All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 2001

The Ideals of Tyranny

The Achievement of Equality Requires the Abolition of Freedom

Socialism, along with other movements founded on egalitarianism, has often been held up as a moral ideal. Many people consider the drive for “equality” to be laudable. It is frequently claimed, however, that socialism, although based on a moral principle, failed because it used immoral means to obtain its ends.

But the problem is that the method of implementing socialist ideals is inherent in the ideals themselves. Equality, the very principle of socialism that so many people hold out as its highest virtue, leads inevitably to dictatorship. Former Marxist theoretician David Horowitz says that “the rights historically claimed in the paradigm of the Left are self-contradictory and self-defeating.” The achievement of equality requires the abolition of freedom. Horowitz writes: “The regime of social justice, of which the Left dreams, is a regime that by its very nature must crush individual freedom. It is not a question of choosing the right (while avoiding the wrong) political means in order to achieve the desired ends. The means are contained in the ends. The leftist revolution must crush freedom in order to achieve the ‘social justice’ that it seeks. It is unable, therefore, to achieve even that end. This is the totalitarian circle that cannot be squared. Socialism is not bread without freedom; it is neither freedom nor bread.”

The destructive nature of socialism is the result of its desire for equality. The reasons are not difficult to understand. In The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek wrote, “It is just not true that human beings are born equal; . . . if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual positions; . . . [thus] the only way to place them in equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are, therefore, not only different but in conflict with each other.”

There are in the world people with varying levels of intelligence in addition to varying levels of education and ability. Not everyone can be a nuclear physicist or a physician. And no amount of education will change that. So how do we achieve equality of results—if that is our goal? The only method left is to tear down the great. Those who are intelligent thus become victims of the mob violence of the least intelligent in their society. This is why Mao had his Cultural Revolution. This is why Pol Pot attacked the educated. This is why Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe has targeted black professionals and white commercial farmers.

Sociologist Robert Nisbet notes that egalitarianism is the fundamental doctrine of revolutionary political movements. More than any other single value, equality is the mainspring of radicalism. No other value serves so efficiently in distinguishing among the varied ideologies of the present, and for that matter, of the past couple of centuries. What one’s attitude is toward equality in the complex of social, cultural, and economic goods tells us almost perfectly whether one is radical, (classical) liberal, or conservative.

Preoccupation with equality has indeed been the constant mark of the radical in the West for a long time. The passion for equality, first vivid at the time of the Puritan Revolution, has been the essential mark of every major revolution in the West (with the possible and mixed exception of the American) and has carried with it, often in millennial degree, the urge among its more ardent votaries to undermine, topple, and destroy any society where inequality can be found.

A free society will not be one of equality. Once human beings are free, the choices that they inevitably make will change their levels of wealth. Even if we were able to redistribute all wealth equally, once the heavy hand of centralized control was removed, inequality would immediately result. Imagine a society of complete equality of wealth but one where all people were free to make decisions regarding their own lives. If wealth were equal at 8 a.m. it would be unequal by 8:01. Some individuals would spend their money, while others would invest it. Some would gamble with it or buy pastries. Others would purchase tools for work or pay for education or training. Each choice means that the distribution of wealth will become progressively more unequal. The only way to prevent this from happening is to strip each individual of the right to make decisions for himself. The destruction of freedom is the only method for implementing equality of results.

Thus every egalitarian society ultimately has to rely on coercion and tyranny to achieve its goals. Some have been more moderate than others, but the methodology always remains the same. Even the most moderate welfare states require systematic and perpetual policies of coercive redistribution.

Democratic Socialism

Democratic socialism is no exception. In an article for the Fall 1989 Free Inquiry, Professor Kai Nielsen argued that in a socialist society “authority and power are shared. Everyone has equal access to them, at least in the weak sense of ‘one man, one vote.’” The result, he says, “makes for greater equality of condition.” But this is not true. Minorities almost never benefit from a majority vote. This was true for blacks in the Jim Crow South and is equally true today for whites in Zimbabwe. At least under capitalism some “greedy” businessman is willing to sell me the goods I want. But under democratic socialism I have to convince the majority of my fellow citizens of the usefulness of meeting my needs or wants. An appeal to the selfish desires of a “greedy” entrepreneur is far easier than an appeal to the altruistic impulses of the population at large.

Nielsen argued that “a socialist society will be more egalitarian than a capitalist one,” and I suspect he is right. But there are two ways to create an egalitarian society. One is to raise everyone up to the highest level; the other is to lower everyone to the lowest level. The former has proved rather elusive, while the latter seems much easier to achieve. Share-the-wealth programs inevitably end up becoming share-the-poverty plans instead.

Anti-capitalists say that the fact that a free market produces unequal rewards proves it is inferior—if not evil. But in a society where freedom of thought is allowed, some people think more efficiently and rationally than some other people. Is it any more wrong to have unequal thinking ability than it is to have unequal economic ability? As a matter of fact, much of the inequality of wealth is due to the inequality of the ability to think. Each person should have the equal right to think, and the equal right to labor, but we cannot guarantee an equal outcome without lowering the ability of the best to the standards of the least capable.

Socialists are too glib in dismissing the ways that socialism restricts individual freedom. Nielsen writes: “Socialism does prohibit capitalist acts—or at least most capitalist acts—between consenting adults. But that simply means that it constrains buying and selling. It says nothing at all about the really crucial freedoms, namely, civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, of voting, of movement, or conscience, and the like.”

