“Free people are not equal, and equal people are not free.”
I wish I could remember who first said that. It ought to rank as one of the great truths of all time, and one that is fraught
with profound meaning.
Equality before the law—that is, being judged innocent or guilty based on whether or not you committed the crime,
not on what color, sex, or creed you represent—is a noble ideal and not at issue here. The “equalness” to
which the statement above refers pertains to economic income or material wealth.
Put another way, then, the statement might read, “Free people will earn different incomes. Where people have the
same income, they cannot be free.”
Economic equality in a free society is a mirage that redistributionists envision and too often, are willing to shed both
blood and treasure to accomplish. But free people are different people, so it should not come as a surprise
that they earn different incomes. Our talents and abilities are not identical. We don’t all work as hard. And even if
we all were magically made equal in wealth tonight, we’d be unequal in the morning because some of us would spend it
and some of us would save it.
To produce even a rough measure of economic equality, governments must issue the following orders and back them up with
firing squads and prisons: “Don’t excel or work harder than the next guy, don’t come up with any new ideas,
don’t take any risks, and don’t do anything differently from what you did yesterday.” In other words, don’t
The fact that free people are not equal in economic terms is not to be lamented. It is, rather, a cause for rejoicing.
Economic inequality, when it derives from the voluntary interaction of creative individuals and not from political power,
testifies to the fact that people are being themselves, each putting his uniqueness to work in ways that are fulfilling
to himself and of value to others. As the French would say in a different context, Vive la difference!
People obsessed with economic equality—egalitarianism, to employ the more clinical term—do strange things.
They become envious of others. They covet. They divide society into two piles: villains and victims. They spend far more time
dragging someone else down than they do pulling themselves up. They’re not fun to be around.
And if they make it to a legislature, they can do real harm. Then they not only call the cops, they are the cops.
Examples of injurious laws motivated by egalitarian sentiments are, of course, legion. They form the blueprint of the modern
welfare state’s redistributive apparatus. A particularly classic case was the 1990 hike in excise taxes on boats, aircraft,
and jewelry. The sponsors of the bill in Congress presumed that only rich people buy boats, aircraft, and jewelry. Taxing
those objects would teach the rich a lesson, help narrow the gap between the proverbial “haves” and “have-nots,”
and raise a projected $31 million in new revenues for the federal Treasury in 1991.
What really occurred was much different. A subsequent study by economists for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress
showed that the rich did not line up by the flock to be sheared: total revenue from the new taxes in 1991 was only $16.6 million.
Especially hard-hit was the boating industry, where a total of 7,600 jobs were wiped out. In the aircraft industry, 1,470
people were pink-slipped. And in jewelry manufacturing, 330 joined the jobless ranks just so congressmen could salve their
Those lost jobs, the study revealed, prompted a $24.2 million outlay for unemployment benefits. That’s right—$16.6
million came in, $24.2 million went out, for a net loss to the deficit-ridden Treasury of $7.6 million. To advance the cause
of economic equality by a punitive measure, Congress succeeded in nothing more than making almost all of us a little bit poorer.
To the rabid egalitarian, however, intentions count for everything and consequences mean little. It’s more important
to pontificate and assail than it is to produce results that are constructive or that even live up to the stated objective.
Getting Congress to undo the damage it does with quackery like this is always a daunting challenge.
Last July, economic inequality made the headlines again with the publication of a study by New York University economist
Edward Wolff. The latest in a long line of screeds that purport to show that free markets are making the rich richer and the
poor poorer, Wolff’s work was celebrated in the mainstream media. “The most telling finding,” the author
wrote, “is that the share of marketable net worth held by the top 1 percent, which had fallen by 10 percentage points
between 1945 and 1976, rose to 39 percent in 1989, compared with 34 percent in 1983.” Those at the bottom end of the
income scale, meanwhile, saw their wealth erode over the period—if the Wolff study is to be believed.
Upon close and dispassionate inspection, however, it turns out that the study didn’t tell the whole story, if indeed
it told any of it. Not only did Wolff employ a very narrow measure that inherently exaggerates wealth disparity, he also ignored
the mobility of individuals up and down the income scale. An editorial in the August 28 Investor’s Business Daily
laid it out straight:
. . . Different people make up “the wealthy” from year to year. The latest data from income-tax returns
. . . show that most of 1979′s top-earning 20 percent had fallen to a lower income bracket by 1988.
