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We Should Be Free Because We Are Equal

Steven Horwitz

Last week’s column, “The Other Principle of Classical Liberalism,” generated some interesting comments, as did similar arguments I made at Bleeding Heart Libertarians and on my Facebook page. One criticism raised was that libertarianism has little to do with equality because it’s all about liberty. I tried to argue in that column that libertarianism’s classical-liberal intellectual ancestors were deeply concerned about equality in addition to their obvious commitment to liberty. Apparently I was unsuccessful, so this week I want to go at these issues from a somewhat different angle.

At the core of classical-liberal arguments, especially in the nineteenth century, was what economists Sandra Peart and David Levy call “analytical egalitarianism.” Classical liberals, going back at least as far as John Locke, began their analysis of the social world by assuming that human beings were equal both in their moral standing (everyone’s preferences count equally) and in their capacity for making economic decisions. As Adam Smith phrased it, there was no difference between the street porter and the philosopher.

Peart and Levy contrast “analytical egalitarianism” with what they call “analytical hierarchicalism,” in which some people are thought to be different from others and therefore, in the view of those at the time, superior or inferior. Such differences might be attributed to any variety of inborn traits, from race to ethnicity to gender. By contrast, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and other classical liberals believed that the observed differences among human beings were not due to inborn traits and capacities, but rather to factors such as incentives, luck, and history, as Peart and Levy put it. In the view of most early classical liberals, no inborn trait or capacity consigns some groups to inferiority while marking others for superiority. In understanding the social world, we must treat people as equal with respect to the things that matter for our theories and therefore for the policy conclusions that emerge from them.

Racial Equality

As Levy demonstrated in an earlier book, this mattered at a practical level in the nineteenth-century debates over racial equality. Classical liberals such as Mill supported racial equality because they believed race was irrelevant to people’s moral standing and capacity for choice. Classical economics assumed its models applied to all human beings, including the theorists themselves. They believed that free markets and a free society were desirable because all people were equal and capable of acting in the way their theories described, leading to the peaceful and prosperous world they promised. By contrast the Romantic critics of capitalism hated it for exactly those reasons: Their starting point was the assumption of hierarchy, specifically among the races, and they understood correctly that free markets would undermine that hierarchy, which is why they opposed it. This is also why the Romantics called economics the “dismal science” – they saw a future without hierarchy as dismal. (See David Levy’s Freeman article on the subject.)

If there really were morally relevant differences among human beings, or if some groups were unable to engage in reasonably rational decision-making, it would be easier to construct an argument that these humans should ruled by their superiors – and this is precisely the argument that a good number of critics of classical liberalism constructed. They wanted the State to treat some people differently from others because some groups were not equal to others in their capacity for free choice. Lest you think this went on only in the nineteenth century, these views manifested themselves again in the early twentieth century, as Progressive Era critics of capitalism used eugenic arguments to limit the economic rights of nonwhites and women.

Two Principles

The classical-liberal argument for freedom was premised on equality, both in people’s moral worth and in their capacity for free choice. In other words, the arguments for equality came first and the desirability of liberty followed from them. (See also Roderick Long’s “Liberty: The Other  Equality.”) Classical liberalism’s critics denied that people should be free because they denied that people were equal. It was classical liberalism that defended the principles of both equality and freedom.

No doubt the concept of equality has been altered in the last 150 years. Too often it is used to mean “equalizing outcomes” by the hand of the State as opposed to treating people equally and accepting that unequal, but just and socially desirable, outcomes will result. Libertarians who rightly defend such inequalities of outcomes need to recognize that those are only possible in a world where the assumption of analytical egalitarianism operates and where the State treats all humans as having equal moral standing and equal capacity for free choice. Equality should not be a dirty word for libertarians since equality of liberty and equality before the law are in our intellectual DNA. Equality is one of our foundational concepts without which the argument for freedom would be that much weaker, if not nonexistent.

I thank Aeon Skoble for comments on an earlier draft.