In 1808 Hendrick Aupaumut—a Mahican leader and former captain in the Continental Army—wrote to Thomas Jefferson of his people’s struggle to find a “Sure habitation” in the rapidly expanding new nation. Captain Hendrick’s story is immediately recognizable to anyone with a passing familiarity with United States history:
We were compelled to move from place to place… We have been Seeking a habitation for our tribes for a number of years—at last have Settled down on the land along the white River… They granted to us to occupy & possess Said Land for the benefit & behalf of our tribes & their posterity… By observing the population of the United States—It appears to us—that all Indian Claims on that Country will be extinguished by the white people before long—The land on which we wish to dwell all our days—will inevitably be Sold from under the feet of our poor Children after us—In that case what will become of them?
President Jefferson responded to Captain Hendrick’s despair with a grand and hopeful vision of the tribes’ future flourishing. Mr. Jefferson welcomes intermarriage and intermingling between American settlers and the native people, and he sees a promising future for Captain Hendrick’s tribe in America. But that promise is predicated on assimilation:
If you wish to increase your numbers you must give up the Deer & buffalo, live in peace and cultivate the earth… Give every man a farm, let him inclose it, cultivate it, build a warm House on it, and when he dies let it belong to his wife and children after him… You will unite yourselves with us, join in our great Councils and form one people with us and we shall all be Americans, you will mix with us by marriage, your blood will run in our veins, and will spread with us over this great Island… I wish [your people] to live in peace with all people, to teach their Young Men to love agriculture, rather than war & hunting…
To twenty-first-century ears, aspects of President Jefferson’s letter sound shockingly condescending—in keeping with convention and Captain Hendrick’s manner of address, President Jefferson refers to Captain Hendrick as “my son” and his tribe as “my children,” for instance. Still, compared to many earlier and later European and American responses to the Native Americans, Thomas Jefferson’s letter is remarkable in its open-handedness and its recognition of the Native Americans’ shared humanity. His words are suffused with liberality and even hospitality. That generosity and promise, though, entirely depended on Captain Hendrick’s tribe giving up and rejecting their distinct way of life and living instead under the foreign laws and customs of the young American republic.
President Jefferson’s letter, in other words, implicitly assumes an antagonistic relationship between difference and equality. In so doing he reveals a generally unspoken premise that has often plagued many of the various movements that have, over the past two centuries, sought equality for the unequal and voices for the voiceless. This mindset suggests that in order to have equality you cannot have difference. Indeed, sameness and equality become indistinguishable. As a result, the work of ensuring equality transforms into the task of erasing difference.
This assumption dominates the thinking and actions of other European colonists and American settlers who sought a place for Native Americans, both before and after President Jefferson. The attitude can be found, too, among those fighting for the equality of Jews in nineteenth-century Germany. And, despite an abundance of multicultural language embracing diversity, it constitutes the unspoken premise of advocates for equal rights in debates that rage today.
A few decades after Thomas Jefferson wrote to Captain Hendrick, German liberals in the Lower Chamber of the Grand Duchy of Baden voted in favor of Jewish emancipation for the first time in history. The law, which ultimately stalled in the Upper Chamber, would have given Jews in Baden full equality with Christians, eliminating restrictions on political offices and military positions and granting full freedom to move from town to town.
In a fascinating study of “religious politics” in early nineteenth-century Baden, historian Dagmar Herzog examines the convoluted development of the fight for Jewish equality in the 1840s. The Lower Chamber’s sudden embrace of Jewish emancipation in 1846, she argues, had less to do with “a commitment to universal equality” and more to do with “’liberals’ hatred of conservative Catholicism” and fear of its emergence as a political force in Baden. Even still, significant figures within Badenese liberalism developed remarkably philo-semitic ideas and attitudes. While conservative Catholics in Baden asserted the immutable differences and essential inferiority of Jews, upholding the necessity of barriers between Jews and Catholics, radical liberals formed a social club uniquely inclusive of Jews and women. For leading figures in the club, full political equality represented a necessary step and not a final goal. They wished, radically at the time, to bring about true social equality as well.
As with Mr. Jefferson’s attitude toward the Native Americans, the philo-semitism of German liberals should not be underestimated or scorned because of its limits. Still, those limits should be recognized. Here, as with President Jefferson, assimilation formed the under-girding premise of equality. In rejecting the prejudicial barriers established by conservative Catholics, liberals rejected too, the idea of difference. Equality and difference became irreconcilable. Advocates for Jewish equality disagreed about whether assimilation should precede emancipation or whether emancipation would itself bring about assimilation—but, one way or another, assimilation was expected and assumed. Moreover, bitter frustration with the obstinacy and intolerance of conservative Christianity shifted some toward rejecting the validity of confessional differences altogether. These limitations expose what Ms. Herzog calls the “authoritarian underside” of philo-semitism. Philo-semitic liberals saw a place for Jews in German society, but it was entirely predicated on “erasure of group differences.” That is, Jews had the right to participate as equals in German society—so long as they stopped doing or being anything that made them distinctly Jewish.
