All Commentary
Wednesday, January 1, 1986

Book Review: Equality and Liberty: A Defense of Radical Egalitarianism by Kai Nielsen

Rowman & Allanheld, Totowa, NJ 07512 • 1985 • 320 pages, $27.50 cloth

Equality of consideration, equality before the law, equality in human dignity or worth, are discussed by this author, but they are not the distinctive thrust of the book. The main thesis is that every individ-ual-or every family, one isn’t always sure which (and it makes a great practical difference which is meant)should receive an approximately equal income. It is economic equality which the book is primarily concerned to defend. What is to be equally possessed is money, or articles of one’s choice purchasable with money. The money is presumably to be doled out by the government after being extracted from each citizen in taxes—though Nielsen says that things like hospitals and parks and playgrounds should be taken care of before such a distribution is made.

To establish his case, Nielsen relies heavily on “our commonly held reflective moral intuitions.” But many persons, myself included, have moral intuitions sharply at odds with Nielsen’s.

For example: If a man repeatedly spends his entire allotment on cocaine or heroin, Nielsen would say that he should still receive an equal portion from the common store. The man who works hard must thus be forced to spend a part of his earnings to sustain the other’s drug habit. I consider this morally shocking in the extreme; but how else are we to interpret Nielsen’s assertion that “income and wealth is to be so divided that each person will have a right to an equal share”? (p. 289)

If our moral intuitions are so widely at variance, we are left with an un-bridgeable impasse from the start, with presumably nothing more to discuss. It is just possible, however, that we disagree (at least in part) on mat ters of fact rather than moral intuitions. I suspect that if Nielsen knew the full implications of his stated views, he would shrink from the conclusions that he now espouses.

One basic fact is that human beings must work in order to live. A second is that the main thing which motivates people to work is the desire to have a decent life for themselves and their families, and some security for the future. If people know that the fruits of their labor will be taken from them in the name of some cooperative enterprise to which they never consented, their motivation to produce will be undermined, and any enterprises they have planned which would involve risking their savings (and possibly giving others employment) would be abandoned as no longer worth the trouble. And a third fact is that throughout most of human history the earth has not produced enough to feed its population, with resultant malnutrition and starvation; only in a technological society, where machines do most of the work of human muscles, can a large population be sustained on a relatively high economic level.

A fourth fact is that human beings are unequal in their incentives, capacities and abilities: Give one person $1,000 and he will work hard and double the amount in a year; another person will spend it in a year. When the next redistribution occurs (to make sure that everyone’s income is equal), the person with initiative and imagi nation who has just had his earned income taken from him for his pains will be less motivated to labor the next time round; he will have every motivation to be penniless by the time of the next redistribution so that he can collect the full amount. Inevitably before long there will be nothing left to distribute, production will falter and cease, and everyone will be equal at base zero!

Nielsen is committed to the socialist state. Yet the socialist state has never been able to deliver the economic abundance which Nielsen’s utopia requires. His desire for human welfare and his desire for socialism in all na tions are incompatible. The great economic leaps forward achieved by human beings—chiefly in North America and Western Europe in the last couple of centuries—have been made possible only to the extent that the free market operated. While other nations continued to be unable to feed themselves, capitalist America during the nineteenth century doubled its per capita income approximately every 30 years.

Nielsen does concede that his egalitarian state could not come into existence until “we first have the productive capacity and. resource conditions” (p. 286) to put it into practice. Since the immense productivity of the free market is so repeatedly proved throughout history as to be without serious question (even Marx conceded it), does this mean that according to Nielsen we first need a free market for its golden eggs, before killing the goose later in the interests of equal distribution? What happens to those who worked the hardest to better their condition? Are they to be ripped off to effect equal distribution for the productive and nonproductive, the wasteful and the thrifty, alike? And is this justice?

Knowing they will be ripped off, people will lack any incentive to work hard; the production on which forced distribution depends will never occur. “In a society of abundance,” he says (p. 306), “everyone will be well off and secure.” The problem is that no such abundance can be created in the socio-economic system he favors. The moral ideal Nielsen espouses requires for its implementation a socio-economic base which he rejects.

Professor Nielsen’s book is the culmination (but surely not the end) of a whole series of books—by Michael Bayles, Ronald Dworkin, Nicholas Rescher, Richard Brandt, and others-recommending egalitarianism in one form or another. They are so interested in distributing the goods produced by others that they have paid scant attention to the conditions necessary to ensure continued production. Having been brought up in the affluence made possible by capitalism, it has become fashionable to denigrate the source of that affluence, and so they strive to ensure that no such affluence will ever occur again. It is all very chic, very trendy. It is easy to get full professorships for doing this sort of thing, and to impress students with one’s virtue and humane concern. Socialist professors themselves, far from being in want, find it ego-gratifying to recommend these egalitarian utopias, especially when doing so costs them nothing, and impresses students with how superior they are to the wicked world which pays their salaries. If only these professors could be philosopher-kings and rule mankind! But it is fortunate, indeed, that philosophers—from Plato’s Republic to Nielsen’s latest utopian tract—are in no such position. Had their ideas ever been put into practice they would long since have destroyed the world.

  • John Hospers was the first presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party and stood in the 1972 general election.