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The Equality Equivocation

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 9, No. 4.

Equality EquivocationLeftists constantly harp on the so-called problem of inequality—by which they mean inequality of income, wealth, or opportunity. Paul Krugman bemoans “the ever-growing gap between the rich and the rest.”1 Barack Obama says inequality is “the defining challenge of our time.”2 Ezra Klein says inequality “offends our moral intuitions” and “tears into the fabric of the American dream.”3 Jim Wallis says inequality in America is “a sin of biblical proportions.”4 And, of course, the left offers various prescriptions for solving this “problem”—such as hiking taxes on the so-called rich, expanding welfare programs for the so-called poor, capping executive pay, increasing the minimum wage, banning private schools, and spending more money on government schools.

But, unless theft or other violations of rights are involved, the fact that some people have higher incomes or more wealth or more opportunities than others is a fact that doesn’t matter—or, if it does matter, it’s good.

An individual’s life is not in any way made worse by other people having more money or opportunities than he has. On the contrary, the more money and opportunities other people have, the more likely they are to create values—including opportunities—that will enhance his life.

People who earn substantial wealth do so by creating goods or services and trading them with others in the marketplace by mutual consent to mutual advantage. These same successful people tend to use their wealth to expand their businesses or to create new businesses, thus offering even more goods or services for trade. And all of these goods and services constitute opportunities for other people.

For instance, because wealthy Americans with great opportunities have invested in for-profit and nonprofit ventures, all Americans, including the so-called poor, now have the opportunity to buy clothing, groceries, and countless other goods from Kohl’s, Wal-Mart, Amazon.com, and the like—the opportunity to buy health care and medicine from the Mayo Clinic, AtlasMD, Patient First, Walgreens, and the like—the opportunity to take countless free courses offered by Khan Academy, Google for Education, Coursera, Udacity, and the like—the opportunity to buy (or, in some cases, use for free) tools and resources for starting and managing a business, such as those provided by Etsy, Weebly, EBay, PayPal, My Own Business, and LegalZoom—the opportunity to buy (or use for free) productivity-enhancing tools, software, and programs, such as those provided by Apple, Asana, Evernote, Trello, and Getting Things Done—the opportunity to buy (or use for free) money-saving and time-saving services provided by companies such as Kayak, Uber, Task Rabbit, and Zirtual—and, of course, the opportunity to pursue jobs or careers with the countless businesses that wealthy people have started or expanded by means of their wealth and opportunities.

But all of this is lost on the left. To a leftist, when wealthy people get wealthier at a greater rate than less-wealthy people do, it “offends our moral intuitions”; it “tears into the fabric of the American dream”; it’s “a sin of biblical proportions.”

Also lost on the left is the fact that what matters for an individual’s life is not how his income or opportunities compare to those of others, but whether the individual is free to live his life as he sees fit (the right to life); to act on his own judgment, free from coercion (liberty); to keep and use the product of his effort (property); and to pursue the goals and values of his choice (pursuit of happiness).

  • Is the individual free to contract with a company that wants to hire him at an hourly wage that makes economic sense to both parties? Or do minimum-wage laws—vociferously advocated by the left—forbid him to do so? (The U.S. federal government forbids people to work for less than $7.25 per hour; some state governments forbid people to work for less than $9.32 per hour; Seattle recently passed an ordinance that will soon forbid people to work for less than $15 per hour.)
  • Is the individual free to start his own business—say, raking leaves and cutting grass, or shampooing and styling hair, or making and selling tacos? Or do occupational licensing laws and government regulations forbid him from starting a business unless he jumps through time-consuming and money-consuming hoops to receive permission from bureaucrats to earn a living? (All fifty states have laws and regulations that thwart or throttle entrepreneurs; details vary from state to state.)5
  • If an individual manages to get a job or start a business, is he free to keep the product of his effort and to invest it as he sees fit—say, in the stock market or back into his business—to expand his wealth and improve his life? Or does the government force him to hand over a substantial percentage of his earnings for use on government projects that he does not want to fund and that may further harm his life? (The latter, of course, is the case.)

Contrary to the ramblings of leftists, what matters to an individual who wants to work, to support himself, and to prosper is not whether others make more money or have more opportunities than he has. (Why do leftists assume others are secondhanders?) What matters is whether his rights are protected, whether he is politically and economically free to make the choices and take the actions necessary to be productive and independent.

But the left does not want people to think in terms of rights, freedom, productiveness, or independence. The left wants people to think in terms of “rich versus poor,” “income disparity,” “wealth gaps,” “social justice,” and the need for government programs to coercively “spread the wealth around” and make things “equal.”

The left’s “equality” agenda is corrupt, absurd, and obscene on several counts. For instance, it ignores the obvious fact that people are by nature and by choice unequal in myriad ways. (Leftists, can you not see that the only way to achieve your dream of “equality” is to forcibly cut everyone down to the level of the least capable and the least virtuous? Or is that your goal?) It ignores the obvious fact that wealth does not exist as a static quantity (an “economic pie,” as Krugman calls it) such that one man’s gain is another man’s loss—but, rather, is created by people who think, work, and transform nature to suit man’s needs. (Look around, leftists. Was all this wealth here when cavemen roamed the earth?) It pretends that wealth producers just got “lucky” and therefore don’t deserve to keep what they’ve “allegedly” earned. (Do you leftists engage in such pretense regarding your children’s accomplishments or your students’ grades?) Fortunately, various advocates of liberty have addressed these aspects of the left’s “equality” agenda, so I won’t detail the errors here. Instead, I want to focus on an aspect of the left’s agenda that hasn’t been sufficiently addressed: the notion that “equality” is an unqualified good.