At first glance, the idea that equality and sameness must go hand-in-hand seems to have Christian origins. It is our shared status as beings created in the image of God, one might say, that makes us equal. But in the Biblical context “equality” may be too weak a word. A mosquito is equal to another mosquito, after all, but that says nothing about the mosquito’s value. It is possible to be equally contemptible. And while the modern concept of equality condemns discrimination, it has no positive demands. Asserting the equality of each person makes no statement about each person’s dignity, and so it cannot engender respect.
Better, perhaps, to speak of each person’s unfathomable and infinite worth. The Christian doctrine of the Imago Dei, rooted in the first chapter of Genesis, accords this unlimited value to each person. This worth does not rely on appearances or ability or any other means of measuring one person against another. It inheres in human nature because of our status as part of the creation that God deemed “very good” and because we, alone among creation, bear the stamp of God’s own likeness. The worth of human beings, therefore, exists independent of human activity. It originates in God’s creative act and cannot be undone or eliminated through human action or behavior no matter how disgusting, repulsive, or indeed wicked.
While human worth is universal, human dignity is fully realized—and the divisions between us are transcended—through incorporation into the body of Christ. In Galatians 3, St. Paul lists a series of pairs: Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. His audience would have immediately recognized these as pairs distinguished by inequality, by superiority, or inferiority. But Paul shockingly claims that these distinctions are irrelevant for those who have put on Christ through baptism—“for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Temporal categories of greater and lesser have no effect on the Christian doctrine of human dignity. This allows Christianity to embrace difference in a unique and powerful way. Or, rather, it should. Historically speaking, Christian proselytization has very often involved cultural annihilation and erasure of difference. This constitutes a failure on the part of Christians to properly embrace the Biblical picture of created humanity. Ever since St. Paul spoke of many members of one body in 1 Corinthians 12, the promise of worth in difference has been part of the Christian story. And, at times, that promise has been reality.
Care for the poor, the despised, and the outcast distinguished early Christianity from the surrounding pagan culture of imperial Rome. The Roman emperor Julian’s famous “Epistle 22” attests to this remarkable reality. Julian earned his epithet, “the Apostate,” by converting from Christianity to paganism and by subsequently attempting to wrench the newly baptized empire back into paganism—or, more accurately, into a new post-Christian form of paganism. He wrote Epistle 22 to Arsacius, the pagan high priest of Galatia, to advise the latter in combatting Christianity effectively. In so doing Julian provides a general sketch of Christianity’s remarkable reputation for charity and compassion. “It is their benevolence to strangers,” he claims, “their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism”—by which he meant Christianity (because of their rejection of the pagan gods, Christians were often referred to as atheists). Julian further bemoans that “the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well.”
Disabled persons were among those discarded outcasts of pagan society cared for by the Church. On Volume 116 of Mars Hill Audio Journal, theologian Brian Brock explores the various ways Christians and the Church have responded to disabled persons throughout history. He contrasts Christian charity—the expression of Christ’s love and care for his children—with the disability rights movement of the 20th century. In general Christian care for the disabled has operated from an assumption of interdependence and thus an embrace of the difference between the caregiver and the receiver of care. In contrast, the disability rights movement and its crowning achievement, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), explicitly intends independence and self-reliance. Undoubtedly this movement and Act have improved and enriched the lives of countless persons. Still, as with Thomas Jefferson and the Germans, appreciation for goodness ought not blind us to limits. Practically speaking, most measures of the Act’s aim to achieve equality through the elimination of difference.
A careful look at many of the debates raging today shows the broad influence of that premise. A similar mindset is at work as churches and society consider differences between the sexes and the meaning of marriage. This mindset suggests that difference and inequality are more or less synonymous, and the consequent impulse to flatten difference has now shifted to the physical human body. In contemporary debates the actuality of the body is discarded as an irrelevance or an inconvenience disguising the reality that we are all the same. Any suggestion that, no, perhaps we are not actually all the same, is condemned as rank intolerance. To acknowledge difference is to create inequality, and so in the name of equality, we must overrule, eliminate, or as a last resort ignore differences—and those who claim the reality of difference.
