All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 1973

Inequality Enshrined

Books, speeches, expressed yearnings — past and present — have much to say in favor of equality, and they promote a demand for it. We are equal in the eyes of God, they say; we are equal before the law; we are born equal, have equal rights, are entitled to equal pay, on and on. While numerous philosophers and statesmen have recognized how all-pervading inequality is, few have enshrined it, that is, portrayed inequality as a highly desirable state of affairs. Inequality exists, unfortunately!

I have just had a change of mind: inequality exists, fortunately!

In a recent book I wrote:

… the authors of the Declaration took the rational step of seating the Creator as the single point of reference, thereby making all men precisely as equal before the civil law as all men are equal before the Creator.

We have here a semantic trap in which most of us — myself included — have become ensnared. Once we accept the idea that all men are equal before God, we are more than likely to think of equality as the major purpose of human effort and a condition to be sought, as nearly as possible, in all worldly relationships. This is a dangerous notion, completely at odds with reality.

As I now see it, men are no more equal before God than they are equal in this earthly life. Judas was not the equal of Peter! To contend otherwise is to condemn God as nearsighted. What this affirmation is intended to convey, really, is that all men are subject to the Universal Laws indiscriminately; there are no favorites; there is a common across-the-board justice. With this in mind, merely reflect on the distinction between common justice and equality. They are by no means synonymous.

Inequality prevails among men. One is a teetotaler, another an alcoholic. Joe is a genius at this, Bob at that. This man peers through a telescope to fathom the heavens; another through a microscope to probe the infinitesimal.

As F. A. Hayek has concluded in The Constitution of Liberty:

From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either the one or the other, but not both at the same time.

A Common Justice

The ideal civil law, like the laws of God or Natural Law, is unbiased as to who or what we are. But we are not equal in the “eyes” of the civil law any more than we are equal in the “eyes” of the Ten Commandments. These laws are blind; they have no eyes to see us. Civil laws, as the Universal Laws — if intelligently drawn — are indiscriminate; they confer no special privilege on anyone; they are but codes — blind to the thousand and one ways we rank ourselves — their hallmark being a common justice.

If we wish to say that these codes are equally as fair to you as to me, all well and good. This kind of wording, however, merely asserts that we are — one as much as another — beneficiaries of fairness and justice. By employing the right words, we avoid the notion of human equality and the mischievous deductions that grow from such a common, semantic error. I am agreeing with an observation by George Horne:

Among the sources of those innumerable calamities which from age to age have overwhelmed mankind, may be reckoned as one of the principal, the abuse of words.

What about the popular claim that we are born equal? We are no more equal at birth than at death; no more equal in the fetus than in the grave. “Nature has made nothing equal,” including all forms of nonlife or life, human or otherwise.¹º

We have equal rights! Valid? In a way, provided “rights” are properly defined and circumscribed. Any person, regardless of race, creed, color, or whatever, has as much right to life, livelihood, liberty as any other — provided his actions are peaceful, that is, non-coercive. Observe that when thus circumscribed, the equal-rights concept makes no claim on any other person; it is, instead, an appeal to reason, morality, justice. It has no more muscle, no more teeth to it, than an aspiration. It is righteous and, for this reason, utterly harmless.

I stress “harmless” simply because most people put no such boundaries on “equal rights.” Blind to the rational limitations of this concept, they are carried away with “equality” and demand equal pay, rights to a job, to “a decent standard of living,” to a “fair” wage or price. They put quotas, embargoes, tariffs on goods, meaning that they think of themselves as having a right to your and my trade. It is impossible to list the instances in which people have slumped so far in their thinking that, today, mere wishes are thought of as rights.2

Take note of the fact that all of these demands for equality, beyond the rational boundary, make a claim on others. No longer harmless, they are harmful, destructive. They rob selected Peter to pay collective Paul — feathering the nests of some at the expense of others. Noncoercive? To the contrary, each and every one of these rests on raw coercion — the application of police force. Name an exception!

The notion of equality is one of the mistaken features of our folklore, but so much lip service is given to it that the thought of inequality as a desirable condition is, at first blush, shocking. How could any sane person favor inequality! Is it because he has no compassion, no thought for his fellowmen? To the contrary, I would argue.

Inequality in Nature

Man in his quest for perfection — for a growth in awareness, perception, consciousness — can make headway only to the extent that he perceives and abides by the Universal Laws. Conceded, our awareness of these Laws is infinitesimal; we know but very few of them. There is one, however, about which there can be no question: inequality! “Nature has made nothing equal.”

No two atoms, molecules, snowflakes, planets, stars, galaxies are ever identical. No two persons are equal; indeed, no individual in any given moment of time is equal to himself in the previous moment. Imagine — a million new red blood cells every second! All is radiant energy, in one form or another; all is in motion from imperceptible slowness to the speed of light. Is this as it should be? My answer is “yes,” for this is the way it is — like it or not. I like it!

