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"A claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers."
F.A.Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty

Equality is the state or quality of being equal, or, in mathematics, a statement, usually an equation, that one thing equals another.[1]


'Equality' is a contested concept, so much so that according to various authors it has no unified meaning — or even is devoid of meaning.

The terms "equality," "equal," and "equally" signify a qualitative relationship. 'Equality' (or 'equal') signifies correspondence between a group of different objects, persons, processes or circumstances that have the same qualities in at least one respect, but not all respects, i.e., regarding one specific feature, with differences in other features.

'Equality' can be used in the very same sense both to describe and prescribe, as with "thin": "you are thin" and "you are too thin." In the case of descriptive use of equality, the common standard is itself descriptive, e.g. two people weigh the same. A prescriptive use of equality is present when a prescriptive standard is applied, i.e., a norm or rule, e.g. people ought to be equal before the law.

'Equality' and 'equal' are incomplete predicates that necessarily generate one question: equal in what respect? Two objects a and b are equal in a certain respect if, in that respect, they fall under the same general terminus. 'Equality' denotes the relation between the objects that are compared. Every comparison presumes a concrete attribute defining the respect in which the equality applies — equality thus referring to a common sharing of this comparison-determining attribute. Differing conceptions of equality here emerge from one or another descriptive or normative moral standard. There is another source of diversity as well: various different standards might be used to measure inequality, with the respect in which people are compared remaining constant.

For this reason, it helps to think of the idea of equality or for that matter inequality, understood as an issue of social justice, not as a single principle, but as a complex group of principles forming the basic core of today's egalitarianism. Both equality and inequality are complex and multifaceted concepts.[2]

Equality of incomes

Why do incomes differ?

  1. Incomes differ because people differ in their economic drive, in the extent to which they want to apply themselves to work vs. use their time in recreation and leisure. It is their privilege to so choose, but if they choose a higher proportion of leisure, the economic penalty attached should not be shifted to others.
  2. Incomes differ because people differ in their economic ability. Men are not created equal in economic capacity, and these differences cannot be corrected by law or by governments.
  3. Incomes differ because of all sorts of limitations on free and fair competition — monopolies, etc., etc. Many of these are the result of measures enacted with avowed objectives such as "security" and "fair trade."

Whether or not we like this situation, incomes have a strong and persistent tendency toward inequality. Some of this tendency is a natural force, just as much as the force of gravity and the tendency of water to seek its own level. Those resulting from natural forces can be altered only at the cost of loss of individual liberty and freedom. Some inequality is the product of certain laws and regulations, or of the economic environment which is allowed to exist. Abundant evidence shows that government has been unable to prevent inequality of incomes, except perhaps temporarily.

Equalization of incomes is likely to poison initiative and retard progress to the extent that the real incomes of everyone are lowered from what they otherwise would be. The fact that large incomes suffer more than small ones should not be comforting to those whose smaller incomes are further reduced as the result of a program supposed to benefit them.[3]

Equality in liberal thinking

William Graham Sumner

William Graham Sumner wrote that the thirst for equality is a characteristic of modern mores. In the Middle Ages inequality was postulated in all social doctrines and institutions.

Modern notions of equality are to be explained historically as revolts against mediaeval inequality and status. Natural rights, human rights, equal rights, equality of all men, are phases of a notion which began far back in the Middle Ages, in obscure and neglected writings, or in the polemical utterances of sects and parties. They were counterassertions against the existing system which assumed that rights were obtained from sovereigns, from which it resulted that each man had such rights as his ancestors and he had been able to get — with the further result that perhaps no two men had the same or equal rights.

The assertion that all men are equal is perhaps the purest falsehood in dogma that was ever put into human language; five minutes' observation of facts will show that men are unequal through a very wide range of variation. Men are not simple units; they are very complex; there is no such thing as a unit man. Therefore we cannot measure men.

The ground is then shifted to say that all men should be equal before the law, as an ideal of political institutions. They never have been so yet in any state; practically it seems impossible to realize such a state of things. It is an ideal. If this doctrine is a fighting doctrine, if it means that the law should create no privileges for one, or some, which others do not obtain under the same legal conditions, we should all take sides with it for the purposes of the fight. Even this, however, would remain an ideal, an object of hope and effort, not a truth.

When we come nearer to the real thing which men have in mind we find that they actually complain of inequality of fortune, of realization, of earthly lot, of luxury and comfort, of power and satisfaction. Nearly all, when they say that they want equality, only use another form of expression to say that they want more welfare than they have, because they take as a standard all which any one has, and they find many who have more than themselves. In the nineteenth century, the eighteenth-century rhetoric about natural rights, equal rights, etc., gradually took on the form of a demand for the materialistic equality of enjoyment.

The fact of the mores of present-day society is that there is in them an intense craving for something which is a political phantasm. There is no reason whatever why it should be expected that men should enjoy equally, for that means that all should have means of enjoyment equal to the greatest which any one has; there is nothing in history, science, religion, or politics which could give warrant for such an expectation under any circumstances. We know of no force which could act for the satisfaction of human desires so as to make the satisfaction equal for a number of men, and we know of no interference by "the State," that is, by a committee of men, which could so modify the operation of natural forces as to produce that result.[4]

Ludwig von Mises

According to Mises, liberalism only demands equality before the law, not "real" equality.

