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Nowhere is the difference between the reasoning of the older liberalism and that of neoliberalism clearer and easier to demonstrate than in their treatment of the problem of equality. The liberals of the eighteenth century, guided by the ideas of natural law and of the Enlightenment, demanded for everyone equality of political and civil rights because they assumed that all men are equal. God created all men equal, endowing them with fundamentally the same capabilities and talents, breathing into all of them the breath of His spirit. All distinctions between men are only artificial, the product of social, human—that is to say, transitory—institutions. What is imperishable in man—his spirit—is undoubtedly the same in rich and poor, noble and commoner, white and colored.
Nothing, however, is as ill-founded as the assertion of the alleged equality of all members of the human race. Men are altogether unequal. Even between brothers there exist the most marked differences in physical and mental attributes. Nature never repeats itself in its creations; it produces nothing by the dozen, nor are its products standardized. Each man who leaves her workshop bears the imprint of the individual, the unique, the never-to-recur. Men are not equal, and the demand for equality under the law can by no means be grounded in the contention that equal treatment is due to equals.
There are two distinct reasons why all men should receive equal treatment under the law. One was already mentioned when we analyzed the objections to involuntary servitude. In order for human labor to realize its highest attainable productivity, the worker must be free, because only the free worker, enjoying in the form of wages the fruits of his own industry, will exert himself to the full. The second consideration in favor of the equality of all men under the law is the maintenance of social peace. It has already been pointed out that every disturbance of the peaceful development of the division of labor must be avoided. But it is well-nigh impossible to preserve lasting peace in a society in which the rights and duties of the respective classes are different. Whoever denies rights to a part of the population must always be prepared for a united attack by the disenfranchised on the privileged. Class privileges must disappear so that the conflict over them may cease.
It is therefore quite unjustifiable to find fault with the manner in which liberalism put into effect its postulate of equality, on the ground that what it created was only equality before the law, and not real equality. All human power would be insufficient to make men really equal. Men are and will always remain unequal. It is sober considerations of utility such as those we have here presented that constitute the argument in favor of the equality of all men under the law. Liberalism never aimed at anything more than this, nor could it ask for anything more. It is beyond human power to make a Negro white. But the Negro can be granted the same rights as the white man and thereby offered the possibility of earning as much if he produces as much.
But, the socialists say, it is not enough to make men equal before the law. In order to make them really equal, one must also allot them the same income. It is not enough to abolish privileges of birth and of rank. One must finish the job and do away with the greatest and most important privilege of all, namely, that which is accorded by private property. Only then will the liberal program be completely realized, and a consistent liberalism thus leads ultimately to socialism, to the abolition of private ownership of the means of production.
Privilege is an institutional arrangement favoring some individuals or a certain group at the expense of the rest. The privilege exists, although it harms some?perhaps the majority?and benefits no one except those for whose advantage it was created. In the feudal order of the Middle Ages certain lords had the hereditary right to hold a judgeship. They were judges because they had inherited the position, regardless of whether they possessed the abilities and qualities of character that fit a man to be a judge. In their eyes this office was nothing more than a lucrative source of income. Here judgeship was the privilege of a class of noble birth.
If, however, as in modern states, judges are always drawn from the circle of those with legal knowledge and experience, this does not constitute a privilege in favor of lawyers. Preference is given to lawyers, not for their sake, but for the sake of the public welfare, because people are generally of the opinion that a knowledge of jurisprudence is an indispensable prerequisite for holding a judgeship. The question whether a certain institutional arrangement is or is not to be regarded as a privilege granted to a certain group, class, or person is not to be decided by whether or not it is advantageous to that group, class, or person, but according to how beneficial to the general public it is considered to be. The fact that on a ship at sea one man is captain and the rest constitute his crew and are subject to his command is certainly an advantage for the captain. Nevertheless, it is not a privilege of the captain if he possesses the ability to steer the ship between reefs in a storm and thereby to be of service not only to himself, but to the whole crew.
In order to determine whether an institutional arrangement is to be regarded as the special privilege of an individual or of a class, the question one should ask is not whether it benefits this or that individual or class, but only whether it is beneficial to the general public. If we reach the conclusion that only private ownership of the means of production makes possible the prosperous development of human society, it is clear that this is tantamount to saying that private property is not a privilege of the property owner, but a social institution for the good and benefit of all, even though it may at the same time be especially agreeable and advantageous to some.
It is not on behalf of property owners that liberalism favors the preservation of the institution of private property. It is not because the abolition of that institution would violate property rights that the liberals want to preserve it. If they considered the abolition of the institution of private property to be in the general interest, they would advocate that it be abolished, no matter how prejudicial such a policy might be to the interests of property owners. However, the preservation of that institution is in the interest of all strata of society. Even the poor man, who can call nothing his own, lives incomparably better in our society than he would in one that would prove incapable of producing even a fraction of what is produced in our own.