The great political battles of the modern world have been fought around certain key words, one of which is Equality. The watchwords of the French Revolution, you recall, were “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Talleyrand got fed up with this slogan and once remarked that he’d heard so much talk about fraternity that if he had a brother he’d call him cousin!
There’s a sound reason for Talleyrand’s adverse reaction to the idea of brotherhood. The human capacity for affection is limited and it is selective. The demand for unlimited brotherliness puts human nature under a strain; it generates a backlash in the form of the either/or mood of the revolutionary who puts a gun to your head and says: “Be my brother, or I’ll kill you!” Sane social living forbids murder; it strives after justice; and it reserves brotherliness and love for family and friends.
Real friendship, even within a limited circle, is a genuine achievement. Recall the words of La Bruyere, writing in the middle of the seventeenth century: “Some ask why mankind in general do not compose one nation, and are not contented to speak one language, to live under the same laws and agree among themselves to have the same customs and the same worship; whilst I, seeing how contrary are their minds, their tastes and their sentiments, wonder to see even seven or eight persons living within the same walls under the same roof and making a single family.”
We don’t have the word Fraternity in our political heritage, but the idea of Equality occupies a prominent spot. Our Declaration of Independence reads: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Note well that the men who prepared this document did not say that “all men are equal”; they did not say that all men are “born equal”—both propositions being obviously untrue. They said “created equal.”
Now, the created part of a man is his soul or mind. Man’s body is compounded of the same chemical and physical elements which go into the make-up of the earth and its creatures, but there is a mental and spiritual essence in man which sets him apart from nature—his soul or psyche. It is an article of faith in our religious tradition that the soul of each person is precious in God’s sight whatever the individual’s outer circumstances; and equality before the law is implicit in this premise—the idea of one law alike for all men because all men are one in their essential humanness.
But right here the likeness ends; human beings are different and unequal in every other way. They are alike in one respect only; they are equal before the law. Equality before the law is the same thing as political liberty viewed from a different perspective; it is also justice—a regime under which no man and no order of men is granted a political license issued by the state to use other men as their tools or have any other legal advantage over them. Given such a framework in a society, the economic order will automatically be free market, or capitalism. We are speaking now of the idea of equality in a political context. Later I shall deal with the opposing concept of economic equality, which is incompatible with limited government and the free market.
Equal Justice Before the Law
Political equality is the system of liberty, and its leading features are set forth in Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address: “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none…. freedom of religion; freedom of the press; freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus;” and so on.
The idea of political equality—equal justice before the law—is a relatively new one. It did not exist in the ancient world. Aristotle opened his famous work entitled Politics with an attempted justification of slavery, concluding his argument with these words: “It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right.”
Plato wished to see society constructed like a pyramid. A few men at the top wielding unlimited power; then descending levels of power—the men on each level being bossed by those above and bossing, in turn, those below. On the bottom are the slaves, who outnumber all the rest of society. Plato knows that those in the lower ranks will be discontented with their subservient position, so he proposes to condition them with a “noble lie,” as he calls it. “While all of you in the city are brothers, we will say in our tale, yet God in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule mingled gold in their generation,… but in the helpers silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen.” Fraudulent theories of this sort are invented by men who suspect gold in their own make-up!
Hinduism provides a contemporary example of a system of privilege. The highest caste in Indian society is the Brahmin caste; the lowest caste is the Sudra. In between are the Kshatriya and Vaisya castes—warriors and merchants, respectively; outside the caste system altogether are the Untouchables. Men are born into a given caste, and that is where they stay; that’s where their ancestors were, and that’s where their descendants will be. There is no ladder leading from one level in this society to any of the others. Hinduism justifies these divisions between men by the doctrine of reincarnation, arguing that some are suffering now for misdemeanors committed during a previous existence, while others are being rewarded now for earlier virtue. This outlook breeds fatalism and social stagnation. The eminent Hindu philosopher and statesman, S. Radhakrishnan, defends the caste system. He likens society to a lamp and says, “When the wick is aglow at the tip the whole lamp is said to be burning.”
Our Western Heritage
Politics rests upon certain assumptions in metaphysics, and we make different metaphysical assumptions than do the Greeks and Hindus. In other words, we have a different religious heritage. Our religious values come from the Bible. Christianity was introduced into the ancient world, and it has had important political consequences. We take personal liberty for granted and regard slavery as artificial because of nineteen centuries of emphasis on the worth of the individual soul. The soul of man was a battleground on which were thrashed out the issues of good and evil. The individual was held responsible for the proper ordering of his soul; that is, he had the gift of free will. His salvation was neither automatic nor guaranteed; it hinged on a series of voluntary decisions, choices freely made.