In the past half-century, American liberals, particularly academics, have lauded diversity and celebrated difference. But that celebration has been, if not superficial, at least partial. In the afterword to a marvelous collection exploring nineteenth-century interactions between German Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, historian Margaret Lavinia Anderson writes, “Our own generation congratulates itself on its commitment to diversity and its embrace of multicultural values. But if ‘multicultural’ is to mean anything at all—that is, if we really do prize difference—then we can hardly desire to erase entirely the ‘bias’ that comes with belonging to a particular religious community and participating the special and surprising message [its] revelation gives to life.’”
If the American liberal celebration of difference has been partial, the American conservative response to difference has been anything but laudable, often marked by fear of difference and xenophobia, by contempt for otherness. Or, to put it Biblically, many American conservatives have poorly served the strangers sojourning among them—strangers God commanded them to love as themselves in Leviticus 19, strangers with whom Our Lord explicitly identified himself in Matthew 25.
In his polemical “historical essay” Atheist Delusions, theologian David Bentley Hart suggests that ancient Christianity’s meteoric rise and broad appeal had little to do with “signs and wonders”—still less with apocalyptic proclamations of hellfire and brimstone for the damned. Instead, the Church’s great appeal lay in its unprecedented message of universal human dignity. We have become deaf to the explosive implications of the Christian story, whether because of liberal preoccupation with equality in sameness or conservative fears of difference. The Church must remind a culture grown hard of hearing of the great creaturely worth of all God’s children. We must remind ourselves of our obligation to love and cherish each human being, no matter how unappealing or even horrifying. We must find new ways to celebrate and explore the diversity of the many members of the body of Christ. And we must love the strangers who sojourn among us.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
Published: Dec 20, 2014
Mark Perkins teaches history at The Covenant School in Charlottesville, Virginia. He has a B.A. in history from Hillsdale College and did graduate work in modern European history at the University of Arizona. He maintains an occasional blog.
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I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves, they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom, and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery.
Alexis de Tocqueville
Believe me, Sir, those who attempt to level never equalize.
While the ideals of freedom and equality are not unique to one age or creed, liberalism differs from its rivals in the specific meaning it attaches to these terms. For a liberal in the original sense, a free society must aim first and foremost at minimizing the exercise of arbitrary power by limiting all coercion to what can be accomplished by equal, invariable, and indiscriminate law. Thus the rule of law, the absence of arbitrary legal privileges or distinctions of status, appears to the liberal as the legal embodiment of freedom and equality alike, and as his greatest and proudest achievement. Other times and peoples have known liberties, but it is liberalism that can take credit for enshrining liberty.
The liberal champion of formal equality before the law will have an eye, to be sure, on inequalities of opportunity, though he will resist the tendency to focus too narrowly on what happens to be most easily quantified; what he will refuse to countenance, however, is the attempt, objectionable in principle but likely also futile in practice, to impress upon society a deliberately chosen pattern of distribution, whether it be an order of equality or of inequality.
I. Freedom, Equality, and Social Justice
A concern with the adverse effect of material inequality is as old as our philosophical tradition, and it is hardly surprising that it should color so much of our political debates. Nonetheless, while the liberal may look with favor upon the incidental equalization that may result from legitimate government action, and while he may consider a high degree of material equality desirable and even admirable, he must be wary of any attempt at forcing such an outcome by means of coercion, on grounds of principle and practicability alike.
Two fundamental problems will immediately confront those seeking to bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth: the difficulty of giving principled backing to any particular pattern, on the one hand, and that of making the pattern stick, on the other. For as Hayek argues at length in his Road to Serfdom, the kind of complete ethical code that might warrant a sustained correction of the outcomes yielded by the spontaneous and uncoordinated interactions and exchanges within a society turns out, upon closer examination, to be full of gaps at best. The hazy vision of social justice that guides much of the debate over redistributional measures does not bear scrutiny, if it means anything at all, and reduces in the final analysis to little more than a vague sense of dissatisfaction that remains strictly negative, parasitical on customary or historical distributions yielded by the market, and that offers little direction beyond taking as much from the rich as possible. Since a free society will not produce the kind of uniform, coherent moral scheme that would be necessary to justify systematic redistribution, the ideal of justice that would govern it cannot be that of a society as a whole, but only that of someone within it.
