Column on Equality’s Irrelevance

Equality is Irrelevant

Tibor R. Machan

        Equality is a deceptive political concept.  In the hands of the American Founders is had great merit since it was based on those aspects of human nature that everyone not crucially impeded does in fact share, namely, everyone’s basic rights.You and I and all the billions of people in the world and throughout human history are and have, of course, been quite different from one another while we also possess our basic rights to life, liberty and property.  

        In certain respects the difference among people stems from the plain fact that human individuals are at a certain level utterly unique, irreplaceable. This is why no substitution can be made for a deceased friend, a spouse, a member of one’s family.  Once you grow close to someone and know him or her intimately, there is just no one like that person.  Which is one reason the deceased are mourned so much–they will be missed because no substitution for them is possible.  

        Human beings are in some limited respects the same but in most respects different.  And this is further complicated by the fact that some of their differences as well as some of their similarities are innate, just a matter of what they were born to be, so to speak, or accidental, due to circumstances over which they have no control at all; other differences and similarities are the result of their choices, be these good or bad ones, by they trivial or morally significant.

        So both equality and uniqueness are part of normal human life.  The results of this can be extremely wide-ranging and the last thing that would be sensible to expect is that some pattern of equality, be it economic, social, religious, ethical, medical or anything of this sort can be implemented or should be attempted.  The Procrustean temptation is an incredibly hazardous one. Its sources are many, some benign and some mendacious but all to be guarded against.

        For example, often people find a way to carry on in their lives, including how they drive, bring up kids, cook dinner, arrange the furniture, choose a career, invest in the market, etc., and so forth, and this often suggests to them that others need to follow suit. Wouldn’t the world be just swell if everyone followed one’s example, seeing how it has been so fruitful for oneself?  But, of course, different folks, different strokes, more often than not.  Different people will enjoy different sports, entertainment, tourist attractions, cuisine and all.  And even more importantly, they will actually be better off pursuing different objectives, ones that really suit them well but not their fellows, certainly not most of the time.  Indeed, this is well borne out by the fact that when people recommend things, they can usually do a creditable job only when they do so to someone they know very well, at least within the sphere of the recommendation.  "You just have to see this movie or go to this store or eat at this restaurant or take your vacation here, etc., etc.," said to a total stranger tends to be quite risky, even reckless. 

        On the continuum from what is universal, applicable to us all as human beings, to what is only right for a given individual human being, there is a vast array of options suited all the way from what suits millions to what only some here and there and, finally, to just a solitary single one individual.  This is what the American Founders, guided by their study of political history and thought, especially the ideas of John Locke, suggested, which is why their claim that we are all created equal had to do with "equal with respect to having certain basic rights" and not with equal opportunities, equal conditions, equal consequences and the like. Equality under the law, of course, is what their idea clearly implies but not other kinds of equality promoted to much these days.

        Yes, Virginia, there are those very influential, even powerful ones, who want us all to be engineered into one type, all to be serviced by the same public policies ("options" is a really insulting term since they are not optional for citizens to, say, pay for!). Yet, what a just society is characterized by is that its principles are suited to an incredible variety of citizens, all carrying on as they choose, provided they do this in peace, without invading others or their realms.  Egalitarians would toss all this out to institute their one-size-fits-all policies, except of course for one element, namely, that they alone should run the show, no one else.  Sharing power isn’t on their agenda, especially sharing it with everyone by letting everyone enjoy sovereignty.

        Finally, in answer to the claim that equality is necessary to stop envy, I wish to quote Nobel Laureate Edmund S. Phelps: 

"The idea that ordinary people are anguished by the thought that other people have extraordinary wealth is also cultivated in fashionable circles without the presentation of any evidence. Most people are practical enough to see that when, say, they have to go to the hospital for tests, what matters is whether the right kind of diagnostic machine is there for them, not whether there is a better machine for others somewhere else."

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