It takes a while, centuries sometimes, for a new idea about man to seep into the habits, laws, and institutions of a people and shape their culture. It was not until the eighteenth century that Adam Smith came along and spelled out a system of economics premised on the freely choosing man. Smith referred to his system as “the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice.” The European society of Smith’s day was, by contrast, a system of privilege; it was an aristocratic order.
Control by Conquest
England’s aristocratic order did not arise by accident, but through conquest; it may be traced back to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the Norman invasion. William of Normandy had a claim, of sorts, to the English throne, a claim which he validated by conquering the island. Having established his over lordship of England he parceled out pieces of the island to his followers as payment for their services. In the words of historian Arthur Bryant, “William the Conqueror kept a fifth of the land for himself and gave one-quarter to the Church. The remainder, save for an insignificant fraction, was given to 170 Norman and French followers—nearly half to ten men.”¹
This redistribution of England’s territory was, of course, at the expense of the Anglo-Saxon residents who were displaced to make room for the new owners. The new owners of England from William on down were the rulers of England; ownership was the complement of their rulership, and the wealth they accumulated sprang from their power and their feudal holdings. That is to say, they did not obtain wealth by satisfying consumer demand. Under the system of liberty where the economic arrangements are free market or capitalistic, the only way to make money is to please the customers. Under any alternative system, you make money by pleasing the politicians, those who hold power. Either that, or you wield power yourself.
This was a fine system—from the Norman viewpoint; but the Anglo-Saxon reduced to serfdom viewed the matter quite differently. It was obvious to the serf and the peasant that the reason why they had so little land was because the Normans had so much; and, because wealth flowed from holdings of land, the Anglo-Saxons reasoned correctly that they were poor because the Normans were rich! It is always so under a system of privilege, where those who wield the political power use that power to enrich themselves at the expense of other people. It makes little difference whether the outward trappings are monarchical, or democratic, or bear the earmarks of Orwell’s 1984; in a system of privilege, political power is a means of obtaining economic advantage.
Keeping the Peace
When our forebears wrote that “all men are created equal,” they threw down a challenge to the system of privilege. They believed that government should keep the peace—as peacekeeping is spelled out in the old-fashioned Whig-Classical Liberal tradition. This preserves a free field and no favor—which is the meaning of laissez-faire—within which peaceful economic competition will occur. The term “laissez faire” never meant the absence of rules; it didn’t imply a free-for-all. The term comes originally out of chivalry and was used on the jousting field to signal the beginning of a match. Two armored knights got ready to ride at each other and the cry of “laissez faire” meant, in effect, “You boys know the rules; may the best man win.” Government, under laissez faire, does not intervene positively to manage the affairs of men; it merely acts to deter and redress injury—as injury is spelled out in the laws. This is the system of liberty championed by present-day libertarians and conservatives.
Adam Smith’s “liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice” was never practiced fully in any nation, but what was the result of a partial application of the ideas of The Wealth of Nations? The results of abolishing political privilege in Europe and starting to organize a no-privilege society with political liberty and a market economy were so beneficial that even the enemies of liberty pause to pay tribute.
R. H. Tawney, one of the most gifted of the English Fabians, was an ardent socialist and egalitarian. His most famous work is past affords the best example of the great multiplication of wealth which results from the release of individual human creativity under the system of liberty.
The Nature of Political Power
I’ve used the term “power” several times, so let’s note that the word “power” in this context refers to government. There’s only one genuine power structure in a given society, and that is the government. Government possesses a unique, one-of-a-kind type of power, and unless the government deputizes or licenses some other person or agency no one in a given society may exercise the kind of power which government alone wields. We employ metaphors when we speak of buying power or economic power. Government is the power structure. Only government can mobilize the police, the armies, the navies; only government can draft a young man to serve in Vietnam; only government can tax, and so on. The largest corporation in the land cannot force me to buy one of its products or work for it; I can ignore General Motors, but no one who chooses to live within these fifty states can ignore the real power structure—which is the political agency, government.
