Column on Equality is No Big Deal

Equality is no big deal

Tibor R. Machan

In the fields of political philosophy, theory, and economy much debate
occurs about just what is most important for a human community—that is,
what, as a community guided by a legal system, should the citizenry be
aiming for. The issue comes up, of course, outside of academic
disputation, as well. For example, in his inaugural address President
Obama stressed that America ought to have some large objective, a grand
vision, and he promised that the country will pursue just such a vision.
Others, like the American founders, de-emphasize any such overall
objective and focus more on making it possible for citizens to pursue
their own diverse visions, their happiness as they understand it. In many
countries what is taken to be the overall goal is set by the Bible or the
Koran or some other religious text. There are also countries, and have
always been, in which the issue is left entirely up to some charismatic
leader—he or she is to set the goals to be pursued by all.

In our time one favorite choice of political theorists is equality,
especially economic equality. Many of these theorists, working at very
prestigious academic institutions, think tanks, or writing for journals,
established publishing houses and newspaper, contend that what a country
needs to work toward is making all equally well off or, at least, reducing
drastic differences in the population’s economic well being. This is
evident in America, too, although again, initially, the only kind of
equality the country was supposed to strive for is the equal protection of
everyone’s basic rights, those laid out in the Declaration of
Independence, for example, or the Bill of Rights. Sadly even this limited
equality was badly violated with slavery.

Later matters changed, under the influence of prominent thinkers and
various political movements, so that by the time of the presidency of
Franklin D. Roosevelt the leading political figures endorsed not only the
goal of the equal protection of individual rights to life, liberty and
property—rights, which if conscientiously protected would make economic
inequality pretty much the norm—but massive wealth redistribution so as to
make people equally well off by political or legal means.

As an immigrant to America my expectations were based on the earlier
idea—I thought that here most of the citizens would be at liberty to seek
goals of their own which might or might not lead to economic equality.
When I was in college I came across a spirited defense of egalitarianism
in one newspaper and responded with a similarly spirited criticism of the
idea. I noted that while to some people economic welfare may be a
priority, to others it may well be something else—having artistic talents,
traveling a good deal, or even gaining the favors of outstanding romantic
mates. Certainly to quite a lot of us what is most important, at least at
a certain stage of our lives, is to be preferred by potential mates whom
we find really appealing. Quite a lot of people lament the fact that they
are left behind while others are way ahead in the struggle to find
appealing partners!

So perhaps what politicians and bureaucrats should set out to do is to
secure equal opportunity or even equal results where these important
matters to so many people are concerned. Money—economics—may be of
considerable importance but money cannot buy happiness, at least not
romantic happiness, for most of us. We would, to speak plainly about
this, have to have been born and developed to become aesthetically quite
appealing but, alas, there is a widespread unequal distribution of such
qualities among the population. (I am willing to bet that if people
expressed themselves honestly about this, they would agree that to them
finding an appealing mate is more important than being as well of
economically as the next person.)

Fact is, about some matters there is just no way to get things arranged
politically no matter how hard it is tried. Most efforts to establish
economic equality lead to some people having much greater political power
than others, power that easily leads to abuse. Moreover, even if for a bit
of time economic equality is established, by way of taxation and
governmental wealth redistribution, in just a short time the pattern is
upset by people making all kinds of different decisions about how they
will used their resources.

Instead of aiming for economic equality the task of law and politics
should be to make sure that in the quest to achieve whatever goals people
have, they do not violate one another’s rights, they do not engage in
violence but carry on peacefully, kind of like runners in a marathon race
do, knowing well and good that at the end they will not be at the finish
line all together.

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