All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 1979

Egalit? Sheer Illusion!

W. A. Paton is Professor Emeritus of Accounting and Economics, University of Michigan. He is author (or co-author) of a score of books and many articles, largely in the field of accounting. Since his retirement at Michigan, he has continued his writing and lecturing activities and has done part-time teaching at a dozen colleges and universities, in ten states.

The view that equality is a goal which the human race should strive to reach is widely accepted and supported, in one form or another, although this hazy concept has always been found wanting when subjected to careful scrutiny. Perhaps a few comments on the limitations of the egalitarian dream, in some of its current manifestations, are not inappropriate at this time.

To begin with I’ll take note, briefly, of two fundamental obstacles to achieving complete equality among individuals or groups, large or small. One is the impossibility of providing each of the several billions of our present population with precisely the same endowment of the natural resources of benefit to man. Mother Earth’s bounties are not uniformly distributed over the habitable surface of the globe, and there is literally no practical way by which each of us can be equally endowed with sunshine, rainfall, fertility, timber, mineral resources, and so on. Substantial mitigation of the impact of these differences would be possible in a condition of permanent peace plus expansion of international trade, but to date the human race has failed to move decisively in this direction.

Even more inherent and insurmountable is the variation plainly in evidence in the native qualities of individuals and groups. Diversity is a commonplace in nature and we humans are not exempt. Aside from sex, individuals vary in height, weight, eye color, and a host of other physiological characteristics. And each of us arrives on the scene with a separate package of traits, tendencies, and intrinsic talents. Even among individuals with the same parents important variations in physical and mental qualities are not at all unusual.

What our progenitors were like millions of years back is somewhat conjectural, but we do know that today homo sapiens, “the only surviving species of the genus Homo”, is not made up of a mass of homogeneous units.

Ignoring Hereditary Influences

I want to pursue a bit further this matter of variation in native aptitudes and abilities. There seems to be a cult today of wishful thinkers who are pushing the fanciful notion that each of us is born with precisely the same potential, that we all start abreast, and that what happens from then on is entirely the result of environment, including how we are treated by our fellow men. This idea is manifestly absurd, even if we rule out those who start life with major congenital mental or physical handicaps. True, the life course of the individual is often greatly influenced by environmental circumstances, but this doesn’t mean that hereditary factors are generally of no consequence in shaping our careers.

And what an unimaginably drab world this would be if all individuals were identical in every particular and committed to identical life experiences! We can be thankful that this is not the case and not even a remote possibility. Perhaps the concept of a race in which all members are supermen is not beyond the realm of imagination, but who would want to find himself in such a situation! I might also note here that our complex modern economy, with its intricate network of facilities bringing a marvelous array of products to the ultimate consumer, includes a great range of functions and tasks. We can’t all be top executives; somebody must work on the assembly line.

Minimizing Economic Disparity

Right here the equality fan might well interpose a question: Even if we concede that it is not feasible for all individuals to be endowed with precisely the same cross section of climatic conditions and natural resources, and that people will continue to vary in their physical and mental equipment, isn’t it desirable to foster programs designed to minimize differences in standard of living and economic power generally?

This is an interesting question and deserves attention. To provide a partial answer let’s reword the question more concretely: Are current reform and welfare movements and projects—consumer protection legislation, taxation that favors the people with low incomes, subsidized housing for the poor, special assistance to the elderly and those with mental and physical handicaps, and so on—desirable and deserving of support? I believe a negative answer is justified.

There are two ways, as I see it, by which to reduce the disparities in personal incomes, in the amount of economic goods and services at the command of the individual. One is to harass and block the efforts of the hustlers, the go-getters, the front runners, the innovators, until their pace is slowed to that of the less able, the less qualified and talented, the incompetent, the shiftless, the handicapped. The other is to provide an economic and governmental milieu that encourages, stimulates, the more capable and productive individuals, that provides incentives for those among us with the most potential to do their best. Such a society, I submit, is actually the best way, indeed the only way, to reduce the inequalities so galling to our egalitarian friends. In such a society technology advances, output expands, and per capita income rises.

The laggards are not damaged. Instead they are given the opportunity to improve their own performances as they are carried along on the fast-moving coat-tails of the inherently superior.

It should hardly be necessary to add that in referring to the able, the talented, the productive, I am not including the destructive, or those who gain by preying on their fellows.

  • W. A. Paton (1889-1901) was Professor Emeritus of Accounting and Economics, University of Michigan. He was author (or co-author) of a score of books and many articles, largely in the field of accounting.