To give such a conception of social justice meaning, moreover, it would not suffice to impose it selectively, but a whole society would need to be reorganized around it and forced to conform to it continuously. As Robert Nozicks Wilt Chamberlain problem illustrates, free exchange will quickly upset any favored distributional pattern, which cannot therefore be realized without persistent, continuous interference with peoples lives. Even those who favor the pattern in question may thus come to balk at the methods that would be necessary to enforce it as they will in practice find themselves obstructed at every move by the rule of law. While the resulting conflict between the ideal of freedom and the desire to correct the distribution of incomes is not often clearly recognized, the diminished ambitions of most redistributional schemes today may perhaps be taken as an acknowledgement of sorts. Instead of offering any clear-cut plans or really coherent conceptions of what a manipulation of the market for social justice would require, the new tasks set by the ambition of modern man are thus approached as un-principled, in the original meaning of this word, as never before. Thus the standard procedure of the attenuated welfare state, extracting taxes from some in order to make grants to othersall in the name of equality and the eradication of povertyends up producing, in a largely ad hoc manner, an erratic and contradictory mélange of subsidies to special interest groups. Though advocated as an antidote to the vagaries of the market, such piecemeal grants must have the effect of leaving everyone else in an increasingly precarious position. In the end, security itself becomes a privilege.
II. Merit and Value
Closely related to the demand for a less unequal distribution of the good things of the world, and perhaps underpinning much of the sense of injustice driving it, is a feeling that market outcomes do not adequately reflect our intuitions of moral merit. Yet, intuitive as it may seem at first, the demand for remuneration proportionate to ascertainable meritrather than the markets reward in accordance with product, that is, usefulness as assessed by the exchanging partiesquickly runs into daunting difficulties.
A ready source of discontent may be found, for example, in the fact that a free society of any complexity will witness a marked discrepancy between the rewards of individuals within the same profession and even between those possessing the same technical skills or special abilities. Such differences are easily accounted for, however, by the fact that in such a society, a persons ability per se and his success in turning it into a good or service valued by others cannot be separated. As a corollary to an individuals freedom of making his own choices and finding his own way, safe from tutelary instructions by a supervising authority, monetary success will increasingly come to depend not only on abilities in the abstract, but on the concrete skill with which they are put to the right uses. Insofar as the burden of discovering how to make optimal use of our abilities is concerned, the free society makes an entrepreneur of every one of us, with all the attendant frustrations, disappointments, and resentments. Hard as one may find the discipline thus imposed, and bitter as it may be to fail in making oneself as useful to others as one might have been (hence failing as well to reap the rewards of that usefulness), the discipline we may deplore is inseparable from the freedom we cherish. There is a sense, of course, in which we would be relieved of a burden if we were simply told what to do: but few who rue the hard choices they face wish for such relief.
What is more, the hope of ascertaining in a reliable manner the meritorious quality of a given action presupposes just those conditionscomprehensive knowledge of everything that is motivating someonewhose general absence furnishes such a powerful argument for liberty. The information we would need for an adequate assessment of merit is of just the kind that exists nowhere as an integrated whole. In all but the most exceptional circumstances, the very most that could be hoped forand even this may strain credulityis the judgment that a particular service was especially meritorious in the sense of costing its producer particular pain and effort. If we were to be guided by the moral character of an action, however, rather than by the value it has for us as consumers, the allocative dimension of the problem would surely lead us to just the opposite conclusion. For inasmuch as we all have an interest in seeing resources guided to their most productive uses, as the price-mechanism does with such efficiency, we do not wish people to earn a maximum of merit but to achieve a maximum of usefulness at a minimum of pain and sacrifice and therefore a minimum of merit! What is more, one of the most appealing aspects of the free-market order, succinctly developed by Friedman, is precisely that it frees us from the personal judgments others may make about us, thus tending to minimize the expression of prejudices precisely by making all discrimination on the basis of anything other than quality and price relatively costly.
That not only hard work or skill, or foresight, or even a particular knack for making ones abilities serviceable to others, but also sheer chance and good luck should often make a crucial difference to a mans success is sure to grate on those who fail to be so successful through no particular fault of their own. What seems a lot less certain, however, is whether those falling short would be any happier in a more strictly meritorious world, in which their lack of success could be directly and reliably attributed to their own shortcomings. Surely we should at least pause to consider that such a world might be far crueler than even the capriciousness we may deplore and lament. Rather than wishing for a closer relationship between merit and value, perhaps we should acknowledge more frankly that there need not be much of a relationship at all and should check our inclination to ascribe merit where there is in fact only superior value. What is more, as Friedman observes so incisively, competitors tend in fact to resign themselves rather more easily to the blindness of the goddess of chance than to deliberate judgments of relative merit. We might also be disappointed to find envy intensifying, rather than abating, if great strides were ever made towards a more egalitarian world.
III. The Vagaries of Redistribution
True or not, Burkes dictum that too much and too little are treason against property does little to persuade the skeptic. What might give more pause to the advocates of redistribution, however, are the unintended consequences and perverse effects that are likely to result from any serious effort at leveling material fortunes.
