Mises Wire

The False Consensus on Egalitarianism

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The boundaries of contemporary public debate are artificially constrained by egalitarian values. Both progressive liberals and classical liberals are opposed to the more-outlandish versions of wokery, but many consider egalitarianism to be a good idea in principle as long as it is not taken “too far” by communist ideologues. The ongoing purge of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) schemes at universities in Republican states has closed offices and fired staff to wide acclaim, but it has at the same time retained a commitment to promoting some form of equality that they generally describe as “colorblind equality.”

For example, in Florida, “Three senior UF [University of Florida] officials said in the memo that despite the elimination of the diversity, equity and inclusion or DEI program, the school will continue what they called ‘our commitment to universal human dignity.’”

What’s in a label? It remains to be seen whether “universal human dignity” will be any different from “diversity, equity, and inclusion” as the same woke-captured staff fired from DEI offices are invited to apply to new positions in the same institution: “The memo also states that those who were let go ‘are allowed and encouraged to apply, between now and Friday, April 19, for expedited consideration for different positions currently posted with the university.’”

In this debate of labels, forms, and slogans, equality offices abandon one acronym and assume another. The underlying premise that some form of action to promote egalitarian ideals is required is rarely questioned, partly due to potential litigation over compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and partly because egalitarian values are deemed to reflect a general consensus. This apparent consensus is reflected in the frequent reference to “our democracy” and “our shared values.” For example, when the British politician Jeremy Corbyn called for Donald Trump to be banned from the United Kingdom, the reason he gave was that Trump “abuses our shared values.”

This false consensus around political goals has three unfortunate effects: first, it obscures the debate; second, it gives the impression that “diversity” schemes are being rolled back while masking a game of musical chairs as woke officials move from one office to another and shuffle public funds around; and third, it creates a political environment in which dissenters from the whole egalitarian show are seen as extremists—ordinary people’s views come to be regarded as simply beyond the pale.

We’re All Progressives Now

The debate between progressive liberals and classical liberals surrounding equality enforcement is largely confined to disagreements about scope and strategy. Many who consider themselves to be classical liberals uncritically accept a progressive worldview that James Ostrowski defines as “the strong presumption that democratic government intervention (force) will produce a better result than voluntary society.” Different types of liberals may disagree on strategy or various points of definition but without going so far as to challenge the role of the state in promoting equality—for example, through antidiscrimination laws.

Ostrowski argues that in the prevailing political climate, “we are all progressives now” as “the vast majority of Americans were born into a progressive world and have never known any other.” He warns that “America is dying from an idea she only dimly understands, so-called ‘progressivism’” and argues that those who hold progressive views should be regarded as progressives regardless of how they define themselves.

In that context, contemporary debate between different types of liberals concerns matters such as the appropriate degree of wealth redistribution, whether redistribution ought to extend to foreign countries or remain within domestic borders, whether certain types of property should be exempt from redistribution, and similar questions none of which question the underlying egalitarian premise. Hence, David Gordon asks:

Is there a generally accepted agreement on an ordering of values that allows for only a limited range of disputes? . . . [For example] is there an agreement that there should be some government welfare programs and some foreign aid, or is there no consensus on whether foreign aid or welfare programs should exist at all?

As Gordon points out, there is no such generally accepted agreement. All that has happened is that dissenting views tend not to be heard in a debate conducted by progressives among themselves. The apparent consensus on the welfare state is false. As Gordon observes in his introduction to Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature:

Almost everyone assumes that equality is a “good thing”: even proponents of the free market like Milton Friedman join this consensus. . . . Rothbard utterly rejects the assumption on which this argument turns. Why assume that equality is desirable? It is not enough, he contends, to advocate it as a mere aesthetic preference. Quite the contrary, equalitarians, like everyone else, need rationally to justify their ethical mandates.

The debate must ask whether to enforce equality, not simply how best to enforce equality. Rather than asking how to redistribute wealth, it must be questioned whether wealth ought to be redistributed.

Differences and Inequalities

One unfortunate outcome of the false consensus on egalitarianism is that no distinction is drawn between differences and inequalities. Differences between different people are regarded with the same hostility and suspicion as inequality, due to the apparent consensus on the goal of eradicating inequality. Much effort is devoted to measuring disparities and “gaps” between different groups of people, debate then commencing on what is to be done and how best can such disparities be eradicated. Should employers be fined for employment gaps, pay gaps, or career gaps? Should people be jailed for pointing out cultural differences between different ethnicities and religions? Should courts allow scientists to “believe” that there are two sexes? Should scientists be allowed to discuss IQ differences?

Peter Bauer argues that difference, a value-neutral term, ought not to be conflated with inequality, a value-laden term that “clearly suggests a situation that is unjust or otherwise objectionable.” The error of treating “difference” and “inequality” as synonymous has contributed to the growth of a huge equality industry devoted to eradicating difference. Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian fiction in which total equality is enforced by a Handicapper General is a striking example of the horror evoked by the prospect of eradicating natural differences:

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Vonnegut’s imagery is powerful because most people would accept that differences in skill or talent are no less natural than differences in height. As Bauer argues: “That differences is a more appropriate term than inequality is also suggested by the accepted practice of referring to people’s physical characteristics, such as height, weight and strength, as differences rather than inequalities, and never as inequities.”

Differences are not a problem that requires fixing. Differences are part of human nature and are part of the reason why human cooperation works. Hence, Gordon argues:

Not only do biology and history make human beings inherently different from one another, but civilization depends on the existence of these differences. A developed economic system has as its lynchpin the division of labor; and this, in turn, springs from the fact that human beings vary in their abilities.

Limiting the Scope of Debate

The construction of a false consensus artificially limits the scope of debate surrounding difference and inequality. If it is presumed that inequality should be eradicated, then it seems to follow that differences too should be eradicated. This has many sinister implications, not least of which is the expanding concept of “hate speech” to include any speech that falls outside the artificial confines of public debate. Mothers concerned about the content of their children’s curriculum are described as “too extreme for most voters.” Anarchocapitalists are depicted as “far right.” As the British politician and columnist Daniel Hannan observed in “Smug world elites have been exposed by a chainsaw-wielding libertarian”:

Because he dislikes state interference, Milei is dismissed as a loon. He is “radical” (New York Times), “extreme” (El País), “populist” (Le Monde), “far-Right” (BBC). Yet the classical liberalism he espouses is as undoctrinaire as any world-view can be. . . . How did this humane notion come to be viewed as extreme and sinister? Why is it so loathed by the Davos schmooze-meisters?

Hannan points out that the humane notion of “don’t hurt people, don’t take their stuff” is a principle to which many people adhere in their own lives: do as you would be done by. Excluding this ordinary worldview from the scope of ordinary public debate artificially constrains political debate by failing to question whether egalitarianism is in principle a sound ideology.

The false egalitarian consensus excludes perfectly legitimate political and ideological views from the scope of debate. We then assume that robust and vigorous debate is ongoing when in fact the only significant public debate is confined to variations on egalitarian themes.

Public debate is now superficial and impoverished, being overly concerned with details of equality enforcement rather than daring to question the policy goals of the uniparty. How we frame the scope of public debate matters for both liberty and justice.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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