The Menace of Egalitarianism
This talk was delivered at the Dallas-Ft. Worth Mises Circle, “Against PC,” on October 3, 2015.
A sharp Martian visiting Earth would make two observations about the United States — one true, the other only superficially so. On the basis of its ceaseless exercises in self-congratulation, the US appears to him to be a place where free thought is encouraged, and in which man makes war against all the fetters on his mind that reactionary forces had once placed there. That is the superficial truth.
The real truth, which our Martian would discover after watching how Americans actually behave, is that the range of opinions that citizens may entertain is rather more narrow than it at first appears. There are, he will soon discover, certain ideas and positions all Americans are supposed to believe in and salute. Near the top of the list is equality, an idea for which we are never given a precise definition, but to which everyone is expected to genuflect.
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. Each of us finds that niche that suits our natural talents best, and by specializing in that particular thing we can most effectively serve our fellow man. Our fellow man, likewise, specializes in what he is best suited for, and we in turn benefit from the fruits of his specialized knowledge and skill.
And according to Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage, which Mises generalized into his law of association, even if one person is better than another at absolutely everything, the less able person can still flourish in a free market. For instance, even if the greatest, most successful entrepreneur you can think of is a better office cleaner than anyone else in town, and is likewise a better secretary than all the other secretaries in town, it would make no sense for him to clean his own office or type all of his own correspondence. His time is so much better spent in the market niche in which he excels that it would be preposterous for him to waste his time on these things. In fact, anyone looking to hire him as an office cleaner would have to pay him millions of dollars to compensate for drawing him away from the extremely remunerative work he would otherwise be doing. So even an average office cleaner is vastly more competitive in the office cleaning market than our fictional entrepreneur, since the average office cleaner can charge, say, $15 per hour instead of the $15,000 our entrepreneur, mindful of opportunity cost, would have to charge.
So there is a place for everyone in the market economy. And what’s more, since the market economy rewards those who are able to produce goods at affordable prices for a mass market, it is precisely the average person to whom captains of industry are all but forced to cater. This is an arrangement to celebrate, not deplore.
This is not how the egalitarians see it, of course, and here I turn to the work of that great anti-egalitarian, Murray N. Rothbard. Murray dealt with the subject of equality in part in his great essay “Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor,” but really took it head on in “Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature,” which serves as the title chapter of his wonderful book. It is from Murray that my own comments today take their inspiration.
The current devotion to equality is not of ancient provenance, as Murray pointed out:
The current veneration of equality is, indeed, a very recent notion in the history of human thought. Among philosophers or prominent thinkers the idea scarcely existed before the mid-eighteenth century; if mentioned, it was only as the object of horror or ridicule. The profoundly anti-human and violently coercive nature of egalitarianism was made clear in the influential classical myth of Procrustes, who “forced passing travellers to lie down on a bed, and if they were too long for the bed he lopped off those parts of their bodies which protruded, while racking out the legs of the ones who were too short.”
What are we to understand by the word equality? The answer is, we don’t really know. Its proponents make precious little effort to disclose to us precisely what they have in mind. All we know is that we’d better believe it.
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. What were two obviously different things yesterday can become precisely equal today, and you’d better believe they are equal if you don’t want your reputation destroyed and your career ruined.
This was the heart of the celebrated dispute between the neoconservative Harry Jaffa and the paleoconservative M.E. Bradford, carried out in the pages of Modern Age in the 1970s. Equality is a concept that cannot and will not be kept restrained or nailed down. Bradford tried in vain to make Jaffa understand that Equality with a capital E was a recipe for permanent revolution.
Now, do egalitarians mean we are committed to the proposition that anyone is potentially an astrophysicist, as long as he is raised in the proper environment? Maybe, maybe not. Some of them certainly do believe such a thing, though. In 1930, the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences claimed that “at birth human infants, regardless of their heredity, are as equal as Fords.” Ludwig von Mises, by contrast, held that “the fact that men are born unequal in regard to physical and mental capabilities cannot be argued away. Some surpass their fellow men in health and vigor, in brain and aptitudes, in energy and resolution and are therefore better fitted for the pursuit of earthly affairs than the rest of mankind.” Did Mises commit a hate crime there, by the standards of the egalitarians? Again, we don’t really know.