Of those who made up the bottom 20 percent in 1979, just 14.2 percent were still there in 1988. Some 20.7 percent had moved
up one bracket, while 35 percent had moved up two, 25.3 percent had moved up three, and 14.7 percent had joined the top-earning
If economic inequality is an ailment, punishing effort and success is no cure in any event. Coercive measures that aim
to redistribute wealth prompt the smart or politically well-connected “haves” to seek refuge in havens here or
abroad, while the hapless “have-nots” bear the full brunt of economic decline. A more productive expenditure of
time would be to work to erase the mass of intrusive government that assures that the “have-nots” are also the
This economic equality thing is not compassion. When it’s just an idea, it’s bunk. When it’s public policy,
it’s quackery writ large. www.fee.org
What is Equality?
For two things to be equal means for them to be identical in some respect. Thus if two trees are both precisely 6 feet
tall, they are equal in height. If two men both earn precisely $9,500 a year, they are equal in income. And if two people
both have the same chance of winning a lottery, they have (in that respect) equality of opportunity.
However, while two things may be identical with respect to one or a limited number of attributes, no two physical objects
can ever be identical with respect to all attributes. For example, all atoms differ in position, direction and history.
And all human beings differ with respect to anatomy, biochemistry, temperament, knowledge, skills, goals, virtue and a thousand
Here we will primarily be concerned with three types of equality:
1. Political equality, a major goal of both the American and French revolutions, has traditionally meant
equality of individual rights and equality of liberty. Stated simply, political equality means that the individual’s
right to life, liberty and property is respected and that government abstains from conferring any special advantage or inflicting
any special harm upon one individual (or group) in distinction to another. Clearly, political equality is at best only approximated
and never exists completely.
2. Economic equality means in essence that people have the same income or total wealth.
3. Social equality generally means either (a) equality of social status, (b) equality of opportunity, or (c) equality
of treatment. Social equality is also increasingly coming to mean (d) equality of achievement.
Equality and Liberty
A little reflection will quickly demonstrate that economic and social equality can only be achieved at the expense of political
equality. Because people differ in ability, drive, intelligence, strength and many other attributes it follows that, with
liberty, people also will differ in achievement, status, income and wealth. A talented singer will command a higher income
than a ditch-digger. A frugal, hardworking man generally will accumulate more wealth than an indolent spendthrift. A brilliant
scientist will command more respect than a skid row bum.
Nor are all of these differences of social and economic achievement the result of environment. Because people are individuals—genetically,
biochemically, anatomically and neurologically—differences in strength, intelligence, aggressiveness and other traits
will always exist. While environmental factors can and do exaggerate physical and mental differences between people, diversity
and non-equality remain the natural biological order and hence are the natural social and economic order.
There is only one way to make all people even approximately economically or socially equal, and that is through the forcible
redistribution of wealth and the legal prohibition of social distinction.
As Dr. Robert Nozick, of the Harvard Philosophy Department, has pointed out in Anarchy, State and Utopia, economic
equality requires a continuous and unending series of government interventions into private transactions. Even if people’s
incomes are made equal once, they will quickly become unequal if they have the liberty to spend their own money. For example,
many more people will choose to pay $10 to hear Linda Ronstadt sing than will pay $10 to hear me sing, and Linda Ronstadt
will very quickly become far wealthier than I am.
Economic equality can thus only be maintained by totalitarian control of people’s lives, and the substitution of
the decisions of a handful of state authorities for the free choices of millions of men and women.
Political equality is fundamentally inimical to economic and social equality. Free men are not economically equal, and
economically equal men are not free. Because the achievement of social and economic equality inherently requires the forcible
interference with voluntary choice, I will subsequently refer to the doctrine that social or economic equality should be imposed
upon a society as coercive egalitarianism.
Equality as an Ethical Ideal
In reality people are unequal: Americans are—on average—far wealthier than Russians, doctors tend to earn more
than garbage collectors, and so on. But should people be unequal?
At its root, egalitarianism is an ethical doctrine. It is often asserted that “ethics is just a matter of opinion”
and that “one moral system is just as good as any other.” But in fact any ethical code can be judged by at least
three criteria: (1) is it logical—have the basic concepts of the doctrine been meaningfully defined and are the
arguments for it valid; (2) is it realistic—is it a doctrine which human beings can live by, or does it require
that people act in a way which is fundamentally contrary to their nature; and (3) is it desirable—are the consequences
of adopting the doctrine what are claimed, or would they be something entirely different; and if people adopt this doctrine
will it lead to the creation of a society in which they are happy and fulfilled, or will it lead to a society of hopelessness,
repression and despair?
Let us now apply these criteria to the doctrine of coercive egalitarianism.
