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For Equality; Against Privilege

Sheldon Richman

This TGIF originally ran July 7, 2006.

The freedom philosophy can be boiled down to two phrases: for equality, against privilege.

Intuitively, this should sound uncontroversial. We just finished celebrating the Fourth of July, which commemorates the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson’s elegant statement of the freedom philosophy proclaims: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. But since then the idea of equality has acquired many meanings that either work against the freedom philosophy or give it weak support. So how can it be a pillar of liberty?

As Auburn University philosopher Roderick T. Long wrote in The Freeman (“Liberty: The Other Equality”), notions such as equality under the law and equality of freedom fall short as libertarian ideals. After all, we could be equal under unlibertarian law (everyone gets drafted) or we could all have an equally small area of freedom (everyone may do whatever he wants between noon and three on alternate Wednesdays). That would be equality of a sort but not liberty.

Economic Equality

The objections to economic equality are well known. Since in the free market unequal incomes are to be expected as a result of variations in talent, ambition, energy, health, luck, perception of consumer preferences, and so on, economic equality could be attempted (but not achieved) only through monstrous and continuing aggression by government officers. Something approaching equal poverty might be achieved (the political elite would no doubt be more equal than others), but equality at a decent level of prosperity is beyond the State’s ability, as Cuba and North Korea illustrate.

This would seem to leave little content for Jefferson’s ringing phrase. But Long shows that this is not the case. There is a significant sense of equality that gets short shrift in political philosophy, most likely because it is the libertarian sense. We do our cause an injustice by neglecting it.

The best-known formulation of this sense is from John Locke, Jefferson’s inspiration for the Declaration. Long writes:

Locke defines a state . . . of equality as one wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection. . . . [Emphasis added.]

In short, by the equality of men Locke and Jefferson meant not that all men are or ought to be equal in material advantages, but that all men (today it would be all persons, regardless of gender) are equal in authority. To subject an unconsenting person to one’s own will is to treat that person as one’s subordinate — illegitimately so, if we are all naturally equal.

Locke reinforced his thought thus:

[B]eing all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions. . . . And, being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorise us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours.

Long goes on to say that this Lockean equality (it can also be found in earlier writers, such as the Levellers, a group of English laissez-faire radicals) provides a powerful underpinning for the freedom philosophy:

The upshot of libertarian equality, equality in authority, is that government can possess no rights that its subjects lack–unless they freely surrender such rights by “deputation, commission, and free consent.” Since I have no right over anyone else’s person or property, I cannot delegate to government a right over anyone else’s person or property. . . . Libertarian equality . . . involves not merely equality before those who administer the law, but equality with them. Government must be restrained within the moral bounds applicable to private citizens. If I may not take your property without your consent, neither may the state.

Frederic Bastiat made the same argument in his great work The Law.


Opposition to privilege is simply the corollary of libertarian equality. If all are equal in authority, then no one may live at the expense of others without their consent. The word privilege is often used equivocally, but it has its roots in the idea of legal favoritism. It is composed of privus, meaning single, and lex or lege, meaning law. Thus a privilege is a government act that (forcibly) bestows favors on one person, or the few.

Historically, government’s primary function has been to exploit the industrious–anyone who works and trades in the market–for the sake of the political class, which prefers collecting subsidies to earning wages or profits. (This original class analysis was formulated by the laissez-faire theorists Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer, students of the economist J. B. Say, in the first half of the nineteenth century). The privileges take the form of tariffs, licenses, monopolies, land grants, [patents], and other subsidies. These enable favored interests to increase their incomes beyond what the market would provide, either by forcibly extracting wealth from producers or by barring them from competitively serving consumers. The name for this privilege-based system is mercantilism, and in many ways it lives on today even in market-oriented economies, which is why they are often called mixed economies.

The privilege part of the mix is a rank injustice against all honest industrious people and a violation of the principle of equal authority that animated so many early Americans.

Champions of liberty have a constant challenge in finding fresh and compelling ways to teach their philosophy to people with different perspectives. I have a hunch there is an audience looking for a philosophy that embraces equality of authority and opposes privilege.

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