Then there’s “equality of opportunity,” but even this common conservative slogan is fraught with problems. The obvious retort is that in order to have true equality of opportunity, sweeping government intervention is necessary. For how can someone in a poor household with indifferent parents seriously be said to have “equality of opportunity” with the children of wealthy parents who are deeply engaged in their lives?
Then there is equality in a cultural sense, whereby everyone is expected to ratify everyone else’s personal choices. The cultural egalitarians don’t really mean that, of course: none of them demand that people who dislike Christians sit down and learn Scholastic theology in order to understand them better. And here we discover something important about the whole egalitarian program: it’s not really about equality. It’s about some people exercising power over others.
At the University of Tennessee this fall, the Office for Diversity and Inclusion explained that traditional English pronouns, being oppressive to people who do not identify with the gender they were “assigned at birth,” ought to be replaced with something new. The diversity office recommends, as replacements for she, her, hers, and he, him, his, the following: ze [pronounced zhee], hir [here], hirs [heres]; ze [zhee], zir [zhere], zirs [zheres]; and xe [zhee], xem [zhem], xyr [zhere]. When approaching people for the first time, students were told, we should say something like, “Nice to meet you. What pronouns should I use?”
When the whole world burst out laughing at this proposal, the university was at pains to assure everyone that these were just suggestions. Of course, what are not suggestions are the thoughts all right-thinking people are expected to have about moral questions that have been decided for us by our media and political classes.
Another aspect of equality that’s been in the news in recent years is, of course, income inequality. We are told how terrible it is that some people should have so much more than others, but rarely if ever are we told how much (if any) extra wealth the egalitarian society would allow the better-off to have, or the non-arbitrary basis on which such a judgment could be rendered.
John Rawls was possibly the most influential political philosopher of the twentieth century, and he advanced a famous defense of egalitarianism in his book A Theory of Justice that attempted to answer this question (among others). If I may summarize his argument in brief, he claimed that we would choose an egalitarian society if, as we contemplated the rules of society we’d want to live under, we had no idea what our own position in that society would be. If we didn’t know if we would be male or female, rich or poor, or talented or untalented, we would hedge our bets by advocating a society in which everyone was as equal as possible. That way, should we be unlucky and enter the world without talents, or a member of a despised minority, or saddled with any other disability, we could still be assured that of a comfortable if not luxurious existence.
Rawls was willing to allow some degree of inequality, but only if its effect was to help the poor. In other words, doctors could be allowed to earn more money than other people if that financial incentive made them more likely to become doctors in the first place. If incomes were equalized, people would be less likely to go to the trouble of becoming doctors, and the poor would be deprived of medical care. So inequality could be allowed, but only on egalitarian grounds, not because people have the right to acquire and enjoy property without fear of expropriation.
Since no one in his right mind accepts full-blown egalitarianism, Rawls was bound to run into trouble. That trouble came in the form of his attempts to deal with equality between countries. Even the most dedicated egalitarian living in the First World doesn’t seriously favor an equalization of wealth between countries. College professors who teach the moral superiority of egalitarianism during the day want their wine and cheese parties at night.
So Rawls came up with a strained and unpersuasive argument that although inequality between persons was outrageous and could be justified only on the basis of whether it helped the poorest, inequality between countries was quite all right. He then proceeded to give reasons that inequality between countries was quite all right, even though these were the exact reasons he had said inequality between individuals was unacceptable.
Even if egalitarianism could be defended philosophically, there is the small matter of implementing it in the real world. Just one reason the egalitarian dream cannot be realized involves what Robert Nozick called the Wilt Chamberlain problem; James Otteson has called something like it the “day two problem.” In Chamberlain’s heyday, everyone enjoyed watching him play basketball. People gladly paid to watch him play. But suppose we begin with an equal distribution of wealth, and then everyone rushes out to watch Chamberlain play basketball. Many thousands of people willingly hand over a portion of their money to Chamberlain, who now becomes much wealthier than everyone else.