1. Is coercive egalitarianism logical? Egalitarianism states that all people should be equal, but few coercive egalitarians
As stated previously, complete equality between people is an impossibility, so it can be rejected at once. But we
are hardly better off when we speak of social or economic equality. Does “economic equality” mean equal income
at a given age, for a given job, for a certain amount of work, or for a particular occupation? Does “equal wealth”
mean identical possessions, possessions of identical value, or something entirely different? Does “social equality”
mean equal status, equal popularity, equal opportunity, equal treatment, or what? All of these concepts of economic and social
equality are distinctly different, and until they are defined, the doctrine of egalitarianism is illogical.
2. Is coercive egalitarianism realistic? People are different and have different values. To some happiness requires
many material possessions, to others material possessions are relatively unimportant. To some people intelligence is a great
value, to others strength or beauty are far more important. Because people differ both in their own characteristics and in
the way in which they value traits in others, people will naturally discriminate in favor of some persons and against others.
Since variety and distinction are natural parts of the human condition, by demanding that people abandon such distinctions,
coercive egalitarianism is contrary to human nature.
3. Is coercive egalitarianism desirable? Coercive egalitarianism, the doctrine of complete social and economic equality
of human beings, logically implies a world of identical, faceless, interchangeable people. Such a world sounds much more like
a nightmare than a dream, and indeed it is.
Perhaps no nation on earth has come closer to complete economic and social equality than Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Under
Pol Pot’s regime entire populations were forcibly marched out of cities and everyone, regardless of age, sex, skills
or previous social status, was forced to labor with primitive agricultural implements on collective farms. In Pol Pot’s
Cambodia, everyone had to think, work and believe the same; dissenters were killed on the spot.
In northern Cambodia stands the remains of one of Pol Pot’s “model villages.” The houses are neat, clean
and completely identical. Nearby sits a mass open grave with hun dreds of human skeletons—the pitiful remains of those
who displayed the slightest individuality. The village and mass grave are a fitting symbol of the fruits of coercive egalitarianism.
While coercive egalitarianism masquerades as an ethical doctrine, in fact it is the opposite. Ethics presumes that one
can make a distinction between right and wrong for human beings. But coercive egalitarianism demands that we treat people
equally, regardless of their differences, including differences in virtue. To demand that virtuous and villainous people—for
example, Thomas Edison and Charles Manson—be treated equally, is to make ethical distinction impossible in principle.
In summary, coercive egalitarianism is illogical because it never defines precisely what “equality” consists
of; it is unrealistic because it requires that we deny our values; and it is undesirable because it ultimately requires a
society of human insects.
While coercive egalitarianism fails as an ethical doctrine, many contentions based upon coercive egalitarianism nevertheless
remain emotionally compelling to many people. Let us now examine some of those contentions.
Myths of Egalitarianism
1. Social and economic inequality are a result of coercion, an accident of birth, or unfair advantage. Let us consider
these contentions one at a time.
It is certainly true that some inequality is a result of coercion in such forms as conquest, theft, confiscatory
taxes or political power. But it is hardly true that all inequality is a result of coercion. A person can, after all, become
wealthy or popular because he or she is highly talented or extremely inventive, and talent and invention coerce no one.
Being born wealthy certainly constitutes an advantage, but hardly an insurmountable or unfair one. Sociological studies
in the United States and Europe show tremendous mobility between lower, middle and upper classes, despite advantages and disadvantages
of birth. Except for all but the greatest fortunes, one’s parents’ wealth and success are no guarantee of one’s
own wealth or success. And there is nothing immoral about helping out one’s own children as much as possible. Such aid
takes away nothing to which anyone else is entitled.
Last, there is the argument that being born with below average intelligence, or strength, or attractiveness constitutes
an “unfair disadvantage.” Here egalitarianism reveals itself to be (in the words of Dr. Murray Rothbard) “a
revolt against nature.” We can either act rationally and rejoice in our diversity and make the most of the abilities
we do have, or we can damn nature and hate everyone who is in any way better than we are and attempt to drag them down to
our level. I leave it to you which is the more rational and humane policy.
2. If people would only share the world’s bounty equally, there would be enough for everyone, and no one need
starve or be seriously deprived. This contention is based upon two false assumptions: (a) that wealth is a natural resource,
so one person’s gain is another’s loss; and (b) that if the world’s wealth were equally redistributed it
would remain constant.
Wealth in fact is a product of human productivity and invention. Some people are poor not because others are wealthy,
but because the poor are insufficiently productive (often because of authoritarian political systems).
Any attempt to redistribute the world’s wealth by force would also greatly diminish the total wealth in existence
for at least three reasons: (a) large scale redistribution would disrupt the world’s productive machinery, (b) confiscation
of wealth would destroy the incentive to produce more (why bother producing if it’s going to be taken from you anyway),
and (c) the process of redistribution would require an enormously costly and essentially parasitic bureaucracy. (Not to mention
losses from shooting people who resist, and starvation from bureaucratic inefficiency and mistakes.)
