The eighteenth century writers, seeking to set forth the features of a system of liberty, confronted a European society stratified into orders of rank, caste, and privilege. At the top was royalty and the aristocracy; at the bottom, peasants and serfs. In between were the independent yeomen, the artisans, merchants, and those born to serve. The stratification was not as rigid as, say, Indian society, but it was a society of status where people were locked into their station in life generation after generation. This inequitable social arrangement was reinforced by a set of taboos and, when need be, was enforced by the police power.
The liberating movement of the Enlightenment challenged this monolith with an idea, the idea of equality. Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, elaborated on what he called “the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice.” On this continent, the writers of our Declaration believed it axiomatic that “all men are created equal.” Not “are equal,” not “born equal,” but “created equal.” The created part of a man was his soul—in terms of the metaphysics of the period—and the souls of all men were precious in God’s sight whatever the individual’s outer circumstances. Equality before the law appeared to follow from this premise—the idea of one law alike for all men because all men were one in their essential humanness. But right there the likeness ceased; men were different and unequal in every other way. Equality before the law is political liberty viewed from a different perspective; it is also justice, being a regime under which no man and no order of men are granted a political license issued by the state to use other men as their tools or have any other legal advantage over them.
This “liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice” was central to classical Liberalism. It was never applied one hundred per cent, but what was the result of a partial application of this idea? The results of abolishing political privilege in Europe and organizing a no-privilege society were so beneficial that even the enemies of liberty pay tribute. R. H. Tawney was one of the most gifted of the English Fabians, an ardent socialist and redistributionist, but honest enough to give the devil his due. He writes:
With the abolition of restrictions on freedom of movement, on the choice of occupations, and on the use of land and capital, imprisoned energies were released from the narrow walls of manor and guild and corporate town, from the downward pressure of class status, and from the heavy hand of authoritarian governments, to unite in new forms of association, and by means of them to raise the towering structure of industrial civilization. It was not only in the stimulus which it supplied to the mobilization of economic power that the movement which leveled legal privilege revealed its magic. Its effect as an agent of social emancipation was not less profound. Few principles have so splendid a record of humanitarian achievement…. Slavery and serfdom had survived the exhortations of the Christian Church, the reforms of enlightened despots, and the protests of humanitarian philosophers from Seneca to Voltaire. Before the new spirit, and the practical exigencies of which it was the expression, they disappeared, except from dark backwaters, in three generations…. It turned [the peasant] from a beast of burden into a human being. It determined that, when science should be invoked to increase the output of the soil, its cultivator, not an absentee owner, should reap the fruits. The principle which released him he described as equality, the destruction of privilege, democracy, the victory of plain people…. [It was] the end of institutions which had made rich men tyrants and poor men slaves.1
Century of Emancipation
Walter Lippmann in 1937 looked back at the nineteenth century and called it “the great century of human emancipation. In that period,” he continued, “chattel slavery and serfdom, the subjection of women, the patriarchal domination of children, caste and legalized class privileges, the exploitation of backward peoples, autocracy in government, the disfranchisement of the masses and their compulsory illiteracy, official intolerance and legalized bigotry, were outlawed in the human conscience, and in a very substantial degree they were abolished in fact.”2
It is a peculiar thing about social evils that in their grossest forms they may last for centuries and be accepted as part of fate, rather than as curable evils. But when circumstances improve to a certain degree, that is to say, when people move up a notch or two out of poverty, filth, degradation, and disease, and the means of further improvement are in sight, then circumstances come to seem intolerable. Men refuse to credit “the liberal plan of equality, justice, and liberty” for such improvements as they enjoy; they condemn it for not having completed their liberation! It is as if a totally paralyzed person undertook a treatment which restored his powers except for one limb, and instead of praising the treatment for what it accomplished, blamed it for his game leg.
The system of political liberty—limited government and the free market—aimed at equality before the law and necessarily resulted in inequalities in material goods. Everybody was levered above the subsistence level, and many went from rags to riches. But nearly everyone thought he deserved better. In this new dispensation economic inequalities came to be regarded as the intolerable bane of modern life, which it is the function of government to overcome. The result has been that the political slogans of the twentieth century have played variations on the theme of soak the rich and subsidize the poor. Present-day politics is based on the redistributionist principle: Taxes for all, subsidies for the few. Its purpose is to elevate the low income groups by depressing the wealthy. This social leveling is supposed to bring about economic equality—or as close an approximation thereto as is practical.
Concentration of Power
Economic inequalities cannot be overcome by political means without establishing political inequalities. Every form of political redistributionism widens power differentials in society; every form of socialism concentrates power over the life and livelihood of the many in the hands of a few. The principle of equality before the law is discarded and, as in the George Orwell satire, some men become more equal than others. We head back toward the Old Regime.
But things will not stop here; forces have been set in motion and their momentum will carry us beyond where their instigators would want to stop. The first stage was political equality with the consequent economic inequalities.
The second stage was the deliberate designing of political inequalities in order to bring about economic equality. At this point one might think pragmatically and regard the situation merely as a choice between two ideas of equality—political equality or economic equality, each with its necessary accompanying inequalities. People in our time have accepted political inequality and the enhancement of power differentials in society because they believe that this power, under popular sovereignty, would reduce economic inequalities. But power obeys its own laws, and one of its basic laws—exemplified by political power wherever it has existed and whatever form it assumes—is to use political power to enhance the economic well-being of officeholders and their friends, at the expense of the rest of the nation. Albert Jay Nock designated this perversion of government as The State, a two-headed monster comprising (a) those who wield political power, and (b) their friends who derive economic advantage from its exercise. “Votes and taxes for all; subsidies for us and our friends.” Every government tends to create the means of its own support. The court at Versailles was the symbol of this under the Old Regime; the symbol in our time is a deep freeze, a vicuña coat, a television set, the relief racket, or what have you.
But these things merely scratch the surface. A hundred billion tax dollars are siphoned into Washington annually, and every dollar of it spent by the government creates a vested interest in the continuance of the spending program. The result is a malinvestment and a maldistribution of wealth, and an aggravation of economic and political problems. Political inequalities introduce class divisions into society, and the resulting economic inequalities become sharper as they cease to reflect the rendering of goods and services in willing exchange.
A generation and a half ago H. G. Wells observed sadly that things will get worse before they start getting better. Well, they’ve gotten worse!
1 R. H. Tawney, Equality (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1931), pp. 119, 120, 121.
2 Walter Lippmann, The Good Society (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1937), pp. 192-3.
Originally published in the June 1964 edition of The Freeman. Read more from the Edmund Opitz Archive.