All Commentary
Monday, September 1, 2008

Equality, Markets, and Morality

The subject of “equality” is the source of much political debate. Ever since the founding era, free-market thinkers have argued for equality of opportunity in the economic order. Equality, in other words, is a framework, not a result. In modern terms the goal is a level playing field. Government is a referee that enforces property rights, laws, and contracts equally for all individuals.

What the free-market view means in policy terms is no (or few) tariffs for business, no subsidies for farmers, and no racism written into law. Also, successful businessmen will not be subject to special taxes or the seizure of property.

In America this view of equality is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights”) and the Constitution (“imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States” and “equal protection of the laws”). Much of America’s first century as a nation was devoted to ending slavery, extending voting rights, and securing property and inheritance rights for women—fulfilling the Founders’ goal of equal opportunity for all citizens.

Progressives and modern critics of equality of opportunity have launched two significant criticisms against the Founders’ view. First, that equality of opportunity is impossible to achieve. Second, to the extent that equality of opportunity has been tried, it has resulted in a gigantic inequality of outcomes. Equality of outcome, in the Progressive view, is desirable and can only be achieved by massive government intervention. Let’s study both of these objections.

To some extent, of course, the Progressives have a valid point—equality of opportunity is, at an individual level (as opposed to an institutional level) hard to achieve. We are all born with different family advantages (or disadvantages), with different abilities, and in different neighborhoods with varying levels of opportunity. As socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw said on the subject, “Give your son a fountain pen and a ream of paper and tell him that he now has an equal opportunity with me of writing plays and see what he says to you.”

What the Progressives miss is that their cure is worse than the illness. Any attempt to correct imbalances in family, ability, and neighborhood will produce other inequalities that may be worse than the original ones. Thomas Sowell writes, “[A]ttempts to equalize economic results lead to greater—and more dangerous—inequality in political power.” Or, as Milton Friedman concluded, “A society that puts equality—in the sense of equality of outcome—ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.”

Failure During the New Deal

Sowell’s and Friedman’s point is illuminated by the failed efforts of the federal government to reduce inequalities during the New Deal. In the early 1930s the United States had massive unemployment (sometimes over 20 percent). In 1932 President Herbert Hoover supported the nation’s first relief program: $300 million was distributed to states. This was not a transfer from richer states to poorer states but a political grab by most state governors to secure all they could. Illinois played this game well and secured over $55 million, more than New York, California, and Texas combined.

Massachusetts, with almost as many people as Illinois, received zero federal money. Massachusetts had much poverty and distress, but Governor Joseph Ely believed states should try to supply their own needs and not rush to Washington to gain funds at someone else’s expense. Ely therefore promoted a variety of fundraising events throughout his state to help those in need. “Whatever the justification for [federal] relief,” Ely noted, “the fact remains that the way in which it has been used makes it the greatest political asset on the practical side of party politics ever held by any administration.”

In 1935 President Franklin Roosevelt confirmed Ely’s beliefs by turning the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which he had established, into a gigantic political machine to transfer money to key states and congressional districts to secure votes. Roosevelt and his cohorts used the rhetoric of removing inequalities as a political cover to gain power. Reporter Thomas Stokes won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative research that exposed the WPA for using federal funds to buy votes.

The use of tax dollars, then, to mitigate inequality failed because—whatever the good intentions—the funds quickly became politicized.

Presidential (and congressional) authority to tax and to transfer funds from one group to another also proved to be a dangerous centralization of power. Taxation increased both in size and complexity. The IRS thus became a weapon a president could use against those who resisted him. “My father,” Elliott Roosevelt observed of his famous parent, “may have been the originator of the concept of employing the IRS as a weapon of political retribution.”

Sowell and Friedman indeed recognized that efforts to remove inequalities would create new inequalities, perhaps just as severe, and would also dangerously concentrate power in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats. But Sowell and Friedman have readily conceded that when markets are left free, the inequality of outcomes is not necessarily morally justified. In other words, some people—through luck or inheritance—become incredibly rich and others, who may have worked harder and more diligently, end up barely earning a living. Rewards, as F. A. Hayek, among others, has noted, are “based only partly on achievements and partly on mere chance.” Societies are more prosperous under free markets, but individual success and failure can occur independently of ability and hard work.

Progressive Claims in Light of History

What the historical record does seem to demonstrate is that the richest men in American history have been creative entrepreneurs who have improved the lives of millions of Americans and have achieved remarkable upward mobility doing so. For example, the first American to be worth $10 million was John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant and a son of a butcher. Astor founded the largest fur company in the United States, transforming tastes and lowering costs in clothing for people all over the world.

John D. Rockefeller, the first American to be worth $1 billion, was the son of an itinerant peddler. Yet Rockefeller, with little education or training, went into the business of refining oil and did it better than anyone in the world. As a result, he sold the affordable kerosene that lit up most homes in the world. (He had a 60 percent world market share in the late 1800s.)

Henry Ford, the son of a struggling farmer, was the second American billionaire. He used the cheap oil sold by Rockefeller and cheap steel that was introduced by immigrant Andrew Carnegie to make cars affordable for most American families. The most recent wealthiest men in the United States—Sam Walton and Bill Gates—both came from middle-class households and both added much value for most American consumers.

Free markets may yield odd results and certainly unequal outcomes, but the greater opportunities and prosperity have made the tradeoff worthwhile for American society.

  • Burton Folsom, Jr. is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and author (with his wife, Anita) of FDR Goes to WarHe is a member of the FEE Faculty Network