The cure for poverty is more productivity, less state economic intervention, and an end to barriers to trade. The cure
is not redistribution of wealth.
3. It is better that everyone be poor than for some to have more than others. Better for whom? For the middle class
and wealthy stripped of their property? For the poor robbed of the possibility of ever improving their lot?
The production and accumulation of wealth is the benchmark of human progress. Wealth in the form of better communications
systems, environmental control, pest control, improved transportation, better medical care, more durable and attractive clothing,
more comfortable housing and so on, ad infinitum, improves the quality and increases the quantity of human life and
makes possible leisure, science and art. To attack wealth is to attack an essential condition for the achievement of virtually
every human value from the fulfillment of physiological needs, to safety, to the pursuit of beauty and truth.
This argument reveals the ultimate and ugly motive of many egalitarians: A hatred of human ability per se. By that hatred
they betray their human heritage and would condemn men to exist at the level of barbarians.
Free and Unequal vs. Coercive Egalitarianism
Equality of rights and equality under the law are preconditions for any just and humane society. But such political equality
is the very antithesis of coercive egalitarianism.
Coercive egalitarianism asserts that people ought to be made equal by force, and that ability and virtue should
be ignored or punished to bring all people down to the lowest common denominator.
The disabilities of others should evoke our compassion. But those disabilities do not justify the forced looting of the
productive or the obliteration of liberty in the name of some undefined concept of equality.
The natural order of human society is diversity, variety and inequality. The fruits of that natural order are progress,
productivity and invention. In the final analysis, virtue and compassion can only flourish in a world of men and women free
and unequal. www.fee.org
We sometimes fail to recognize the great conflict between
two of our ideals—liberty and equality. In fits of utopianism, we have assumed that our minds are social and political
alchemists, deriving gold from whatever process we believe in. The romantic pursuit of two ideals is leading to the failure
of both. Unless we can constrain our desires to the dictates of reality, we will become tyrannized by our own dreams.
"Equality" can mean equal material goods and income,
equal social status, and equal general success and "happiness" in life. Or, it can mean equality before the law, which is
in a different and higher category, and without which liberty would be precarious. However, there is no necessary connection
between equality before the law and equal property, power, and so forth. Equality before the law is the "natural" state
in a political society, but equality of goods and social life in general is "unnatural," and would take a great amount of
regulation and coercion to achieve and sustain.
I define liberty as the absence of coercion, the individual’s
right to do whatever he chooses with his life and property as long as he does not directly harm others. There are other definitions
of liberty currently being bounced around; however, we will use the concept that does not necessitate the state’s constant
empirical coercion of the individual in order to reach a higher metaphysical realm of freedom.
Even Rousseau conceded that broad natural inequalities
exist at birth. This fact has seemed evident to all men at all times, aside from certain skeptics in the last century. Many
philosophers or theologians have affirmed the theoretical or theological equality of man at birth; however, few have argued
that men are born equal in all capacities. The concept of natural equality of rights is a product of the natural law school
of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nineteenth century socialists, with "social justice" as their measure of reality,
worked out some attractive conclusions from the assumption that men are born equal in all capacities, so they decided their
premise must be true. Lenin’s plans for the end of the division of labor, allowing all men to do all jobs, is a typical
There have been schools of biology and psychology which
upheld the banners of genetic equality, but these seemed more inspired by political conviction than by concrete evidence.
In both these areas, present trends show greater concessions to hereditary inequality. As not all men are uniform, they
are often different; as they are different, inequalities must result (unless we believe in only "equal" differences).
No one would dispute the fact of great differences
in potential physical structure at birth (some were born to be five feet tall, and others six feet five inches); however,
as soon as one speculates that the physically-determining genes might not be entirely and radically different from the
mentally-determining genes, screams of "racist" and "elitist" fill the air. But why would the physically and mentally determining
genes be so very different in their structure? If some universal orderer did design the plan, why would He allow such obvious
physical inequalities to coincide with such perfect mental equality? Also, taking the evolutionist view, certain different
physical traits have evolved from the challenge of various environments; is it not also likely that certain broad mental
differences would evolve from the same cause?
Regulating the Environment
But even conceding for argument’s sake genetic
equality, how could the environment be insured against creating inequalities? Even individuals who are (hypothetically) exactly
the same develop differences when subjected to different influences. Free societies, by their very nature, are very diverse,
influencing different people countless different ways in various places and times. If one wished to see equality preserved,
one would need to have tight controls over the influences on every individual. In order to preserve an equal people, an equal
and uniform environment would need to be enforced.