Revenue needs to be raised for legitimate state purposes, of course, and surely Adam Smith was right to find it not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion. Hayek and Friedman, too, have little trouble conceding that there are good reasons, when it comes to taxation, for some measure of graduation, both on grounds of assessing costs in accordance with benefits and on grounds of social standards of equity. Where the purpose of reducing inequality takes precedence over the need to raise revenue fairly and effectively, however, more deliberately egalitarian policies quickly reveal a short-sighted and self-defeating dimension. The farce of confiscatory marginal income tax rates approaching a hundred percent on paper, combined with myriad special provisions and loopholes that render them ineffective, has been playing itself out at great length over the past half-century and seems to have run its course at last. Meanwhile the progressive penchant for high marginal rates tempered by exemptions remains alive and wellwith all the resulting capriciousness and real inequality in actual tax levels, all the perverse incentives and pervasive misdirection of resources that it invariably engenders. Perhaps the greatest paradox facing leveling ambition, however, is the fact that taxation hampering the accumulation of wealth will have the unintended side-effect of protecting established fortunes from the competition of newcomers, in fact perpetuating the most glaring inequalities and turning wealth into the very privilege to which both the liberal and the egalitarian stand opposed!
Second, market-incomes no less than other market-prices contain much information that could otherwise be collected only very inadequately. Behind many a seemingly unwarranted discrepancy in income are a host of equalizing factors that need to be considered, and that would be all but impossible to calculate, except in a few cases, without reliance on the information gathering power of the market. A snap-shot of income distributions at any one point in time will fail to distinguish, for one, between merely temporary, short-run differences and long-run differences in income, even though the former is the very mark of a dynamic, socially mobile society as opposed to one dominated by status. What is more, compensation for different kinds of employment will in some measure reflect such factors as their unpleasantness or dangerousness, the difficulty and expense of acquiring a particular skill, the regard in which an activity is held (honor making, as Adam Smith observed, a great part of the reward of all honorable professions), the probability or improbability of success or the shortness of the typical working life in a particular career, and so forth. Anyone who would presume to combine, weigh, and reconcile all these considerations without recourse to market forces would somehow have to overcome the most daunting obstacles.
The more freely market forces are allowed to operate, on the other hand, the more reliably can they fulfill their function of signaling, to those who need to decide what to do with themselves, just what skills or services are in particular demand or especially scarce at the moment. The level of remuneration offered thus transmits some of the vitally important information necessary for an individual to decide where to invest his energies, and creates an incentive to direct them where others value them most. Though market prices cannot, of course, capture inherent or permanent value, and though one may have good reasons to, and must remain free to, pursue activities upon which others place little valueand which may yet prove of great benefit!market valuations do offer a readily available yardstick by which to measure the usefulness of any given endeavor at any given time, and thus a basis for determining whether a particular level of effort, risk, inconvenience, or whatever else, is likely to prove worth the sacrifice or trouble. No such determination can ever be fail-proof, of course, and many actual options may be unappealing; yet such risk, uncertainty, and frustration is but the converse of that unrestricted freedom and opportunity which can only thrive in a society where none but the individual himself bears the responsibility for finding his way. The impediments we will all encounter in the form of unfavorable market valuations are real and serious, and at times truly bitter, but at least they do not reflect anyones disapproving our ends so much as the simple fact that the same means are also wanted elsewhere, by others prepared to put a higher price on them.
If it is true, as Hayek contends, that the parallel growth of knowledge and civilization depends on a process whereby successful institutions and habits are imitated and adopted ever more widely, while less successful ones are correspondingly marginalized or eliminated, then the relative rise of individuals and groups alike is precisely the mechanism by which we are able to advance, and it would be foolish to seek to suppress, let alone eliminate it: If the result of individual liberty did not demonstrate that some manners of living are more successful than others, much of the case for it would vanish. Clearly, then, a free society will unleash a process of creative destruction whose fury will be felt by all, and resented by many, and it would be naive to think that freedom will always console us for what progress may take away, or for the chill we may feel as we face the perennial gale. We cannot count on freedom making us better off, or reliably happier, and we may even find ourselves as much the captives as the masters of our advances. Some may therefore despise liberalism as promising little more than the freedom to make a mess of our lives; still the liberal condition is a distinctive one, with its own great rewards and a vision of true dignity such as no more paternalistic arrangement could offer.
IV. Inequality and Progress
Finally, even granting for the purposes of argument that the principled objections and the practical obstacles to a policy of ruthlessly soaking the rich could somehow be overcome, the results of such a policy are sure to disappoint. There is, for one, the straightforward fact that even billions concentrated in the hands of a relatively few will have only a modest impact when distributed among millions. More fundamentallyand again leaving aside both the most principled and the most practical objections to such a course of actionsuch redistributionist fantasies disregard, to everyones great detriment, the subtle relationship between inequality and the observable course of progress. For, implausible as it may seem at first, we all stand to benefit from the existence of a class of the rich, even if their ways may strike us as often idle and vain, frivolous and wasteful.
