diverse personalities and interests.

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