Egalitarians might argue that the state could raise
all the children, shaping them in order to equalize them. But this would create a leviathan state likely to suppress
the people, destroy the family unity and all the freedom and autonomy that accompany it, and lead to a lifetime of coercion
in order to preserve freedom to be equal. Others would contend that with the proper regulations and order in a society,
inequalities would be prevented, while "freedom" was preserved.
But what is the value of freedom if the individuals
are not allowed to use their "liberty" as they see fit? The society has sacrificed all the realities of liberty to the preservation
of a metaphysical phantom of equality. Free society implies the maximum of individual choice, limited only by the physical
safety of other individuals. Perhaps socialists and egalitarians consider inequality unsafe, and thus justify multiplying
the restraints and coercion of individuals to achieve a "truer" liberty.
Again, if a society is truly free, a high amount of
diversity will exist. Individuals will choose different paths, some for the better, some for the worse. But to have one narrow
level road, and to actively restrain people from going on their own, to quickly drag down anyone with aspirations for
mountain climbing: this is neither free nor healthy.
Somewhere in the intellectual fog of the past century,
inequality per se became associated with injustice. Currently many people have guilty consciences if they observe inequalities
which have not been leveled. They think what adverse psychological effects the individual’s excellence has on the group
ego, and seek to crush all such excellence in the name of egalitarian utility. When the denial of empirical facts becomes
a moral obligation, both intellect and morality are in deep trouble.
The achievement of economic equality would destroy
almost all economic liberty. Anyone above a certain low level would have most of his income and property confiscated. Some
would condone this in the name of justice and utility. However, if any freedom means or is worth anything to the common
man, it is usually economic freedom. The average person does not express radical opinions or act as an extreme nonconformist.
Humanity always has had few philosophers and radicals.
But, especially in recent centuries, the spirit of economic competition and accumulation has permeated the masses.
This is a major cause of the West’s current high standard of living. We can morally condemn the people, tell them
they should desire other things, and destroy all outlets of competition. However, would this not be a great infringement on
their liberty? If the common man is assigned a certain job in a certain place, dictated his salary, told his hours, will
his conception of his personal freedom not greatly suffer?
A Deadly Alternative
Granted, contemporary capitalism is far from perfect
competition; but, with an obsession for absolutes, we should not abandon an incomplete liberty for a perfect servitude.
Much of the life of the common man (constant TV, loud stereo, alcohol, and the like) is stimulated by an urge to escape
from boredom, though there is also a pervading sense of insecurity. To guarantee them a job and welfare might make life intolerably
unchallenging for them.
As always, with liberty comes the possibility of failure.
If the humanitarians who cannot bear to see individuals suffer for their own errors continue their efforts, we soon will have
a whole society suffering from (due to) the ignorance of the "humanitarians." To take from a person all incentive and responsibility
for his own success and prosperity would naturally destroy much of the challenge and excitement of life. What could possibly
be more boring than a guaranteed low level of success through fifty working years, with no chance to rise above or fall
below official standards?
Given the different desires and capacities of individuals,
economic equality could only be preserved by economic tyranny. The state would need tremendous control and power over all
the people. Economic equality would for all practical purposes destroy private property, thus undermining the foundation
of civil, political, and individual freedom. When the state owns or supplies all the necessities of life, any dissent can
easily be starved out. Capital is needed for successful dissent and criticism, and economic equality would destroy almost
all capital sources. Freedom of speech and press are hollow when the state feeds the speaker and owns the press. In a free
economy, dissenting opinions almost always can find employment and support from some source.
To try to insure social equality would be to fight
many of the most "natural" (in the sense of constant historical existence) tendencies in man. Again, society, being composed
of different people with different tastes, will form into different groups and segments, according to people’s values
and choice. With numerous different groups with different values, some are likely to be thought of as better than others.
A hierarchy will establish itself in people’s attitudes, and social discrimination (liking some more than others)
The only alternative to social inequality is the
greatest tyranny imaginable, not allowing any groups to form, not allowing anyone any knowledge about anyone else. Where
there is information, there is judgment; and where there is judgment, there likely will be discrimination.
The place for the reformer to battle social inequality
is in the thoughts and values of the members of society, not solely in the empirical arrangement. The state can pass decrees
demanding an equal and universal love and concern, but this will only be as effective as any other metaphysical, romantic
delusion. Social equality will be gained only in the hearts of men, not from the laws of the state.
Not the Inequality, But the Coercion
As long as economic inequality exists and the population
is not uniform in every way, social inequality will exist. But inequality is only an evil when it is directly coercive
or oppressive. To assume that everyone has an equal right to any thing or position that anyone else has, is to call forth
the great leveler of all progress, excellence, and sanity.