Two considerations stand out particularly. First, there is the important role of the wealthy as independent foci of support to foster experimentation and cultural diversity, especially in the arts (never yet adequately supported where the majority has displaced the wealthy patron), but generally wherever else new ideas have fought for recognition. It is too frequently overlooked, as Hayek rightly points out, that action by collective agreement must be limited, by its very nature, to instances where previous efforts have already produced consensus. To advance an unpopular or marginal cause in a free societyoften mere idiosyncrasy and eccentricity, to be sure, but occasionally just the kind of example on which the progress of civilization dependsit may suffice to convince a single wealthy patron, whether engaging his sincere enthusiasm or merely his sense of profit. A society that did not allow such independent centers of support to emerge spontaneously, or found a way to replicate the dynamics of a free society, would soon jeopardize its political health no less than its cultural fecundity.
Then there is a second, more strictly economic, respect in which even the most egalitarian society would have to mimic the dynamics of a free society or else face stagnation. For as Hayek shows in an especially thought-provoking chapter, there is no way of making generally accessible new and still expensive ways of living except by their being initially practiced by some. In a free society, it is initially the wealthy few who, by spending freely on whatever catches their fancy, get to experiment with new goods and lifestyles that cannot yet be more widely dispersed. A different kind of society might find a different basis on which to make such new possibilities available on an experimental basis, for example through deliberately privileging some by political fiat in the very way that liberal society seeks to avoid; whatever the alternative mechanism, however, it is hard to see how even socialist societies could avoid glaring inequalities between their own privileged classes and the masses. What is distinctive about free capitalist society, then, is not that some goods will initially come within reach of only a few, but rather the echelon fashion in which new possibilities will be made much more widely available before long. For in effect, though also inadvertently, the expenditures of the rich will serve to defray the initial cost of experimentation and development that must precede the introduction of any consumer good on a large scale. To put it differently, the rich, while intending nothing of the sort, end up making a free gift of the knowledge acquired by their spending on what often appears, at first, to be no more than frivolity and caprice. Ultimately, then, new things will often become available to the greater part of the people only because for some time they have been the luxuries of the few and the assumption that they would have been created under more egalitarian conditions just as well is as mistaken as it is widespread.
Thus we arrive at the conclusion, counter-intuitive as it may seem at first, that if everyone had to wait until new and better things could be provided for all, that day might never come, and that even the poorest, let alone the broad masses, owe much of their relative material well-being to the results of past inequality. At any given moment, it is true, we might be able to improve the position of the poorest by taking from the wealthiest: But, while such an equalizing of the positions in the column of progress would temporarily quicken the closing-up of the ranks, it would, before long, slow down the movement of the whole and in the long-run hold back those in the rear. That there will also be real waste, bad choices and bad taste, lining the paths of progress is undeniablebut we may well conclude with Hayek that such is everywhere the price of freedom and progress, and that what is squandered by the rich pales by comparison to what is consumed, in the aggregate, by such amusements of the masses as would strike most inhabitants of the world, and most of our own ancestors, as no less extravagant and unnecessary.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, volume II, edited by Phillips Bradley (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 97.
 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, edited by J. G. A. Pocock (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1987), p. 43.
 This essay will use liberal/liberalism in the original sense that still prevails in Europethe rightful and proper label for a philosophy of freedom. (Compare Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982], p. 5.) For a discussion of the issues raised by these terms under contemporary North American conditions, compare Friedrich A. Hayek, Why I Am Not a Conservative, Postscript to The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 397-411 [hereafter Hayek, CL].