None Like Socrates

A further demonstration that this thesis is a “switch” for me: I recently wrote a brief essay, “How To Be Like Socrates.” One friend wrote, “I don’t want to be like Socrates.” I got a chuckle, but not the point — until later.

Suppose — I thought to myself — everyone were like Socrates. We would all be on the street asking each other a series of easily answered questions that inevitably lead the answerer to a logical conclusion foreseen by the questioner. Everybody would be slovenly, ugly, and wise. No one would be raising food, or building homes, or making planes, stoves, pots, pans. Indeed, were all like Socrates, there would not be a person on this earth.

Likeness? Equality? Let us be done with this careless phrasing — this abuse of words — and the destructive thoughts to which it leads!

“Free and equal” is an oft-heard expression, suggesting that freedom and equality are as inseparable as Siamese twins. Actually, they are mutually antagonistic. The equality idea — equal pay and so on — rests on the antithesis of freedom: raw coercion. It is just as impossible to be free when equality is politically manipulated as it is impossible to be equal.

Free and unequal—freedom and inequality — are what go hand in hand. The essence of individuality is uniqueness: inequality in skills, talents, knowledge, aspirations. This is merely an acknowledgment of a Universal Law. Obviously, we must be free to produce, to exchange, to travel or we perish as surely as if all were like you or me or Socrates.

Exploiting Our Differences

We come, finally, to the economic case for inequality. Not our likenesses, but our differences, give rise to the division of labor and the complex market processes of production and trade. We have already mentioned, and can see all about us, that in a given field of activity one person is more skilled — more productive — than another. So, it is to our advantage to specialize and to trade with other specialists.

This is not to say that each of us must be equally skilled as a specialist in order for him to gain the advantages of trade. The more skilled one becomes at his specialty, the greater his incentive to hire or trade with others to carry out certain tasks for him, even though he can cook meals or scrub floors better than can the person he hires for such tasks. It is to his comparative advantage to concentrate his efforts on the single skill for which consumers offer him the greatest reward. By thus serving others — and becoming ever more skilled and outstanding (unequal) in the process — he best serves his own interest.

A moment’s reflection reveals that this comparative advantage in trading, which rewards the most renowned specialist, also rewards in similar fashion every other party to such trade, down to the very least-skilled participant in the market. This is not to say that their gains would be equal; only that each gains from the trade more goods and services than otherwise would have been his. And what is true here of trade between individuals in a given nation is also true of international trade. However wealthy or poor and skilled or unskilled the respective traders, each finds a comparative advantage in trading —if it is voluntary.

Not only does this blessing of inequality flow from the mental or physical skills of traders; it also pertains to the capital, the tools of the trade, the savings and investments by individuals. The specialist who saves and develops tools becomes ever more specialized and efficient. And it is to the advantage of every participant in the market to encourage the saver and investor by respecting and protecting his property — even though the result is greater inequality of wealth than before. Otherwise, there soon would be no incentive for anyone to save or invest in the tools of production, the facilities of trade.

So, if a people would avoid falling to a low level of sameness and bare subsistence, the procedure is to cultivate and accentuate their differences in skills and in private ownership and use of property —these being the requisites for a flourishing and beneficial trade. And let us bear in mind that exchange (other than primitive barter) depends on an honest, trustworthy, circulating medium; this is absolute—money of integrity. Freedom in monetary matters means no political manipulation of our medium of exchange.

That, in brief, is the economic case for inequality.3 Sadly, the misunderstanding and misapplication of the concept of “equality” affords a major explanation for the leveling programs — egalitarianism — going on in the world today: communism, socialism, state welfarism, interventionism, and the like. So, I take my stand for inequality.

Let us then enshrine inequality by acknowledging and embracing this fact of Nature — inequality —and, also, its working handmaiden: human freedom. Allow no interference with creative activities, which is to say, permit anyone to do anything he chooses so long as it is peaceful. A fair field and no favor!



Equality versus Liberty

It is equality of freedom and independence that gives unto man his opportunity to be rich or poor or to be good or bad. Equality of men leaves no choice, because if all men are equal by nature or inherently, there can be no differences and no distinctions. All have an equal right to stand at the judgment bars of God and man — but all are not entitled to the same judgment. Virtue and depravity are not entitled to the same rewards on earth or in Heaven.

It is inequality that gives enlargement to religion, to intellect, to energy, to virtue, to love, and to wealth. Equality of intellect stabilizes mediocrity. Equality of wealth makes all men poor. Equality of religion destroys all creeds. Equality of energy renders all men sluggards. Equality of virtue suspends all men without the gates of Heaven. Equality of love stultifies every manly passion, destroys every family altar, and mongrelizes the races of men. Equality homogenizes so that cream does not rise to the top. It puts the eagle in the hen house so that he may no longer soar.


  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”