Some have believed that liberty must be equal, or else
it is not liberty. However, liberty, being the absence of coercion rather than the presence of some material good,
is not measurable. And, since different people have different tastes, desires, and values, they will use their liberty
in different (and hence, "unequal") ways. To insist that all use their liberty the same would destroy it. Some socialists
argue that, due to different social and economic conditions, some have more liberty than others. Again, excessive desire
for equality of anything leads to restrictions and organization.
If freedom means the absence of coercion, then those
are more free who are less coerced. But if we assume coercion to come mainly from government, then the lack of coercion
would be basically equal for all, assuming equality before the law. If, as socialists do, we consider coercion to come from
unsatisfied desires, then, as some are more satisfied than others, they are unjustly more free. If we accepted such "reasoning,"
we could get into all sorts of clever paradoxes and doubtful demands, which only some Hegelian or Marxist who believed
in the "negation of the negation" could resolve.
The true liberty (absence of coercion) and the most valuable equality
(before the law) can and must exist together. When we begin blindly pursuing absolutes and romantic ideals, we can only expect
our empirical conditions to suffer. The fiery passion of the first "Liberté, Egalite, Fraternité" led to despotism,
and we must expect the same pitfall if we follow the same path. As Trotsky said, history cannot be cheated: if we repeat the
past’s delusions, we must also repeat their downfalls. We are surrounded by the relics of liberty smashed on the insatiable
altar of equality: we can either clear our minds and begin reconstructing, or we can continue appeasing the deity of our time.
But if we choose the latter, we must also doom the future to despotism. www.fee.org
No one touts the phrase
"all men are created equal" more than the egalitarian and no one considers its true meaning less than he. In the human context,
equality refers to the fundamental identity of man which is equally applicable to all individuals: A rational animal—i.e.,
an animal possessing the faculty of reason. It is this self-evident truth of man’s nature that gives rise to human
rights—those conditions of man’s nature that are required for his proper survival and which define and sanction
his freedom of action in a social context. And it is man’s rights that give meaning to the concept of equality. Equality
is an ethical-political concept, meaning that by their nature all men possess equal and inalienable rights to life,
liberty and property. It measures man’s political relationship to other men and to political authority, meaning: (1)
that all men should have equal status before the law and (2) that each person should enjoy equal conditions of civil freedom,
asserted by objective law and based on human rights, in order to achieve whatever goals his own intelligence and industry
right — the one on which all others depend — is the right to his own life. The phrase, "all men are created equal,"
means that all men are born with the right to life and the rights inherent in the ownership of life. But the process of living
is not something done to man; rather it is continuous action that he must generate and sustain. Similarly, the actualization
of human rights must be performed by the individual according to standards appropriate to his survival. He must act to
achieve and maintain the values of life to which rights pertain and it is by that action that he asserts his independence
of other men. This is the point made by Thomas Jefferson in his original (but later edited) declaration that all men are created
equal and independent. Stressing the independence of man underscores the fact that human rights begin and end with
the individual; that they are not permissions, privileges, or conditions granted to men by social institutions, by the law,
or by one’s neighbors; that institutions should only protect and preserve them, and one’s neighbors should only
We cannot speak of equal
rights without also considering the independent nature of man. Any attempt to do so is an attempt to bypass the objective
evidence of man’s separateness and in the end to render the role of reason in his existence as null and void.
Few stop to question the
egalitarian standards that dictate the meaning they attach to the concept of equality, and in every occasion of their misuse
of it the definition of man’s rights is further evaded. The most prevalent misuse of equality occurs in the use of the
concept of equal opportunity. Those who would subject man to the rule of faith refer to "opportunities" as though they
were inexplicable miracles occurring in reality by the grace of a supernatural power. Those who see man as the servant of
society’s "will" refer to "opportunities" as though they were arbitrary privileges dispensed by a feudal lord to his
When some egalitarians
advocate equal opportunity, they mean that men of excellence should be reduced to the lowest common denominator of the least
among them. Others advocate it meaning that the least among men should be raised by efforts other than their own to the level
of men of excellence. Today we witness an alliance of the two: on the one hand, there is the demand that all men be given
the opportunities and rewards of excellence whether or not they value excellence and have the will and ability to attain it.
On the other hand, we are
surrounded by those who proclaim that the best life for man is that he rise no higher than the lowest among him — that
to do otherwise is necessarily to exploit his neighbor’s weakness and misfortune. The result of this alliance exists
in the person who would bypass the cause and identity of excellence and declare that the worst performance be deemed the excellent.
Mediocrity is his vested interest and the destruction of merit is his goal. Such are the distortions of the concept of opportunities,
made possible by the evasion of man’s nature and the rights it entails.
What does the concept really
mean and how is it related to the concept of equal rights?
