Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Problems with egalitarianism

Freedom News Service

A reason some opponents of liberty give for their position is that there isn't supposed to be any significant difference between any of us. So those who do well and those who do worse both really just deserve the same. Indeed, dessert is not even in the picture for these folks because everything just happens to us, we do not do anything well or badly, better or worse than anyone else. It is just que sera, sera.
That, for example, is the thesis of the not-so-funny comic-turned political commentator Al Franken. He has penned two books now chiming in on political matters, mainly to advocate what amounts to a socialist state.
OK, he doesn't know much about how awful that system is. What's interesting is that he openly boasts about how he himself hasn't achieved anything, but everything good just came to him, accidentally. And he suggests we are all in the same boat, be we happy or unhappy with our lot.
Now the problem here is a bit tricky. It recalls the judge who heard a defendant say, "Your honor, I simply had to do the crime. We all just are puppets in the hands of fate, so clearly I shouldn't be punished."
Whereupon the judge replied, "Same with me, exactly; so I cannot help myself and simply must punish you."
The egalitarians deploy their deterministic argument so as to eliminate any distinctions between the successful and the less so. But this, then, infects the purpose of making the argument, which is to get us all to help all the helpless folks who ended up badly off. We ought to, they argue, fork over what we have so they don't suffer. But if we just have to do what we do, then whether we will fork over anything or not is all in our genes or the stars. We cannot help any of it. No complaints can be lodged against all those who refuse to budge and hold on to their good fortune. They aren't doing anything wrong either. In short, the egalitarians who argue their case along these lines are inconsistent. If there is no one who deserves anything more than anyone else, then there is also no one who ought to act compassionately toward the hapless. Everything will just happen as it must.
If, however, we do have moral responsibilities which we carry out more or less conscientiously, among these could well be working harder to prosper. Those who have more could well have earned this, due to their greater prudence and industriousness. Those who don't do so well, could well have
deserved this, too, by failing to discipline themselves, to work hard, etc. And all that needs to be settled before any judgment can be made as to who does or does not deserve his better or worse lot.
OK, there is no doubt some people are hit with circumstances that prevent them from prospering. But who they are is not dealt with well by government bureaucrats. It is far more effective to leave the
determination to those who know them, who have the evidence at hand. And it is also best to leave to them what to do about this. Governments have no real chance of showing generosity -- they must use other people's resources when they redistribute wealth, and that gains them no credit at all.
It is a mistake to think that all things work out for the best in a free society. But it is even worse to think that governments -- with their main tool being coercive force -- can remedy the mistakes better than can the free men and women who made them. That thought assumes people who may use guns to get things done somehow escape our ordinary foibles and temptations. Quite the contrary. People with coercive (as opposed to defensive) force at their disposal are more likely to do the wrong thing
because they feel invincible. They have this magical authority to make others behave -- which is the source of police misconduct, political corruption, bureaucratic mismanagement and the rest.
The big mystery is why so many otherwise sensible people have faith in the wondrous influence of governments. Whatever has led them to this myth that people with guns -- such as those in the vice squads, the IRS, the government regulators and the rest -- will bring peace and justice to us all?
I can only suggest it is the bad habits from our past, where governments were mostly conquerors, people who made no bones about aiming to oppress others. The idea that government could be about justice and peace is a late arrival. And it still doesn't carry the day.

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of "The Passion for Liberty" (Rowman & Littlefield). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at Machan@chapman.edu

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