Nothing is as ill-founded as the assertion of the alleged equality of all members of the human race. Men are altogether unequal. Even between brothers there exist the most marked differences in physical and mental attributes. Nature never repeats itself in its creations; it produces nothing by the dozen, nor are its products standardized. Each man who leaves her workshop bears the imprint of the individual, the unique, the never-to-recur. Men are not equal, and the demand for equality under the law can by no means be grounded in the contention that equal treatment is due to equals.

There are two distinct reasons why all men should receive equal treatment under the law. In order for human labor to realize its highest attainable productivity, the worker must be free, because only the free worker, enjoying in the form of wages the fruits of his own industry, will exert himself to the full. The second consideration in favor of the equality of all men under the law is the maintenance of social peace. Every disturbance of the peaceful development of the division of labor must be avoided. But it is well-nigh impossible to preserve lasting peace in a society in which the rights and duties of the respective classes are different. Whoever denies rights to a part of the population must always be prepared for a united attack by the disenfranchised on the privileged. Class privileges must disappear so that the conflict over them may cease.

But, the socialists say, it is not enough to make men equal before the law. In order to make them really equal, one must also allot them the same income. It is not enough to abolish privileges of birth and of rank. One must finish the job and do away with the greatest and most important privilege of all, namely, that which is accorded by private property.

In order to determine whether an institutional arrangement is to be regarded as the special privilege of an individual or of a class, the question one should ask is not whether it benefits this or that individual or class, but only whether it is beneficial to the general public. If we reach the conclusion that only private ownership of the means of production makes possible the prosperous development of human society, it is clear that this is tantamount to saying that private property is not a privilege of the property owner, but a social institution for the good and benefit of all, even though it may at the same time be especially agreeable and advantageous to some.

It is not on behalf of property owners that liberalism favors the preservation of the institution of private property. It is not because the abolition of that institution would violate property rights that the liberals want to preserve it. If they considered the abolition of the institution of private property to be in the general interest, they would advocate that it be abolished, no matter how prejudicial such a policy might be to the interests of property owners. However, the preservation of that institution is in the interest of all strata of society. Even the poor man, who can call nothing his own, lives incomparably better in our society than he would in one that would prove incapable of producing even a fraction of what is produced in our own.[5]

Murray Rothbard

According to Rothbard, uniformity of treatment (equality before the law) per se cannot be established as a canon of justice.

The justice of equality of treatment depends first of all on the justice of the treatment itself. Suppose, for example, that Jones, with his retinue, proposes to enslave a group of people. Are we to maintain that "justice" requires that each be enslaved equally? And suppose that someone has the good fortune to escape. Are we to condemn him for evading the equality of justice meted out to his fellows? It is obvious that equality of treatment is no canon of justice whatever. If a measure is unjust, then it is just that it have as little general effect as possible. Equality of unjust treatment can never be upheld as an ideal of justice. Therefore, he who maintains that a tax be imposed equally on all must first establish the justice of the tax itself.

Many writers denounce tax exemptions and levy their fire at the tax-exempt, particularly those instrumental in obtaining the exemptions for themselves. These writers include those advocates of the free market who treat a tax exemption as a special privilege and attack it as equivalent to a subsidy and therefore inconsistent with the free market. Yet an exemption from taxation or any other burden is not equivalent to a subsidy. In the latter case a man is receiving a special grant of privilege wrested from his fellowmen; in the former he is escaping a burden imposed on other men. Whereas the one is done at the expense of his fellowmen, the other is not. For in the former case, the grantee is participating in the acquisition of loot; in the latter, he escapes payment of tribute to the looters. To blame him for escaping is equivalent to blaming the slave for fleeing his master.

One of the major sources of confusion for economists and others who are in favor of the free market is that the free society has often been defined as a condition of "equality before the law," or as "special privilege for none." As a result, many have transferred these concepts to an attack on tax exemptions as a "special privilege" and a violation of the principle of "equality before the law." As for the latter concept, it is hardly a criterion of justice, for this depends on the justice of the law or "treatment" itself. It is this alleged justice, rather than equality, which is the primary feature of the free market. In fact, the free society is far better described by some such phrase as "equality of rights to defend person and property" or "equality of liberty" rather than by the vague, misleading expression "equality before the law."[6]


  1. "equality", The Free Dictionary, referenced 2012-04-24.
  2. Gosepath, Stefan. "Equality", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), referenced 2012-04-24.
  3. F.A. Harper. "This Way Toward Equality", Mises Daily, from The Writings of F. A. Harper, Volume 2: Shorter Essays, 1979. Referenced 2012-04-28.
  4. William Graham Sumner. "Equality", Mises Daily, written in the period of 1900–1906. Referenced 2012-04-27.
  5. Ludwig von Mises. "Equality", from the book Liberalism, referenced 2012-04-27.
  6. Murray N. Rothbard. Power and Market, (a) Equality before the law: tax exemption, p. 172-175. Referenced 2012-04-28.