 Compare Tocquevilles statement to the French Constituent Assembly of 1848: Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude. (Alexis de Tocqueville, Discours prononcé à lassemblée constituante le 12 septembre 1848 sur la question du droit au travail, uvres complètes dAlexis de Tocqueville , IX, 546. Quoted in Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 29 [hereafter Hayek, RS])
 Hayek, RS 87, 90; CL 88. Thus also Hayek, RS xxxvi: The essence of the liberal position ... is the denial of all privilege. (Compare Ibid. 23, 45)
 Compare Hayek, CL 19, 154, 163. Even Karl Marx bitter indictment of the bourgeois order speaks almost admiringly of the bourgeoisies most revolutionary part in putting an end to the motley feudal ties that bound man to his natural superiors. (Manifesto of the Communist Party, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edition, edited by Robert C. Tucker [New York: Norton, 1978], part I, esp. p. 475.) Thus also Joseph Schumpeters observation that capitalist civilization and its rationalization of the soul rubs off all the glamour ... from every species of classwise rights. (Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy [New York: Harper, 1976], p. 127)
 As both Hayek and Friedman make clear, There is, indeed, a strong case for reducing ... inequality of opportunity as far as congenital differences permit and as it is possible to do so without destroying the impersonal character of the process by which everyone has to take his chance and no persons views about what is right and desirable overrule that of others. Problems arise, however, when the exceedingly complex interplay of nature and nurture, material and non-material factors, by which families transmit their differences is reduced to a question of compensatory redistribution of family wealth. Of course the possibility of passing on material goods is an important factor in perpetuating family traditions and standards, but that does not mean that such transmission is primarily material, let alone pecuniary. Cultural values and customs, moral habits, the intelligence and kindness of parents, and everything else that goes into a good and loving home are surely at least as important, and probably far more so, than the material circumstances in which they are embedded. Perhaps one should give some credit to those who shrink from the colossal presumption of assessing these complex qualitative differences by focusing instead on what can be gauged more readily; by the same token, however, the reduction of inheritance to a matter of money is a crude materialism curiously at odds with the higher motives egalitarians commonly claim for themselves. It might also be noted that rich and powerful parents will always find ways to pass on their wealth and influence, and that the bequest of money is likely to be far cheaper from a social point of view than the alternatives (Hayek, RS 113, CL 89-91; Friedman 163-64).
 A few representative examples are Platos discussion of the two cities in the Republic (423), Aristotles celebration of the middle class (Politics, book IV), Machiavellis reflections on constitutional balance between the different humors in a city, and Hobbes fifth law of nature, demanding complaisance, in his Leviathan, chapter 15.
 Compare Hayek, CL 87-89.
 Hayek, RS 85-86, 109, 120-22; CL 99-100.
 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), pp. 160-64.
 Hayek, RS 38; CL 232.
 Introduction to Hayek, RS, p. xiii (by Milton Friedman). Hayek speaks of that hodge-podge of ill-assembled and often inconsistent ideals ... under the name of the Welfare State. (RS xxxiv)
 Hayek, RS 137, 141-44. Thus Ibid. 141: If you grant to some a fixed part of a variable cake, the share left to the rest is bound to fluctuate proportionally more than the size of the whole. And the essential element of security that the competitive system offers, the great variety of opportunities, is more and more reduced.
 So long as collective measures against the threat of severe privation are undertaken with caution and outside the market, they may be quite legitimateto overcome collective action problems, for example. Thus both Hayek and Friedman are open to some minimal guarantees for the weak and the infirm by means of cash benefits for housing, for example, or a negative income tax, though not without expressing regret at having to substitute compulsory for voluntary action and drawing attention to likely unintended consequences and the dangers of crowding out private efforts (Hayek, RS 133, 146, 230; CL 101; Friedman 178, 190-95). Thus Hayek, CL 257-58: There are common needs that can be satisfied only by collective action and that can thus be provided for without restricting individual liberty. It can hardly be denied that as we grow richer, that minimum of sustenance which the community has always provided for those not able to look after themselves, and which can be provided outside the market, will gradually rise, or that government may, usefully and without doing any harm, assist or even lead in such endeavors.
 As Hayek points out at RS 121, it is certainly not a blind, complete, mechanical equality that people in general consider desirable, not equality in the absolute sense, but only greater equality, or a greater sense of proportion to we know not quite what, that is seriously aimed at.
 Hayek, CL 80-81; RS 107, 124.
 The great problem of society in general, as Hayek formulates it, is precisely how we can all profit from this knowledge, which exists only dispersed as the separate, partial, and sometimes conflicting beliefs of all men. (Hayek, CL 25)
 As Hayek points out, we may on occasion wish to reward exceptionally meritorious actions that have not received adequate recognition or recompense; but these are precisely exceptions that stand apart from the incentives on which the ordinary functioning of society rests (Hayek, CL 99).
 Hayek, CL 96, italics added; compare Friedman 166.
 Friedman 108-111. Compare Hayek, CL 98: [T]he mark of the free man is to be dependent for his livelihood not on other peoples views of his merit but solely on what he has to offer them.
 Hayek, RS 112. Thus also Hayek, CL 98: A society in which it was generally presumed that a high income was proof of merit and a low income of the lack of it ... would probably be much more unbearable to the unsuccessful ones than one in which it was frankly recognized that there was no necessary connection between merit and success.
 Hayek, CL 99, 388; RS 117-19.
 Compare Friedman 166: Despite the lip-service that we all pay to merit as compared to chance, we are generally much readier to accept inequalities arising from chance than those clearly attributable to merit. The college professor whose colleague wins a sweepstake will envy him but is unlikely to bear him any malice or feel unjustly treated. Let the colleague receive a trivial raise that makes his salary higher than the professors own, and the professor is far more likely to feel aggrieved. After all, the goddess of chance, as of justice, is blind. The salary raise was a deliberate judgment of relative merit.
