Thursday, May 25, 2006

Column on Impossible Egalitarianism

Impossible Egalitarianism

Tibor R. Machan

Among my many acquaintances there are some avid egalitarians. Among these
a few are very influential, a couple of them leaders in the global
movement called ?the capabilities approach.? They have written extremely
well published books and essays advocating global wealth redistribution.
Some have even insisted that nearly all the resources possessed by those
in developed countries need to be sent abroad to be used by the poor. As
one has written, ?On pain of living a life that's seriously immoral, a
typical well-off person, like you and me, must give away most of her
financially valuable assets, and much of her income, directing the funds
to lessen efficiently the serious suffering of others.?

A small thing I have noticed, however, is that all of these
individuals?some of them personally known to me and now and then in
contact with me and certain close friends of mine on various matters?have
to be very selective about whom they will give their time to for
discussions, correspondence, email exchanges, answering letters, and so
forth. Very naturally, when these individuals are approached with the
request, for example, to read some of their works or some other purpose,
they simply lack the time to grant such requests. Indeed, in certain
cases?when it comes to some of the more famous egalitarians among
them?they will routinely ignore attempts to be contacted by most people
seeking their attention. In short, these egalitarians are very selective
indeed about whom they will grant some time from their busy schedule.

Of course, there are innumerable reasons for the selectivity with which
these egalitarians allocate their precious time, depending upon various
particulars hardly anyone can be expected to know, let alone evaluate.
What is generally true, however, is that they all are?actually must
be?very selective. There is simply no way they can grant everyone?s
request who would like to take up their time.

Celebrities are always confronted with this problem, even when they would
otherwise wish to keep before the public eye, as it were. So they pick and
choose from among the many reporters and photographers who ask for them.
Famous people, who are invited for innumerable speaking engagements are in
the same boat. And so are, of course, my egalitarian acquaintances.

Now I am not even talking about those people who have no interest at all
in putting their egalitarian principles into practice. I recall once
asking John Kenneth Galbraith, at a Stanford University function, whether
he has ever considered swapping his Harvard job with someone at a junior
college just to make things a bit more equal. To which his response was to
promptly turn and walk away. Here perhaps rank hypocrisy was at play. I am
not talking of such cases. Rather I have in mind those when the avid
defenders of egalitarianism simply cannot practice what they preach
because, well, their resources?in these cases time?are scarce.

Fact is, this pretty much shows us that egalitarianism is impossible.
There is no way to distribute equally among all the resources they all
need. There will always be some who are left in greater need than others.
There will always be those whose needs are going to be less fulfilled than
those of others, no matter how vital or urgent they are.

What egalitarians seem to neglect is that the distribution of all sought
after resources occurs best if they are in line with the choices of those
who own those resources. It is their lives and works that are at issue,
after all. And, of course, there will be many who will remain wanting,
even if everyone is most heedful of what others want from them. That?s
never going to go away. But in a free society, where resources are in the
control of those who own them?whether because they have earned it, or they
are fortunate, or have received them from others?at least the distribution
will benefit from local knowledge and from the better or worse judgments
of the owners.

What egalitarians are effectively insisting on, then, is not equal
distribution of resources, since that?s flat out impossible. They are
insisting on doing all the wealth redistribution themselves, not those who
own the resources.

So like it or not, egalitarianism is not about equal distribution but
about who is to do the highly selective distribution that goes on all the
time. Judging by the egalitarians of my acquaintance?none of whom would
tolerate other people ordering them to spend their time this way or that
but insist on freely making their own selections and
associations?egalitarians should accept their very own practice for all
the rest of us and respect everyone?s right to distribute resources
according to his or her own judgment.

That?s what?s ultimately in dispute, not the impossible task of equal
wealth?or time?distribution.

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