All Things Being Equal

I call the attention of readers to two recent posts on the subject of “equality”. The first is by Dr. William Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher; the second is by the inimitable Deogolwulf, writing at his website The Joy of Curmudgeonry. Both make the same excellent point, which I shall reiterate here.

Much is made of “equality” in Western societies, and rightly so. There is a form of equality — an intrinsic fairness — that is essential to the spirit of democracy. This of course is that the law should embody no inequality of individual opportunity based on circumstances of sex, age, class, ethnicity, religious beliefs and similar characteristics. There are, of course, reasonable exceptions to this rule; for example the law does indeed restrict the opportunity of four-year-olds to vote, to consent to sexual relations, and so on, but in general the law insists that nobody’s freedoms may be restricted simply because of who they are. The implementation of this ideal has often fallen short of perfection, but the goal is a worthy one nonetheless — and worth a bit of social activism to pursue, as happened, for example, here in the USA both in the 1860’s and the 1960’s.

There are those, however, who imagine that the emphasis must be not on equality of opportunity, but of outcome, and this, while it may have a certain seductively Utopian appeal, is a dangerous and deeply flawed philosophy.

A conspicuous fact of human existence is that people — though they ought, of course, to be treated equally under the law — simply are not equal, and in fact differ greatly in their intelligence, diligence, ambition, strength, talent, attractiveness, general health, disposition, and any number of other categories, all of which can be counted on to have an influence on one’s success in life. This means, then, that in a free society, there will be those whose wealth and status are going to be above average — sometimes very much so — while others will fall below. A compassionate society will look after those who are truly unable to make their way, but to advocate, as some do, that the State should enforce an equality of success, of wealth, of outcome generally, is quite another matter.

There are varying degrees of virulence with which this infectious meme may occur. In the USA it expresses itself in relatively mild forms such as affirmative action and “euphemism creep“, but at various times and places — such as in the catastrophic Communist experiments in Russia and China, and in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge — it has ravaged entire civilizations, at the cost of millions of lives.

What, then, is so terribly wrong with such a kind-hearted notion? Why should such a well-intentioned goal be such a bad idea? The answer is that such policies may have two unwelcome effects on societies that embrace them — one merely stifling, the other potentialy catastrophic.

The first effect of enforced equality of outcomes is to reduce incentive. If the fruits of my talent and labor are to simply to be taken from me and tossed on the public pile, whence all may partake equally, regardless of their effort or productiveness, what then, is there to impel me to the pursuit of excellence? Perhaps I may, even though I am stripped of the material rewards that would naturally accrue to my greater effort and output, enjoy some sort of preferential status: the admiration of my fellow citizens, perhaps, as betokened by inclusion in some honor roll or mention in a public ceremony. Of course, to the degree that such things are desirable, and improve my own access to preferential treatment of any sort, we are moving right back to where we started. But the universal tendency is simply for people not to make much of an effort if they have nothing to gain by doing so, and nothing to lose if they don’t. I can offer an anecdotal example of this principle at work:

I have an old friend, a renowned composer and arranger, who sometimes travels to a large Socialist democracy in Europe to lead the local, State-sponsored jazz orchestra in performances of his compositions. Unlike their counterparts here in the US, who face ongoing competition for their jobs from young and talented newcomers, the players in this orchestra, once hired, are effectively unfireable. As a result of this absence of pressure constantly to excel, my friend tells me, some of the musicians seem quite complacent and unmotivated compared to the players he’s used to working with here, with a noticeable disparity in the results.

The only influence that will lead people to make genuine efforts in such a system, aside from a truly selfless altruism that the study of history and human nature teach us it is altogether unrealistic to expect, is of course the coercive power of the State. And that leads us to the second, much more dangerous effect.

If, as seems to be the case, people are naturally disinclined simply to give away the riches their labor has earned them, and if people will, just as naturally, attain such rewards with differential success due to inevitable disparities in their resources and ambition, then in order to ensure equality of prosperity, there must be great power in the hands of the State — a power that places severe limitations on individual freedom and enterprise. Such power, once aquired, is not ceded lightly, with the result that extreme forms of collectivism seem almost inevitably to lead to dictatorships. The radical equality of individual outcomes is dearly bought, the cost being an extreme inequality in access to power.

So it appears that at the two extremes we can have either a free society that makes a sincere effort to ensure equality of opportunity — with the result that there may be great inequalities of individual prosperity — or a harshly authoritarian society in which nobody is any better off than anyone else, except for those who hold the reins of power. The additional drawback of the second arrangement, of course, is that such centrally controlled economies never flourish, so that even those who are at a relative disadvantage in the free economies may well tend to be better off, in absolute terms, than the average citizen in collectivist states.

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, ou la mort!” was the motto of the French Revolution. It lives on in part as the motto of the present-day Republic, and it certainly sounds appealing. But if we care about our Liberté, we need to be clear just what kind of Egalité we’re talking about.

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  1. the one eyed man says

    I don’t think that any right-thinking American would insist on an equality of results. However, an equality of opportunity is something different altogether. Top-notch colleges routinely give preference to the children of alumni. There are logical reasons for this: it creates a continuity over the generations, it incents alumni to donate generously to their alma mater, etc. However, it also discriminates against those who do not come from alumni families. Why should someone who would be in the first generation to attend college have a higher bar to gain admittance to a good school than a trust fund baby?

    Similarly, some colleges have lacrosse and polo scholarships. I would hazard to guess that there is a pretty small talent pool of polo players coming from the inner city. (When I tried to play polo, all of my horses drowned). While these scholarships are equal in a sense – the criterion is polo skills, not socioeconomic background – they are unequal in practice.

    All of this reminds me of Lenny Bruce’s joke about registering blacks to vote in the South. (“All you have to do is write down your name. Here’s a ballpoint pen and some wax paper to write your name on.”) There is a difference between equality in theory and equality in practice.

    Posted December 14, 2006 at 9:39 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I quite agree, Peter. There are any number of undeserved privileges and entitlements that ought to be done away with. We need no hereditary peerages here.

    I also agree that no “right-thinking” American would push for equality of outcome. It always seems to come from those more extreme left-thinking ones.

    Posted December 15, 2006 at 12:11 am | Permalink