Just as the principle of
individual rights gives meaning to the concept of equality, so does it give meaning to the concept of "opportunity." As rights
are defined as "conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival," opportunities are defined
as situations, conditions, occasions or a combination of circumstances of man’s social existence that are favorable
for the attainment of a goal. There is an attempt by some egalitarians to equate opportunities with rights; but while
rights give meaning to opportunities, they are not interchangeable concepts. An individual has no more right to opportunities
than he has to happiness; but as in the case of happiness and all rewards of successful living, he does have the right to
pursue opportunities. Man’s rights are his by moral principle and by his nature. An individual’s opportunities
are his by moral principle and by his choice; they are the resulting expressions of man’s rights. Man’s rights
are self-evident, but his opportunities are not. They do not spring forth like the goddess Athena from the head of Zeus, fully
formed and perfected. As with everything else man needs, opportunities must be discovered by his mind and brought into existence
by his effort.
Just as all living organisms
must generate the course of action that is biologically appropriate for their survival, man — the being of conceptual
consciousness — must initiate the course of action necessary to create and choose opportunities — the intellectual
and social conditions appropriate to his survival. The fundamental condition that man requires for his survival is the right
to freedom —intellectual and political freedom. The right to intellectual freedom is the right to make the voluntary,
uncoerced choice to think or not to think. The corollary of man’s right to intellectual freedom is his
right to political freedom — the right to make the voluntary, uncoerced choice to act or not to act. Just as
man’s survival requires that his mind be free of the interference of ignorance, fear, guilt and irresponsibility, so
does it require that his social existence be free of the forceful interference of others. Political freedom affords man the
opportunity to attain such social goals as peaceful coexistence, profitable exchange and accumulation of knowledge and material
goods, security and safety of person and property.
Opportunities are not the
cause of individual freedom, but a consequence of such freedom. All the opportunities in the world can be of no use
to a man who is not intellectually free to use them to his advantage. And a man who is not intellectually independent cannot
create opportunities, or determine with any confidence which conditions and circumstances in his environment are potential
opportunities (i.e., appropriate to achieving his goals), or potential adversities (i.e., inimical to achieving his goals).
Individuals differ in the
methods and standards by which they identify, evaluate and choose opportunities. The opportunities a man creates and chooses
depend on the extent of his knowledge, context, interests and values. One’s knowledge of the existence of opportunities
does not guarantee that he can or will take advantages of them. A tribal priest may learn that his village sits atop a vast
oil field. But if he does not discover the scientific means of extracting the oil and then choose the proper economic means
of converting oil into a marketable commodity of exchange, the bituminous mixture of hydrocarbons will remain where it is
and be of no practical meaning or use to him at all.
He may encounter men who
are willing to apply their knowledge to its extraction and use, but refuses their assistance because he believes the oil is
the drink of evil spirits that habitate the earth below. In such case, it is not the fault of those who realize the potential
opportunities inherent in the extraction and marketing of the oil that the tribal priest continues to live in squalid conditions.
The choice is his and he alone is responsible for the consequences of his choice.
In this instance, it is
not even the man’s lack of knowledge that hinders him from choosing to achieve the opportunities that the production
of oil would afford him.
It is his lack of intellectual
freedom — his enslavement to the idea that the oil is not his to use but belongs to evil beings underground —
that holds him at a level of primitive subsistence rather than the more beneficial level that industrial productivity provides.
It is not easy to live
and produce in a society based on freedom of the individual and where success is measured by individual initiative. The issue
in America is not so much whether men have equal political freedom to create and choose opportunities, but whether in an atmosphere
of social freedom, they will choose the intellectual independence necessary to take advantage of that freedom. The responsibility
to maintain the intellectual sovereignty one needs to achieve opportunities is always his own. A man whose mind is locked
by his belief in underground spirits, by psychedelic drugs or by public opinion polls is automatically locked out of the opportunities
of political freedom.
and the Law
Because all men are equal
in their possession of a rational faculty, they need moral laws that treat them as equals. But there is a further reason
why men must be equal before the law: to protect each individual’s execution of his capacity to reason. If all
men executed their reason in the same way and to the same degree, they would be robots instead of men and there would be no
need for the social recognition of reason or rights. It is the inequality of men — the unidentical conditions of human
existence that individuals create for themselves — that objective law must give identical protection and preservation.