America, of course, was founded on the principle of individual rights and the equality of rights. The Declaration of Independence specifies that “all men are created equal”; that all men equally possess certain inalienable rights, such as the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; and that governments are instituted “to secure these rights.”

The Founders’ initial implementation of this idea—and Americans’ increasing acceptance of it for a century thereafter—made America the freest country in history. It enabled Americans to see that slavery is wrong and to abolish that abhorrent practice. It enabled Americans to produce massive amounts of wealth and to improve their standard of living beyond anything imaginable prior to the Land of Liberty. And, to the extent that this idea is still accepted and upheld in America, it enables us to thrive and prosper to this day. Many Americans know this; and, consequently, many regard the idea of political equality as an absolute good.

The left, having taken notice of this fact, has seized an opportunity to distort the truth for leftist ends.

Aware of the extremely positive connotation surrounding the word “equality,” the left has commandeered the word; affixed it to the ideas of income, wealth, and opportunity; and said, in effect, “Voila! Now equality in these areas is an absolute good too.”

For a concrete example of how leftists do this, consider President Obama’s recent speech on “inequality.”6

Obama began the speech by reminding Americans: “The premise that we’re all created equal is the opening line in the American story.” With this, Obama subtly conveyed the idea that “equality” is good and that we all know it. He then proceeded to imply that anything government does to make people’s financial situations and opportunities more “equal” is likewise good. He touted, among other things, the equalizing effect of government forcibly imposing “an eight-hour workday”; the equalizing effect of government “bust[ing] monopolies that kept prices high and wages low”; the equalizing effect of “minimum wage” laws; the equalizing effect of wealth redistribution programs such as “Social Security,” “Medicare and Medicaid,” and taxpayer-funded “insurance for the unemployed”—all of which entail violations of the rights of those who were and are forced by government to comply with these laws or fund these programs.

Obama “got away” with the contradiction in part because he planted in people’s minds a certain equivocation. Call it “the equality equivocation.” In a nutshell, it goes like this: “Equality is good—we all agree on this. And just as equality of rights is good, so too equality of income, wealth, and opportunity is good. This is the American way.”

Ayn Rand called this kind of equivocation a package deal because it packages together ideas that are essentially different or even contradictory and treats them as though they are essentially the same and thus properly unified. In this case, the idea that equality of rights is good and that government must protect it is packaged with the contradictory idea that equality of income, wealth, and opportunity is good and that government must promote it. The effect of this package deal is to obliterate in the minds of receptive listeners the very idea of inalienable rights and to replace it with the idea that whatever government does toward making people’s incomes, wealth, and opportunities “equal” is good—because “equality” is good.

Contrary to the left’s equality equivocation, the only equality with which government is properly concerned is equality of rights and its corollary: equal protection of rights under the law. A moral government bans force (including fraud and the like) from social relationships, and uses force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. Thus, a moral government protects everyone’s rights equally and violates no one’s rights ever. Such a government does not take money from the so-called poor and give it to the so-called rich (e.g., corporate handouts and bank bailouts); it does not take money from the so-called rich and give it to the so-called poor (e.g., food stamps and welfare checks); it does not take money from the healthy and give it to the ill (e.g., Medicaid and ObamaCare); it does not take money from the young and give it to the old (e.g., Medicare and Social Security); it does not treat white people as different from black people, or gay people as different from straight people, or atheists as different from religionists. A moral government simply protects individuals’ rights, leaving all people equally free to think, to produce, to trade—and to be as unequal as they naturally are and choose to be.

If leftists genuinely wanted to help the so-called poor, they would drop the equality equivocation and embrace the principle of rights. But, then, they wouldn’t be leftists.

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Endnotes

1. Paul Krugman, “Why Inequality Matters,” New York Times, December 15, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/16/opinion/krugman-why-inequality-matters.html.

2. “Remarks by the President on Economic Mobility,” White House, December 4, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/12/04/remarks-president-economic-mobility.

3. Ezra Klein, “Inequality Isn’t ‘The Defining Challenge of Our Time,’” Washington Post, December 13, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/12/13/inequality-isnt-the-defining-challenge-of-our-time/.

4. Bob Allen, “Faith-based Leaders Say Budget Is Major Shift in Poverty Policy,” Associated Baptist Press, March 2, 2009, http://sojo.net/press/faith-based-leaders-say-budget-major-shift-poverty-policy.

5. See Dick M. Carpenter II et al., “License to Work: A National Study of Burdens from Occupational Licensing,” Institute for Justice, May 2012, https://www.ij.org/licensetowork; and Timothy Sandefur, The Right to Earn a Living: Economic Freedom and the Law (Washington D.C.: Cato Institute, 2010).

6. “Remarks by the President on Economic Mobility.”