Under a monarchy, economic advancement is obtained by pleasing the king or the queen. Royal favorites lived well while enjoying the friendship of the ruler, but when they fell out of favor they sometimes lost their heads. The mass of people lived in what we would think of as poverty, and typically they lacked the guarantees of intellectual, religious, and civil liberties that we take for granted. Moreover, the entire nation from top to bottom lived quietly with the idea of economic stagnation; no one thought in terms of a progressive increase of the stock of goods so that everyone would move gradually up the economic ladder—they thought in terms merely of redistributing the existing stock of wealth. No one thought of increasing the size of the pie; the idea was to obtain a bigger slice for one’s self—either by seizing it in a direct power grab, or as largesse by being a friend of the powerful. A similar sentiment—anti-economic in nature—prevails today.
The big domestic political issue is poverty. The nation has been geared to welfare measures ever since the New Deal, a generation ago; then in 1964 Congress opened the Office of Economic Opportunity and declared war on poverty. Indigence may be measured in various ways, but whatever else it is, indigence is a lack. A person who is poor would be better off if he owned a larger and finer house, had several extra suits and sport jackets in his closet, enjoyed tastier and more nourishing food plus an occasional drink. After improving the situation at the level of necessities he’d move ahead to the amenities—to recreation, a second car, air conditioning, and so on.
Poverty Overcome by Production
The point to note is that people move out of poverty only as they command more of the things which are manufactured, grown, or otherwise produced. Poverty is overcome by production, and in no other way. If you are seriously concerned with the alleviation of poverty your concern for increased production must be equally serious. This is simple logic.
But look around us in this great land today and try to find someone for whom increased productivity is a major goal. There are some able production men in industry, but most established businesses have learned to live comfortably with restrictive legislation, government contracts, the foreign aid program and our international commitments. The competitive instinct burns low, and the entrepreneur who is willing to submit to the uncertainties of the market is a rare bird. And then there are the farmers. Agricultural production has taken a great leap forward in recent years, but no thanks to those farmers who latch onto the government’s farm program and accept payment for keeping land and equipment idle. Union leaders claim to work for the betterment of the membership, but no one has ever accused unions of a burning desire to be more productive on the job. Politicians are not interested in increased industrial production. As a matter of fact, it might be said that the national government is continually—by its interventions—manufacturing poverty, and the whole country lives at a level lower than natural economic necessity would dictate.
An overall increase in the output of goods and services is the only way to upgrade the general welfare, but there is no clamor on behalf of increased productivity—only an occasional murmur. The clamor is for redistribution, for political interventions which exact tribute from the haves and bestow largesse on the have nots. Present day politics is based on the redistributionist principle: taxes for all, subsidies for the few. Its alleged purpose is to elevate the low income groups by depressing the wealthy. President Johnson, addressing Congress in January 1964, phrased it thus: “We are going to try to take all of the money that we think is unnecessarily being spent and take it from the ‘haves’ and give it to the ‘have nots’ that need it so much.”
Several years earlier a theologian of considerable reputation, Nels Ferre, expressed similar sentiments, but gave them a religious flavor: “All property is God’s for the common good. It belongs therefore, first of all to God and then equally to society and the individual. When the individual has what the society needs and can profitably use, it is not his, but belongs to society, by divine right.”3
The Role of the Market
The rage for redistribution is upon us, and we might multiply statements similar to the ones I have quoted from Mr. Johnson and Dr. Ferre. Those who espouse this viewpoint hold the utterly mistaken notion that the distribution of rewards in a free market society, or capitalism, is analogous to the parceling out of loot to members of a robber gang, or the division of spoils after a pirate expedition. Actually, these things are as unlike as night and day; there is no comparison between them. In the free economy, a man is rewarded to the degree that he pleases consumers.
Now, the market is not a magic instrumentality which comes up automatically with the right answer for every sort of question. The market is a sort of popularity contest; it tells us what people like; it’s an index of their preferences. The market provides a very valuable piece of information, but it’s not the whole story. It’s important for a shoe manufacturer to project an accurate guess as to whether women next season will prefer chunkies to wedgies; but a similar fingering of the popular pulse is out of keeping in the intellectual and moral realms—unless one is a liberal intellectual! I refer to the proclivity of the current crop of opinion molders to ask: “What’s going to be the fashion in ideas this season?” One glaring example of this—a former professor of mine was a leading clerical spokesman for involving the United States in World War II; now he’s a co-chairman of SANE. This man has a good market in the intellectual realm, but of course he opposes the market in the economic realm.
