There are two kinds of equality – formal equality and substantive equality. The idea that all men are born equal expresses formal equality, and everybody agrees with that. No problems there. But the idea that everybody should have the same amount of wealth expresses substantive equality, and not everybody agrees with that. Why should people be equal in relation to the amount of stuff they have? Why is it unfair for someone else to have more stuff than you?
Basic human liberties such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom to acquire and hold private property are more important than economic prosperity in an abstract sense.
Early last year one of my academic colleagues emailed me with an update about conditions in the UK today being worse than the Black Death which killed up to 60% of Europe’s population. Because inequality. This was in the aftermath of news headlines announcing the advent of tough times ahead: ‘UK workers set for worst pay growth decade since the Napoleonic Wars.’
One of the most interesting features of the inequality debates is that one side puts forward rational arguments while the other side puts forward emotional arguments. Saying that you already have a lot of stuff but you feel bad that someone else has much more stuff than you is an emotional argument, and it cannot be met with rational replies. Appeals to ‘fairness’ in this context are just a way of expressing feelings (feeling very angry about all the unfairness) – if people feel that something is unfair there is no rational argument on earth that will make them stop feeling that it’s unfair.
Capitalism, as defined by Milton Friedman, refers to 'the organization of the bulk of economic activity through private enterprise operating in a free market...a system of economic freedom and a necessary condition for political freedom.' Friedman thus defends capitalism not for its own sake, nor even for its capacity to create wealth, but because of its association with individual, economic, and political freedom.
Many people today assume that life is ideally supposed to be fair, so they take it as self-evident that others must be forced by law to provide various things from within their own resources, in order to make everything fair. In other words, everyone has to share nicely with those around them even if they don't want to. In the pursuit of fairness, other values such as liberty and the freedom to choose are relegated to the sidelines. This results from measuring the value of how much you've achieved by reference to what others have achieved.
Legal scholarship has a very complex and awkward relationship with the idea of 'efficiency'. Scholars like to think that they are promoting social justice in all its forms, and unfortunately the idea of efficiency doesn't seem to be extremely honourable, being connected as it is with capitalist markets and correlated associations such as greed, selfishness, and, most embarrassing of all, great wealth. It therefore seems impossible to write about efficiency without sounding like a cruel person who cares nothing about the milk of human kindness.
Private property is often criticised for failing to promote equality: with private property rights, some people inevitably end up with more than others. Is this unjust, on grounds that economic “equality” is an essential component of justice? We know that justice is a good thing (nobody would argue that injustice is an admirable goal to aspire to) but does it follow logically that the full force of the law should be harnessed to equalize everything? Equal amounts of stuff, equal pay for all working people especially if they're women, equal benefits for all unworking people and equal opportunities for all to have an equally good life. Everything should be equally distributed. Because otherwise it’s not fair.
There are many reasons why foreign aid and handouts do not succeed in lifting anybody out of poverty, but one of the main reasons is that progress requires effort. Sadly, there is no effort involved in being the recipient of a handout.
Capitalist free markets do not generally create a situation where everyone has the same amount of stuff. Sadly, progress tends to yield unequal outcomes. Enter the welfare state, a creature of most modern capitalist economies. The idea is that taxes will be collected to create a repository of public funds to provide a safety-net for the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Thus the welfare state would be expected to meet the costs of unemployment insurance and pensions for those who found themselves cast on the heap when the company they worked for goes bust.
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