 As Nozick has observed, success in reducing the dimensions of difference would reduce the scope for weighing strategies that favor just the dimension someone happens to do well in. Envy will become more severe as competitors are pitted more directly against each other on the same dimension, creating frustrations among the losers that are much more difficult to reason away (Nozick 245).
 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, edited by Edwin Cannan (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), p. 907.
 Friedman 174 and Hayek, CL 307.
 Today Hayeks principle of limiting the maximum admissible marginal rate of direct taxation to that percentage of the total national income collected in taxation by the government is at least in sight in most countriesthough at higher levels than Hayek would approve (Hayek, CL 323).
 Witness not only the energies and resources wasted directly in pursuit of tax-avoidance strategies, but also the loss consequent to resource-allocation with a view to the taxman, rather than to profitability per seto say nothing of outright tax-evasion. (Compare Friedman 172-176.)
 Compare Friedman 173, Hayek, CL 321.
 Compare Friedman 171.
 Smith 116. Smith offers an intriguing discussion of the Inequalities arising from the Nature of the Employments themselves in book I, chapter X, part I of his Wealth of Nations (pp. 115-136).
 The latter two factors go some way towards explaining the seemingly outsized rewards earned by certain actors and athletes. Success in the former comes closest, perhaps, to Smiths career lottery, in which twenty (or more likely twenty thousand) fail for one that succeeds, and where the one prevailing gains what is forgone by his or her myriad unsuccessful competitors (Smith 122). The length of a professional athletes working life is more narrowly conscribed than most. (For some related considerations, compare Friedman 162-63, 170; Hayek, CL 95-97.)
 Hayek CL 82, 89, 96, 98; RS 42, 55-56, 103, 137, 138. Money has been the object of particular opprobrium, of course, inasmuch as it makes the limitations on our choices painfully obvious. Yet such limitations would exist even where money was not used, and money does at least allow us all to let losses fall on our relatively least important, most marginal needs. In this sense, Hayek is surely right to call it one of the greatest instruments of freedom ever invented by man. The only way we could be relieved of having to make sometimes painful choices would be for someone to make them for us (RS 98-101, 106-107, 113-114).
 The memorable image is Schumpeters (Schumpeter 84).
 Hayek, CL 36, 41, 50-53.
 Or all the individualist rope needed to hang oneself, as Schumpeter puts it (Schumpeter 129, 136).
 Hayek, CL 26, 28, 30, 36, 59.
 Hayek, CL 125-29; Friedman 17-18. It is ironic how much the development of socialist doctrine, and especially of Marxism, owed to precisely this kind of patronage, which it everywhere suppressed once ensconced in power.
 The below discussion draws heavily on Hayek, CL 42-49, 51-52, 130. Compare also Friedman 168, 170.
 Compare Hayek, CL 125-26: If we knew of no better way of providing such a group, there would exist a strong case for selecting at random one in a hundred, or one in a thousand, from the population at large and endowing them with fortunes sufficient for the pursuit of whatever they choose.
 In the real-existing socialisms of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, members of the apparatchik class were of course in just such a privileged position, and the degree of inequality prevailing there in matters of access to scare or foreign goods, opportunities for travel and foreign contacts, or even such basic amenities as apartments, phone service, or standard-issue cars were surely at least pronounced as in the Westas well as being more intractable, surreptitious, and hypocritical.
 Thus Schumpeter 67: It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabrics, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for a steadily decreasing amounts of effort. That in the course of such progress, the wealthy will often be deprived of exclusive advantages for which the masses can eventually compete is also worth considering (Hayek, CL 51).
 We should remember that the stock items of even the most modest households today, like flushable toilets or refrigerators or cars, were not so long ago coveted luxuries undreamt-of by the masses. To take more recent examples from the world of consumer electronics, one might marvel at the pace at which the cell phone or the laptop computer has moved from a plaything of the very rich and ostentatious to an everyday item within reach of virtually everyone. The dismal performance of the East bloc economies in this regardeven then almost entirely parasitic on what had been developed in the Westoffers a cautionary tale that progress of this kind cannot be taken for granted.
* Department of Political Science, UC Davis; email@example.com. This essay was awarded first prize in the 2005 Olive W. Garvey Essay Contest and the author would like to express his thanks and appreciation to The Independent Institute.
|Daniel Pellerin, is a Professor at the National University of Singapore. He also is a winner of The Sir John M. Templeton Fellowships Essay Contest.|
The author would like to express his thanks and appreciation to The Independent Institute.