All Commentary
Saturday, October 1, 1977

Liberty &/Vs. Equality

Mr. Bovard, of Blacksburg, Virginia, is a scholar currently preparing a treatise on the philosophy of history.

We sometimes fail to recognize the great conflict between two of our ideals—liberty and equality. In fits of utopianism, we have assumed that our minds are social and politi­cal alchemists, deriving gold from whatever process we believe in. The romantic pursuit of two ideals is leading to the failure of both. Unless we can constrain our desires to the dictates of reality, we will become tyrannized by our own dreams.

“Equality” can mean equal mate­rial goods and income, equal social status, and equal general success and “happiness” in life. Or, it can mean equality before the law, which is in a different and higher category, and without which liberty would be precarious. However, there is no necessary connection between equality before the law and equal property, power, and so forth. Equal­ity before the law is the “natural” state in a political society, but equality of goods and social life in general is “unnatural,” and would take a great amount of regulation and coercion to achieve and sustain.

I define liberty as the absence of coercion, the individual’s right to do whatever he chooses with his life and property as long as he does not directly harm others. There are other definitions of liberty currently being bounced around; however, we will use the concept that does not necessitate the state’s constant em­pirical coercion of the individual in order to reach a higher metaphysi­cal realm of freedom.

Even Rousseau conceded that broad natural inequalities exist at birth. This fact has seemed evident to all men at all times, aside from certain skeptics in the last century. Many philosophers or theologians have affirmed the theoretical or theological equality of man at birth; however, few have argued that men are born equal in all capacities. The concept of natural equality of rights is a product of the natural law school of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nineteenth century socialists, with “social justice” as their measure of reality, worked out some attractive conclusions from the assumption that men are born equal in all capacities, so they decided their premise must be true. Lenin’s plans for the end of the division of labor, allowing all men to do all jobs, is a typical example.

Genetic Differences

There have been schools of biology and psychology which up­held the banners of genetic equality, but these seemed more inspired by political conviction than by concrete evidence. In both these areas, pres­ent trends show greater concessions to hereditary inequality. As not all men are uniform, they are often dif­ferent; as they are different, in­equalities must result (unless we believe in only “equal” differen­ces).

No one would dispute the fact of great differences in potential physi­cal structure at birth (some were born to be five feet tall, and others six feet five inches); however, as soon as one speculates that the physically-determining genes might not be entirely and radically differ­ent from the mentally-determining genes, screams of “racist” and “elitist” fill the air. But why would the physically and mentally determining genes be so very different in their structure? If some universal orderer did design the plan, why would He allow such obvious physi­cal inequalities to coincide with such perfect mental equality? Also, taking the evolutionist view, certain different physical traits have evolved from the challenge of vari­ous environments; is it not also likely that certain broad mental dif­ferences would evolve from the same cause?

Regulating the Environment

But even conceding for argu­ment’s sake genetic equality, how could the environment be insured against creating inequalities? Even individuals who are (hypothetically) exactly the same develop differences when subjected to different influ­ences. Free societies, by their very nature, are very diverse, influencing different people countless different ways in various places and times. If one wished to see equality pre­served, one would need to have tight controls over the influences on every individual. In order to preserve an equal people, an equal and uniform environment would need to be en­forced.

Egalitarians might argue that the state could raise all the chil­dren, shaping them in order to equalize them. But this would create a leviathan state likely to suppress the people, destroy the family unity and all the freedom and autonomy that accompany it, and lead to a lifetime of coercion in order to pre­serve freedom to be equal. Others would contend that with the proper regulations and order in a society, inequalities would be prevented, while “freedom” was preserved.

But what is the value of freedom if the individuals are not allowed to use their “liberty” as they see fit? The society has sacrificed all the realities of liberty to the preserva­tion of a metaphysical phantom of equality. Free society implies the maximum of individual choice, lim­ited only by the physical safety of other individuals. Perhaps socialists and egalitarians consider inequality unsafe, and thus justify multiplying the restraints and coercion of in­dividuals to achieve a “truer” liberty.

Again, if a society is truly free, a high amount of diversity will exist. Individuals will choose different paths, some for the better, some for the worse. But to have one narrow level road, and to actively restrain people from going on their own, to quickly drag down anyone with as­pirations for mountain climbing: this is neither free nor healthy.

Elusive Justice

Somewhere in the intellectual fog of the past century, inequality per se became associated with injus­tice. Currently many people have guilty consciences if they observe inequalities which have not been leveled. They think what adverse psychological effects the individual’s excellence has on the group ego, and seek to crush all such excellence in the name of egalitarian utility. When the denial of empirical facts becomes a moral obligation, both intellect and morality are in deep trouble.

The achievement of economic equality would destroy almost all economic liberty. Anyone above a certain low level would have most of his income and property confiscated. Some would condone this in the name of justice and utility. How­ever, if any freedom means or is worth anything to the common man, it is usually economic freedom. The average person does not express radical opinions or act as an extreme nonconformist.