The market is the only device available for serving our creatural needs while conserving scarce resources; but the market is no gauge of the truth or falsity of an idea. The market measures the popularity of an idea, but not its truth. Mises and Hayek are better economists than Samuelson and Galbraith but the market for the services of the latter pair is enormously greater than the popular demand for Mises and Hayek. Likewise in aesthetic questions. An entertainer’s popularity is no index of his musicianship, and a best selling novel may fall far short of the category of literature.
The market is simply a mirror of popular preferences and public taste; but if we don’t like what the mirror reveals, we won’t improve the situation by throwing rocks at the mirror! There is much more to life than pleasing the customer, but if the integrity of the market is not respected consumer choice is impaired and some people are given a license to foist their values on others. Permit this kind of poison to infect economic relationships and our ability to resist it elsewhere is seriously weakened.
We throw rocks at the mirror whenever we undertake programs of social leveling, aimed at economic equality. The government promises to aid the poor by redistributing the wealth. This is a power play, and it is the poor—generally the weakest members of society—who are hurt first and most in any power struggle. Furthermore, economic inequalities cannot be overcome by coercive redistribution without establishing political inequalities. Every form of political redistributionism widens power differentials in society; officeholders have more power, citizens have less; political contests become more intense, because control and dispersal of great wealth is at stake.
Every alternative to the market economy—call it socialism or communism or fascism or whatever—concentrates power over the lives and livelihood of the many in the hands of a few. The principle of equality before the law is discarded—the Rule of Law is incompatible with any form of the planned economy—and, as in the George Orwell satire, some men become more equal than others. We head back toward the Old Regime—the system of privilege. Every state tends to create the means of its own support—comprising citizens and pressure groups who realize their dependence on the state for such economic advantages as they enjoy. The court at Versailles was the symbol of this under the Old Regime; the symbol in our time is a deep freeze, a vicuna coat, a television set, the relief racket, a lush government contract, farm subsidies, predatory labor unions, or what have you.
Human beings are imperfect now and forever, and the societies we form exhibit all the imperfections individuals display and more besides. There’s no way to achieve utopia; heaven on earth is an impossible dream. But human beings will do better under the system of liberty than under any other social arrangement.
In the nineteenth century, as Tawney pointed out, the abolition of privilege got rid of slavery and serfdom; it turned the peasant into a human being. Furthermore, this was a comparatively peaceful century—between the Congress of Vienna and the First World War. Real wages doubled, redoubled, and doubled again. Diseases were diminished and people lived longer; illiteracy almost disappeared, and people were freer in their daily lives than ever before.
Things were far from perfect, but they were more than tolerable—until a few people got the idea that human affairs could be perfected if the lives of all men were put under political direction and control. This would create a vast power structure on top of society; but the fear of power was overcome by the thought that power, this time, was democratic and majoritarian in nature, and thus benign. The tragic fallacy here is that power obeys the laws of its nature, no matter what the sanction. Political power is invariably coercive, and if used wrongly destroys what it is set up to secure.
Fans of Lewis Carroll will remember his poem, “The Hunting of the Snark.” Every time the hunters closed in on their quarry the snark turned out to be a boojum. Every time a determined group of people have concentrated power in a central government to carry out their program, the power they have set up gets out of hand. The classic example of this is the French Revolution, which turned and devoured those who had started it.
It is not so much that power corrupts, as that power obeys its own laws. Our forebears in the old-fashioned Whig-Classical Liberal tradition were aware of this, so they sought to disperse and contain power. They chose political liberty, in full awareness that in a free society the natural differences among human beings would show up in various ways; some would be better off than others, but there would be no political inequality.
The alternative to the free economy is a servile state in which a ruling class enforces an equality of poverty on the masses. To embark on a program of economic leveling is like trying to repeal the law of gravity; it’ll never work, and trying to make it work defeats our efforts to attain reasonable goals.
1 Story of England, Arthur Bryant, Vol. I, p. 164.
2 Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, but in 1931 he wrote a book entitled Equality, arguing, in effect, that no one should have two cars so long as any man was unable to afford even one. He wished to take from those who have and give to those who have not, in order to achieve economic equality.
3 Christianity and Society, p. 226.
Originally published in the September 1969 edition of The Freeman. Read more from the Edmund Opitz Archive.