The Fallacy of ‘Economic Equality’
Spreading the wealth evenly isn't just impossible; it's immoral.
October 16, 2009 - 12:04 am
On the surface, the idea of economic equality may seem like an honorable moral goal, which explains its resilience and power over people. This is why it continues repeatedly and with impunity to bring one economic and social disaster after another anywhere it’s tried. On the flip side, opponents of economic equality are branded as greedy, selfish, and immoral — which is why few politicians dare oppose this absurdity.
The current political debates mostly end up in the following compromise: capitalism may be more economically efficient, but it’s still morally inferior to economic equality that benefits most people. Such a view has two big problems.
It is, in fact, efficiency that benefits most people by raising living standards, reducing the number of workers involved in low-paying and tedious manual work, increasing the number of well-paid intellectual jobs, continually improving everyone’s quality of life, and giving the poor access to things that only the rich could enjoy only a short while ago. Therefore, efficiency is moral — and, as such, it renders the above formula invalid.
But let’s assume for the sake of argument that economic equality is also efficient, so that we could leave this part out and compare what’s left. The resulting picture still doesn’t stand moral scrutiny.
Since economic equality cannot be attained by bringing everyone up to the level of the achievers, the achievers will have to be brought down to the level of mediocrity, with most of their earnings and property taken by the government. Even the most “progressive” achievers wouldn’t submit to this voluntarily (see Hollywood tax returns), so it has to be a forced measure. To do this on a national scale, the state must assume supremacy over private citizens and limit certain freedoms. What’s more, forced extraction and redistribution corrupts the government by giving it arbitrary powers to determine various people’s needs, for which there can be no objective standards. Most bureaucrats are not paragons of honesty, and even if they were, in due course idealists will become replaced by eager crooks seeking to distribute entitlements in exchange for kickbacks. And finally, such a system corrupts the very people it intends to help, by demeaning the individual productive effort and encouraging a destructive collective scuffle for unearned privileges among pressure groups driven by greed and selfishness.
These are the reasons why all attempts at forced economic equality have always resulted in corruption, poverty, oppression, and moral degradation. What honorable and moral idea would bring such results? What honorable and moral idea would require a blind, endless sacrifice of people’s work, careers, ambitions, property, and lives, to an unattainable utopian goal that, at a closer look, isn’t even a virtue? The only way economic equality can benefit most people is by gratifying their class envy.
Some people understandably fear the uncertainty of outcome of their daily efforts, seeing it as a dangerous void separating them from a safe and comfortable future. A rational reaction to this would be to remind oneself that, ever since people lived in caves, nature has never offered us certainty, and that risk-taking, combined with intelligence and creativity, has built modern civilization — which may be imperfect, yet it’s as good as it gets historically in terms of comfort and safety for those participating in it.
An irrational reaction would be to panic, take offense, become impatient with the world, and join a self-righteous political cult that promises a guaranteed certainty of results on the other side, just as soon as they fill the void in front of them with other people’s property and the dead bodies of those who dare stand in the way of their brazen march toward the bright future.
The problem with this plan is that the void has no bottom. Enormous wealth is known to have disappeared in it without a trace, along with many people’s dreams, aspirations, and entire lives. And even if it could be filled, against all laws of nature and economics, what kind of monsters do we expect to enjoy walking over this smoldering mass grave and be happy on the other side of it? What does it say about the moral character of the champions of this plan?
A complete economic equality is unattainable. Since all of us have different talents, experiences, knowledge, skills, ambitions, and physical characteristics, the only way to make us equal is to bring us down to the lowest common denominator. Besides the fact that it would make everyone unhappy, jealous, hateful, irritated, and suspicious of each other’s motives and achievements, it is also humanly impossible to enforce. If that were to happen, musicians would need to have their fingers broken to compensate the non-musicians. Alternatively we could issue government quotas for the tone-deaf minority to be included in all musical performances, while forcing all the others to appreciate their tunes under the threat of punishment. Or we could simply ban music.
If some people had wings and others didn’t, and the government wanted to enforce “fairness,” soon no one would have wings. Because wings cannot be redistributed, they can only be broken. Likewise, a government edict cannot make people smarter or more capable, but it can impede the growth of those with the potential. Wouldn’t it be fair if, in the name of equality, we scar the beautiful, cripple the athletes, lobotomize the scientists, blind the artists, and sever the hands of the musicians? Why not?
Back in 1883, a Yale professor, William Graham Sumner, brilliantly addressed these issues by explaining why the real progress of civilization is attained, not by redistributing wealth, but by expanding economic opportunities and ensuring people’s liberty to earn their own wealth. And since some will always profit eagerly from the opportunities while others will neglect them altogether, the greater the freedom and opportunity in a society, the more economically unequal the citizens will become. “So it ought to be, in all justice and right reason,” said Sumner.
“The yearning after equality is the offspring of envy and covetousness,” Sumner wrote in his book What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. “And there is no possible plan for satisfying that yearning which can do aught else than rob A to give to B; consequently all such plans nourish some of the meanest vices of human nature, waste capital, and overthrow civilization. But if we can expand the chances we can count on a general and steady growth of civilization and advancement of society by and through its best members. In the prosecution of these chances we all owe to each other good-will, mutual respect, and mutual guarantees of liberty and security. Beyond this nothing can be affirmed as a duty of one group to another in a free state.”
Already back then, Sumner’s views were opposed by the self-described “progressives.” Today, almost 130 years later, their spiritual heirs have finally gained enough power and moral authority to remake the nation and to slice and distribute the stolen American pie to collectivist pressure groups.
Ironically, they couldn’t have done it without all the real progress America has achieved despite their efforts. And, as the campaigners for economic equality are dismantling civilization, wasting capital, and regressing to the archaic tribal mentality, they insist on calling it “progress.”
They also insist that they are doing it “for the children,” which is going to be the subject of the next chapter.
Coming soon: “Joyriding the Gravy Train of Economic Inequality.”