Humanity always has had few philosophers and radicals. But, espe­cially in recent centuries, the spirit of economic competition and ac­cumulation has permeated the mass­es. This is a major cause of the West’s current high standard of liv­ing. We can morally condemn the people, tell them they should desire other things, and destroy all outlets of competition. However, would this not be a great infringement on their liberty? If the common man is as­signed a certain job in a certain place, dictated his salary, told his hours, will his conception of his per­sonal freedom not greatly suffer?

A Deadly Alternative

Granted, contemporary capital­ism is far from perfect competi­tion; but, with an obsession for absolutes, we should not abandon an incomplete liberty for a perfect ser­vitude. Much of the life of the com­mon man (constant TV, loud stereo, alcohol, and the like) is stimulated by an urge to escape from boredom, though there is also a pervading sense of insecurity. To guarantee them a job and welfare might make life intolerably unchallenging for them.

As always, with liberty comes the possibility of failure. If the humanitarians who cannot bear to see individuals suffer for their own errors continue their efforts, we soon will have a whole society suffering from (due to) the ignorance of the “humanitarians.” To take from a person all incentive and responsibil­ity for his own success and pros­perity would naturally destroy much of the challenge and excitement of life. What could possibly be more boring than a guaranteed low level of success through fifty work­ing years, with no chance to rise above or fall below official stan­dards?

Given the different desires and capacities of individuals, economic equality could only be preserved by economic tyranny. The state would need tremendous control and power over all the people. Economic equal­ity would for all practical purposes destroy private property, thus un­dermining the foundation of civil, political, and individual freedom. When the state owns or supplies all the necessities of life, any dissent can easily be starved out. Capital is needed for successful dissent and criticism, and economic equality would destroy almost all capital sources. Freedom of speech and press are hollow when the state feeds the speaker and owns the press. In a free economy, dissenting opinions almost always can find employment and support from some source.

Natural Discrimination

To try to insure social equality would be to fight many of the most “natural” (in the sense of constant historical existence) tendencies in man. Again, society, being composed of different people with different tastes, will form into different groups and segments, according to people’s values and choice. With numerous different groups with dif­ferent values, some are likely to be thought of as better than others. A hierarchy will establish itself in people’s attitudes, and social dis­crimination (liking some more than others) will occur.

The only alternative to social in­equality is the greatest tyranny im­aginable, not allowing any groups to form, not allowing anyone any knowledge about anyone else. Where there is information, there is judgment; and where there is judg­ment, there likely will be discrimi­nation.

The place for the reformer to bat­tle social inequality is in the thoughts and values of the members of society, not solely in the empirical arrangement. The state can pass de­crees demanding an equal and univ­ersal love and concern, but this will only be as effective as any other metaphysical, romantic delusion. Social equality will be gained only in the hearts of men, not from the laws of the state.

Not the Inequality, But the Coercion Is Evil

As long as economic inequality exists and the population is not uni­form in every way, social inequality will exist. But inequality is only an evil when it is directly coercive or oppressive. To assume that everyone has an equal right to any thing or position that anyone else has, is to call forth the great leveler of all progress, excellence, and sanity.

Some have believed that liberty must be equal, or else it is not lib­erty. However, liberty, being the ab­sence of coercion rather than the presence of some material good, is not measurable. And, since different people have different tastes, desires, and values, they will use their lib­erty in different (and hence, “un­equal”) ways. To insist that all use their liberty the same would destroy it. Some socialists argue that, due to different social and economic condi­tions, some have more liberty than others. Again, excessive desire for equality of anything leads to restric­tions and organization.

If freedom means the absence of coercion, then those are more free who are less coerced. But if we as­sume coercion to come mainly from government, then the lack of coer­cion would be basically equal for all, assuming equality before the law. If, as socialists do, we consider coercion to come from unsatisfied desires, then, as some are more satisfied than others, they are unjustly more free. If we accepted such “reason­ing,” we could get into all sorts of clever paradoxes and doubtful de­mands, which only some Hegelian or Marxist who believed in the “nega­tion of the negation” could resolve.

The true liberty (absence of coer­cion) and the most valuable equality (before the law) can and must exist together. When we begin blindly pursuing absolutes and romantic ideals, we can only expect our em­pirical conditions to suffer. The fiery passion of the first “Liberté, Egalite, Fraternité” led to despotism, and we must expect the same pitfall if we follow the same path. As Trotsky said, history cannot be cheated: if we repeat the past’s delusions, we must also repeat their downfalls. We are surrounded by the relics of liberty smashed on the insatiable altar of equality: we can either clear our minds and begin reconstructing, or we can continue appeasing the deity of our time. But if we choose the latter, we must also doom the future to despotism.

  • James Bovard is the author of ten books, including Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, and Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty. Find him on Twitter @JimBovard.