In other words, 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 him in exchange for the entertainment he provided?
But the reason the state holds up equality as a moral ideal is precisely that it is unattainable. We may forever strive for it, but we can never reach it. What ideology could be better, from the state’s point of view? The state can portray itself as the indispensable agent of justice, while at the same time drawing ever more power and resources to itself — over education, employment, wealth redistribution, and practically any area of social life or the economy you can name — in the course of pursuing the unattainable egalitarian program. “Equality cannot be imagined outside of tyranny,” said Montalembert. It was, he said, “nothing but the canonization of envy, [and it] was never anything but a mask which could not become reality without the abolition of all merit and virtue.”
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 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. He identified two traditions of thought in Western history. One he traced from Plato to Rousseau, that identified the family as a wicked barrier to the realization of true virtue and justice. The other, which viewed the family as a central ingredient in both liberty and order, he followed from Aristotle through Burke and Tocqueville.
Rawls himself appeared to admit that the logic of his argument tended in the direction of the Plato/Rousseau strain of thought, though he ultimately — and unpersuasively — drew back. Here are Rawls’s own words:
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. But within the context of the theory of justice as a whole there is much less urgency to take this course.
Nisbet took little comfort in Rawls’s pathetic assurances. Can Rawls, he wondered,
long neglect the family, given its demonstrable relation to inequality? Rousseau was bold and consistent where Rawls is diffident. If the young are to be brought up in the bosom of equality, “early accustomed to regard their own individuality only in its relation to the body of the State, to be aware, so to speak, of their own existence merely as part of that of the State,” then they must be saved from what Rousseau refers to as “the intelligence and prejudices of fathers.”
The obsession with equality, in short, 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 never stops to consider whether this conclusion might mean the whole line of thought may have been deranged to begin with. 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.
Murray noted that pointing out the lunacy of egalitarianism was a good start, but not nearly enough. We need to show that the so-called struggle for equality is in fact all about state power, not helping the downtrodden. He wrote:
To mount an effective response to the reigning egalitarianism of our age, therefore, it is necessary but scarcely sufficient to demonstrate the absurdity, the anti-scientific nature, the self-contradictory nature, of the egalitarian doctrine, as well as the disastrous consequences of the egalitarian program. All this is well and good. But it misses the essential nature of, as well as the most effective rebuttal to, the egalitarian program: to expose it as a mask for the drive to power of the now ruling left-liberal intellectual and media elites. Since these elites are also the hitherto unchallenged opinion-molding class in society, their rule cannot be dislodged until the oppressed public, instinctively but inchoately opposed to these elites, are shown the true nature of the increasingly hated forces who are ruling over them. To use the phrases of the New Left of the late 1960s, the ruling elite must be “demystified,” “delegitimated,” and “desanctified.” Nothing can advance their desanctification more than the public realization of the true nature of their egalitarian slogans.
The only Rothbardian word missing from that stirring conclusion is one of Murray’s favorites: “de-bamboozle.” It is that, above all, that needs to be done. The Mises Institute has accomplished many things over the years: advancing scholarship through our academic conferences and scholarly journals, educating students in the economics of the Austrian school, and reaching out to the public to give them a free education worth vastly more than what many people spend six figures for. But put it all together, and it amounts to perhaps the greatest de-bamboozling effort of all time. Once you understand the economics of the Austrian school and the philosophy of liberty in the tradition of Rothbard, you never look at anything — not the state, the media, the central bank, the political class, nothing — the same way again.
Help us carry on our great de-bamboozling mission, as we devise more and more programs and outreach to the public, and provide a new generation of brilliant young scholars with the tools they need to resist and defy a regime that would intimidate us into silence. Their way is violence, envy, and destruction. Ours is peace, liberty, and creation. With your help, we can tear down the state’s benign facade, which has bamboozled so many, and reveal for all to see that the only winner in the state’s crusades is the state itself.