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Some people ask for government intervention in the economy for the sake of equality. For them, all our problems would be solved if we were all equal. But they never answer the crucial question: equal in what way? In intelligence? Surely they don’t want people to be clones. Or is it rather material equality, such as wealth, resources and opportunities? If that is the case, then many problems arise. Not only are there many concepts of equality, but they are mutually incompatibles.

Equalization of welfare

The most popular type of equality is that of welfare. For its promoters, humanity would be better off if we all could live equally good lives with similar wage height. This type of equality is very problematic. First of all, it’s demonstrative of a kind of jealousy. Indeed, despite the fact their profession is cartelized, medical doctors still "deserve" a higher wage than janitors considering all the studying and training they go through and the productive service they offer. And let’s not forget all the hardships and stress related to the medical field. Leveling down wages would simply encourage doctors to abandon their studies, whereas leveling up wages would make the price of cleaning explode.

Second, the only measurement that could be said to be objective would be one measuring people’s satisfaction of their desires. Despite their great income disparity, the Dalai Lama and Bill Gates seem to be quite satisfied with their lives. After all, who needs a giant-screen TV, a private jet and the latest computer to be happy? But even then, satisfying desires creates problems. What if said desire is very destructive such as murder or drugs? Also, supposing it was possible to even out wealth, what would we do with people who burn it in the casino? Must people still empty their wallets to fill theirs?

Equalization of Resources

Similarly to the equalization of wealth, some on the left would like everyone to be able to get the same resources. Once achieved, people would be able to manage their lives better; or so it is assumed.

Once again, problems arise. Almost every resource we use – except natural ones like the sun, air and rain – has been transformed in a way by humans. Wanting to "evenly" distribute resources among people will only discourage people to produce them in the first place.

Also, we don’t quite have the same abilities using the resources given to us. If I were to receive a pile of sand, I might create a beach volleyball field. But a professional sand sculptor would transform it into a masterpiece. Speaking of talent, can its absence be considered as a lack of resource? Is my being knowledgeable of economics but not of chemistry make me a "poor" person? These discrepancies are the exact reason why humans created trade: in order to take advantage of each others’ special talents. Without it, we would have to make everything ourselves. Just imagine Canada during winter without a readily available food supply thanks to international trade.

Equalization of Opportunities

Another kind of equality, especially popular in the US, has to do with opportunities. If every person could have the same starting point, then it is assumed we would all have the same chances when choosing employment, among others.

This desire lacks objective measurements. How exactly are we supposed to measure opportunities? If it’s by how many opportunities somebody has, then equality is impossible. Indeed, regardless of corporatism in some professional fields, some jobs – engineer, surgeon, architect – require long and tedious training. Since we are all born different, and therefore with different opportunity costs (doing X means you have less time to do Y), not everyone will be willing to go through such hardships.

It seems that we should focus more on the freedom to choose rather than the number of opportunities. If government considers all citizens to be equal before the law, then they can become what ever they want. Of course, it wouldn’t stop some employers from arbitrarily discriminating against certain people. As frustrating as it can be, no one can force an employer to accept the discriminated people except the state since doing so is a violation of property rights. If he doesn’t want to hire women, then it’s his problem if he wants to exclude half the population. The market will ultimately determine if such a decision is beneficial.

The Non-Compatibility

The concepts enumerated above sound good on paper, but they are mutually incompatible. Indeed, equalizing wealth means some will be unequal in their resources and their opportunities since not everyone can make good use of their money. Similarly, equalizing resources leads to inequality in wealth and opportunities since some people are more resourceful.

They are also incompatible with a society that recognizes property rights; without which nothing can be produced and creates permanent tensions among people. Wanting to equalize wealth, and even more so resources, supposes one can take away one’s product of (supposed) honest work and give it to someone else without compensation. If it weren’t done by the government, it would clearly be called theft. Also, as mentioned, the fans of equality never say if society has to help irresponsible people by giving them more resources and wealth. If everyone is entitled to iron, must we give some back to those who let it rust?

In addition, does material wealth matter at all? Do we all need a luxury car and a mansion? Don’t we all want to see each other having at least a bare minimum to live? If such is the case, then material equality is useless. As long as one has something decent to eat, to wear and to live in, why want to take from others by force? Besides, by dividing wealth, the masses become poorer. Communist leaders since Deng Xiaoping seem to have at least understood this principle. What’s better: a society where every quintile earns $20,000 or one where the lowest quintile earns $20,000 but the highest earns $100,000?

A Problem of Injustice?

It seems that the root of the problem of egalitarians is a feeling of injustice. They keep repeating that the rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor. There is a grain of truth in that statement; especially in our corporatist society. However, taking from the poor to give to the rich is as immoral as doing the opposite. And if the rich are getting richer without violating the rights of the poor, where is the problem?

So if material equality yields so many problems, then perhaps should we turn towards moral equality, i.e. one concerning our relationships with each other. F.A Hayek defended the concept of equality before the law which helped to take down many racist and sexist laws. However, the very fact that such laws even existed shows the Achilles heel of the principle. During the Middle Ages, with few exceptions, everyone was equal before the law: anyone questioning the King would be thrown to jail.

Equality of Authority

In the end, it seems that the only equality which truly equalizes people is that of authority, as first thought by John Locke. In his time (late 17th century) it was thought that some people were meant to rule over people. Locke destroyed this argument in his Second Treatise on Government by saying that the power to direct others is reciprocal, and that like animals we are equal and no one can rule over the other.

In a similar fashion, German philosopher Immanuel Kant believes that the best political conditions are those where each can mutually oblige the other to respect his rights. These rights are our bodily integrity, the fruit of our labor, and the ability to own property. We can also mutually oblige others to something with the right to contract.

If we are to consider moral equality as the only just one – no one can claim authority over anyone – then any form of material equality must be forgotten. Indeed, saying that a person has a right to another’s labor is saying that we have the authority to act so, therefore creating a disequilibrium in authority. Intellectuals seem to be more interested in the equalization of poverty than on the unequal distribution of wealth.


Note: this page was based on The Difficult Case for Equality by Pierre-Guy Veer.