Social reformers tell us
that unless men have the same social opportunities, they cannot know individual freedom. All the political freedom in the
world can be of no use to a man who is hungry and indigent, they say. But it is the man who is hungry and indigent who needs
intellectual and political freedom the most. He needs intellectual freedom in order to discover the means of changing his
situation; he needs political freedom in order that his activity will be protected from the interference of others. A hungry
man in a slave state is limited to accepting whatever someone else does to eliminate his hunger (and that could very well
include sentencing him to death as undernourished and therefore useless to his masters); but the hungry man in a free state
is limited solely by his own choice. He may seek food by his own means; he may rely on the charity of others to maintain his
life; or —he may enlist the power of government to create special conditions that guarantee his livelihood at the expense
Egalitarians say that if
men are equal in their identity as Man, they should live equally; that if individuals have equal status before the law, then
it is the purpose of the law to provide the means by which they can achieve equal status in fact. The law, they say, cannot
operate to give equal justice to men whose knowledge, values and productivity are unequal. The law cannot address itself objectively
to the prince and the pauper, the manager and the laborer, or the educated and the uneducated. Therefore, they conclude, to
insure equal treatment from the law, the circumstances of men must be made equal. Men must be all princes or paupers —
all managers or laborers — all educated or all uneducated.
But the state of collective
equality in which social evangelists would have men exist clashes with reality and contradicts the independent nature of man.
There can be no justice without political equality; but social equality is unfair — a breach of justice and a threat
to political equality. Social equality requires that men lose respect for their own freedom and individuality; it requires
that they become indifferent to the manifestations of individuality on the part of others. It requires that men be equals,
not in freedom but in slavery.
The law — objective
law — addresses itself to man’s mind, not to his social position, his pocketbook, his stomach, or his academic
credentials. The idea that government must provide or create opportunities for men is a contradiction in terms which ignores
the proper relationship of political authority to individuals and evades the role of man’s free will in the creation
and pursuit of opportunities. Government’s function is not to provide opportunities but to protect those which the individual
creates for himself. Government cannot provide opportunities without also violating man’s rights. And in a society where
man’s rights are not protected and his nature as a rational being is not respected the issue of opportunities is moot.
Opportunities are favorable
conditions of human existence but they are not unlimited. The opportunities of one man can extend no further than where
the rights of another man begin. When one man trespasses another’s property to catch fish in his lake, what he perceives
as an opportunity to catch a meal is not an opportunity to which he is entitled, since the lake and the fish in it are the
property of someone else. He has the right to create the means for feeding himself, but he does not have the right to a court
order forcing the owner of the lake to give up his fish.
When men attempt to bypass
reality by invoking the force of government to create opportunities for themselves at the expense of the rights of other men,
the conditions they create are not opportunities as such, but political privileges: special advantages peculiar to themselves
that exempt them from the usual course of law. They wish to be excluded from the conditional nature of opportunities —to
secure a guarantee against effort — to render effects immune to their causes — to secure protection against the
facts of reality.
A widely disputed speech
regarding the issue of equal opportunities was made by the ex-slave and educator, Booker T. Washington, in 1895 before an
audience of Negro and white southerners at the Atlanta Exposition. In that address he stated: "the wisest among my race understand
that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all privileges
that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing." By "privileges"
Washington meant socio-economic privileges those rewards of opportunity that are the achievements of individuals and
not the province of governmental policy and administration. As opposed to political privileges, socio-economic privileges
are autonomous advantages that are achieved voluntarily and meritoriously within the confines of the law. Not all socioeconomic
privileges are honestly or justly earned but they are, by definition, achieved by lawful means. Political privileges, on the
other hand, are achieved not within the law but by distortion of the law; they are not earned but exist as the spoils of legalized
of Equal Opportunity
Equal opportunity does
have a legitimate meaning: equal political freedom to create and choose conditions and circumstances favorable to man’s
existence. The concept properly refers to the political freedom to act and express oneself as an independent individual.
It means that as each man has the freedom to think, so must each man have equal freedom from the interference of those who
choose not to think; that if man is to express his thinking, equal freedom from the interference of others is necessary in
order that such expression may be manifest; that as each man must survive as an end in himself — as the owner of his
life and person — so must each man have equal freedom to control his environment to produce what is needed for his survival;
that the moral conditions of each man’s existence (his rights) must be given equal recognition and legal protection
by objective law.
It is here that equal opportunity
among men ends. Anything less than this must be identified as a condition of slavery; anything more than this must
be identified as a condition of political privilege. The principle of equal opportunity operates as a restriction on
governmental power, commanding government to leave each man to pursue the values of his life as he sees fit. It is not the
role of government to determine what values a man should pursue — nor to hire think-tank intellectuals to declare what
values should guide a man’s life. The government is as much prohibited from interfering with a person’s success
as with his failures. It is just as much an encroachment on personal freedom when the government acts to circumvent private
failure as when it acts to promote personal success or to impede the success of one’s competitors.
It is not the business
of government to guarantee success or safety — only to uphold the right of each person to act upon the opportunities
he perceives. www.fee.org