Mises Wire

The Siren Song of Equality

The “racial equality” debates are characterized by evolving concepts and terminology in a constant search for better ways to express the ideals and values of the protagonists. The mantras of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) are now under increasing attack as several states move to ban DEI programs. In search of an alternative conceptual foundation for their equality schemes, many liberals (both progressive and conservative) who wish to promote equality have proposed that a better alternative would be to unite around a concept of “colorblind equality,” which would reflect Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.

Does this pursuit of racial equality pass muster from a natural-rights libertarian perspective? To answer that question, this article draws upon lessons from Murray Rothbard’s well-known critique of egalitarianism, the aim being to clarify the precise meaning of the concept of “equality.”

In his essay “Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor,” Rothbard depicts equality as “freedom for each and every man.” All human beings are equal in the sense that we are all equally free. This liberty is expressed in the idea that each human being has the right to self-ownership, and no man can own another or violate another man’s property rights. As he explains in the Ethics of Liberty, justice requires that “no man’s property in his person or in tangibles is molested, violated, or interfered with by anyone else.” Understood in that way, the slogan in the American Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal refers to “full liberty for all persons”:

For the concept of equality achieved its widespread popularity during the classical-liberal movements of the eighteenth century, when it meant, not uniformity of status or income, but freedom for each and every man, without exception. In short, equality in those days meant the libertarian and individualist concept of full liberty for all persons.

Any attempt to delink equality from this ideal of liberty immediately transforms equality into nothing more than a convenient vehicle for the equalization of anything that its promoters might imagine ought to be equalized. Inventing a limitless range of artificial “rights,” such as so-called civil and political rights, and then proceeding to enforce the “equality” of those invented rights, is an enterprise without any ethical or just foundation. Indeed, any attempts to enforce such artificial “equality” would be incompatible with human nature.

Antony Flew advances a similar argument, as in his view it would be wrong to read the Declaration of Independence as an attempt to deny the obvious reality of human nature in which human beings are not equal but, in fact, uniquely diverse and unequal: “The Signers [of the Declaration of Independence] were neither asserting nor presupposing a false proposition in biology or psychology. They were instead demanding that certain very general basic rights ought to be guaranteed.” They intended to defend each man’s right to life, to liberty, to property, against the tyranny of government or anyone else, by declaring all human beings to be equal in having these rights, male or female, rich or poor. This is the idea expressed by classical liberal lawyers as formal equality before the law.

The natural-rights libertarian concept of equality expresses the idea that each individual has the same inalienable liberty as any other individual. Understood in this way, it becomes clear that the concept of equality derives its meaning from the ideal of individual liberty and goes wrong whenever it departs from individual liberty or, worse still, attempts to limit the scope of that liberty.

Nor can equality be understood without reference to the nature of all rights as property rights. Rothbard conceptualizes all individual rights as emanating from self-ownership, and in his view there are no “human rights” other than property rights. As he explains in the Ethics of Liberty, “The concept of ‘rights’ only makes sense as property rights. For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights, but the former rights lose their absoluteness and clarity and become fuzzy and vulnerable when property rights are not used as the standard.”

Drawing these ideas together, the argument is that equality means only that property rights vest in each and every individual. In other words, the only valid concept of “equality” is one which expresses the right to self-ownership and property rights, which vest equally in all human beings. It follows that the only valid concept of justice is that which, as expressed in Roman law, means “to give each man his own.”

The Procrustean Ideal

The libertarian notion of individual liberty celebrates human diversity. In “Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor,” Rothbard emphasizes that each individual is unique:

The glory of the human race is the uniqueness of each individual, the fact that every person, though similar in many ways to others, possesses a completely individuated personality of his own. It is the fact of each person’s uniqueness—the fact that no two people can be wholly interchangeable—that makes each and every man irreplaceable and that makes us care whether he lives or dies, whether he is happy or oppressed.

In his view, the contemporary concept of equality denies and indeed destroys that diversity by seeking to coerce people to fit within an identical mold. Rothbard therefore opposes the notion of equality on the basis that “the ideal of human equality can only imply total uniformity and the utter stamping out of individuality” (his emphasis). Any ideology which seeks by force to equalize all human beings can only be regarded, in his words, as “anti-human and violently coercive,” “monstrous and unnatural,” “grotesque,” and “catastrophic.”

Antony Flew takes a similar view of what he terms “the Procrustean ideal,” illustrating his point by evoking the Greek myth in which the robber Procrustes offers what seems like hospitality to travelers, then takes measures to ensure that all guests are equal and will fit the size of his bed equally well: “Here, if a victim was shorter than the bed, he stretched him by hammering or racking the body to fit. Alternatively, if the victim was longer than the bed, he cut off the legs to make the body fit the bed’s length.” Alas, Procrustes’s guests did not survive his well-intentioned equalization processes, but at least they attained the ideal of equality—and after all, he meant well which is what counts according to the equality industry.

The equality industry undermines the value of each and every individual, treating people instead as cogs in a wheel or, as Rothbard puts it, so many undifferentiated ants in an anthill. Their pursuit of equality destroys human freedom and individual liberty, which are necessary for human flourishing, for prosperity, and for civilization itself. For these reasons Rothbard urges us to ignore the “siren song of equality”:

It is high time, then, for those who cherish freedom, individuality, the division of labor, and economic prosperity and survival, to stop conceding the supposed nobility of the ideal of equality. . . . The call of “equality” is a siren song that can only mean the destruction of all that we cherish as being human.

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