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The Impossibility of Equality

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Via Economic Policy Journal

Murray Rothbard

By Murray Rothbard

Probably the most common ethical criticism of the market economy is that it fails to achieve the goal of equality. Equality has been championed on various “economic” grounds, such as minimum social sacrifice or the diminishing marginal utility of money (see the chapter on taxation above). But in recent years economists have recognized that they cannot justify egalitarianism by economics, that they ultimately need an ethical basis for equality.

Economics or praxeology cannot establish the validity of ethical ideals, but even ethical goals must be framed meaningfully. They must therefore pass muster before praxeology as being internally consistent and conceptually possible. The credentials of “equality” have so far not been adequately tested.

It is true that many objections have been raised that give egalitarians pause. Sometimes realization of the necessary consequences of their policies causes an abandonment, though more often a slowing down, of the egalitarian program. Thus: compulsory equality will demonstrably stifle incentive, eliminate the adjustment processes of the market economy, destroy all efficiency in satisfying consumer wants, greatly lower capital formation, and cause capital consumption — all effects signifying a drastic fall in general standards of living. Furthermore, only a free society is casteless, and therefore only freedom will permit mobility of income according to productivity. Statism, on the other hand, is likely to freeze the economy into a mold of (nonproductive) inequality.

Yet these arguments, though powerful, are by no means conclusive. Some people will pursue equality anyway; many will take these considerations into account by settling for some cuts in living standards in order to gain more equality.

In all discussions of equality, it is considered self-evident that equality is a very worthy goal. But this is by no means self-evident. For the very goal of equality itself is open to serious challenge. The doctrines of praxeology are deduced from three universally acceptable axioms: the major axiom of the existence of purposive human action; and the minor postulates, or axioms, of the diversity of human skills and natural resources, and the disutility of labor. Although it is possible to construct an economic theory of a society without these two minor axioms (but not without the major one), they are included in order to limit our theorizing to laws that can apply directly to reality.9 Anyone who wants to set forth a theory applicable to interchangeable human beings is welcome to do so.

Thus, the diversity of mankind is a basic postulate of our knowledge of human beings. But if mankind is diverse and individuated, then how can anyone propose equality as an ideal? Every year, scholars hold Conferences on Equality and call for greater equality, and no one challenges the basic tenet. But what justification can equality find in the nature of man? If each individual is unique, how else can he be made “equal” to others than by destroying most of what is human in him and reducing human society to the mindless uniformity of the ant heap? It is the task of the egalitarian, who confidently enters the scene to inform the economist of his ultimate ethical goal, to prove his case. He must show how equality can be compatible with the nature of mankind and must defend the feasibility of a possible egalitarian world.

But the egalitarian is in even direr straits, for it can be shown that equality of income is an impossible goal for mankind. Income can never be equal. Income must be considered, of course, in real and not in money terms; otherwise there would be no true equality. Yet real income can never be equalized. For how can a New Yorker’s enjoyment of the Manhattan skyline be equalized with an Indian’s? How can the New Yorker swim in the Ganges as well as an Indian? Since every individual is necessarily situated in a different space, every individual’s real income must differ from good to good and from person to person. There is no way to combine goods of different types, to measure some income “level,” so it is meaningless to try to arrive at some sort of “equal” level. The fact must be faced that equality cannot be achieved because it is a conceptually impossible goal for man, by virtue of his necessary dispersion in location and diversity among individuals. But if equality is an absurd (and therefore irrational) goal, then any effort to approach equality is correspondingly absurd. If a goal is pointless, then any attempt to attain it is similarly pointless.

Many people believe that, though equality of income is an absurd ideal, it can be replaced by the ideal of equality of opportunity. Yet this, too, is as meaningless as the former concept. How can the New Yorker’s opportunity and the Indian’s opportunity to sail around Manhattan, or to swim in the Ganges, be “equalized”? Man’s inevitable diversity of location effectively eliminates any possibility of equalizing “opportunity.”

Blum and Kalven lapse into a common error10 when they state that justice connotes equality of opportunity and that this equality requires that “the contestants start from the same mark,” so that the “game” be “fair.” Human life is not some sort of race or game in which each person should start from an identical mark. It is an attempt by each man to be as happy as possible. And each person could not begin from the same point, for the world has not just come into being; it is diverse and infinitely varied in its parts. The mere fact that one individual is necessarily born in a different place from someone else immediately insures that his inherited opportunity cannot be the same as his neighbor’s. The drive for equality of opportunity would also require the abolition of the family since different parents have unequal abilities; it would require the communal rearing of children. The State would have to nationalize all babies and raise them in State nurseries under “equal” conditions. But even here conditions cannot be the same, because different State officials will themselves have different abilities and personalities. And equality can never be achieved because of necessary differences of location.

Thus, the egalitarian must not be permitted any longer to end discussion by simply proclaiming equality as an absolute ethical goal. He must first face all the social and economic consequences of egalitarianism and try to show that it does not clash with the basic nature of man. He must counter the argument that man is not made for a compulsory ant heap existence. And, finally, he must recognize that the goals of equality of income and equality of opportunity are conceptually unrealizable and are therefore absurd. Any drive to achieve them is ipso facto absurd as well.

Egalitarianism is, therefore, a literally senseless social philosophy. Its only meaningful formulation is the goal of “equality of liberty” — formulated by Herbert Spencer in his famous Law of Equal Freedom: “Every man has freedom to do all he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.”11 This goal does not attempt to make every individual’s total condition equal — an absolutely impossible task; instead, it advocates liberty — a condition of absence of coercion over person and property for every man.12

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