The use of the word “simply” in that paragraph is insulting. You are told you have freedom of speech but not the freedom to buy and sell. The major means of production will be in the hands of the state. You can say what you want, but you have to go to the state to buy the paper, ink, and printing press that you need to disseminate your thoughts to others. You have freedom to travel but presumably on a state airline, railroad, or bus service and then only if it doesn’t conflict with some democratically decided central plan. You will be free to exercise your civil liberties as long as you don’t use resources to do so. If you do use resources then you must go to the state for permission.

Even in a democratic socialist society the physical implementation of rights is required, but physical resources are in the hands of the state. The democratic socialist seemingly believes that humans are disembodied spirits who can achieve their “higher values” in a nonphysical world. In every capitalist society, socialist newspapers, pamphlets, and books abound. Under capitalism the socialist was not required to obtain majority consent to publish his agenda. The same is not true for capitalists, and other dissenters, in the socialist paradise.

“Crucial Freedoms”

Professor Nielsen also betrays the inherent inequality of socialism when he says that people can still engage in “really crucial freedoms.” He doesn’t spell out an answer to an important, but unasked, question: crucial to whom? Like socialists everywhere Nielsen tells us that some freedoms are more important than others, and he and his fellow socialists will decide for us which freedoms are really crucial. But what if you disagree with Nielsen? What if you think that the right to sell your labor is more important than your right to freedom of speech?

Nielsen has already answered that question: “In a socialist society no one can buy and sell labor-power.” Because the professor doesn’t value the right of selling labor, you would be forbidden to sell your labor regardless of your wishes. Nielsen obtains the unequal right to impose his value system on you. His society will be one where you must value “competing” freedoms according to his wishes. Socialist egalitarianism soon slips into the Orwellian nightmare where “some animals are more equal than others.”

The inherent inequality of socialism is also revealed when Nielsen tells us: “With more rational planning than is possible in capitalism and with an economy structured to meet human needs, socialism can enhance human well-being more than capitalism can.” But to have “rational planning” and a “structured” economy someone must do the planning and the structuring. Who will have that power? And what if you don’t want to be “planned” and “structured” according to someone’s whims?

The socialists tell us that under capitalism there are two classes: the capitalists and the workers. But under socialism there are also two classes: the planners and the planned. Under capitalism competing capitalists try to buy your labor, and you have the choice of picking which one of the many you will work for. And if you don’t like any of them you can start your own business. Under socialism there is one employer, and you have no choice. The only “choice” you have under socialism is to live according to the values of the socialist. In fact, we can’t even use the word “choice” in this context since a choice requires alternatives and the freedom to pick among them.

In a free society no one would act to prevent socialists from setting up their own “ideal” society. But in Nielsen’s world the socialists would prevent libertarians from setting up their own society. In other words, there is no equality of rights under socialism. The socialists, like all dictators, ultimately end up granting one right: the right to live according to their values, wishes, and plans.

The grand plan of the socialists would be “arrived at democratically,” says Nielsen. But just how this is accomplished is blissfully ignored. Also ignored is the fundamental question of why the majority has the right to democratically plan your life. If the majority in a democratic socialist society has the right to impose its will on the minority simply because it is the majority, then the majority has rights, in that specific instance, that the minority doesn’t have. Again we are faced with an inequality of rights and yet socialists tell us that under socialism there is egalitarianism.

Professor Nielsen closes his argument with an appeal for the right to impose his values. “A commitment to autonomy is a commitment to self-direction; what would most notoriously limit that would be limitations on civil liberties, but they are not touched by socialism. What is touched is the freedom to buy and sell, including to buy and sell labor. This hardly affects people living self-directed lives, but even if it did, it would mean trading off a lesser liberty for a greater one.”

I disagree. I don’t divide my liberties into “lesser” or “greater.” I see liberty as indivisible. Like most socialists, Nielsen doesn’t value economic liberty. Thus it is a “lesser” liberty. His egalitarianism means he can trade off the liberties that you and I value because he doesn’t value them. Whose standards do we use to categorize our liberties? Do we decide this democratically? Should civil liberties be decided by a vote of the mob? Or do we again turn to Nielsen and his colleagues and let them decide for us?

The ability to produce, that is, to labor, since there can be no production without labor, must be planned in order for a socialist society to remain socialist. If the planners are to plan the economy rationally they must be able to direct labor—so much for the freedom of movement praised by Nielsen. How can they plan the economy if people are free to pursue their own self-interests? If the planners need engineers, but people wish to pursue philosophy instead, the planners will need the power to close down the philosophy classes and transfer these future professors into engineering courses. If they don’t have that power, how can they plan the economy? If they do have the power to choose our intellectual pursuits, then what happens to freedom of thought? After all, the economy must be structured to meet “human needs,” in the collectivist sense, not individual needs.

Democratic socialism that protects civil liberties is, in the end, an illusion that can only be obtained at the point of the gun. The fatal flaw in socialism is twofold: first, the conceit inherent in the desire to plan the lives of others; second, the force necessary to impose that plan on unwilling subjects. This is not a formula for freedom but for tyranny. The tyrannical horrors witnessed during the last century under the dictatorships of Marxist intellectuals were not contrary to their idealist goals. The methods and the goals are intimately tied together. The dictatorial reality was the direct result of idealistic goals. Whatever human beings may wish, the fact remains that free men will never be equal and equal men will never be free.

  • Jim Peron is the author of Exploding Population Myths (Heartland Institute). He is executive director of the Institute for Liberal Values in Johannesburg, South Africa.