Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Equality is not big deal

Tibor R. Machan

In the fields of political philosophy, theory, and economy much debate occurs about just what is most important for a human community—that is, what, as a community guided by a legal system, should the citizenry be aiming for. The issue comes up, of course, outside of academic disputation, as well. For example, in his inaugural address President Obama stressed that America ought to have some large objective, a grand vision, and he promised that the country will pursue just such a vision. Others, like the American founders, don't stress any such overall objective and focus more on making it possible for citizens to pursue their own diverse visions, their happiness as they understand it. In many countries what is taken to be the overall goal is set by the Bible or the Koran or some other religious text. There are also countries, and have always been, in which the issues is left entirely up to some charismatic leader—he or she is to set the goals to be pursued by all.

In our time one favorite choice of political theorists is equality, especially economic equality. Many of these theorists, working at very prestigious academic institutions, think tanks, or writing for journals, established publishing houses and newspaper, contend that what a country needs to work toward is making all equally well off or, at least, reducing drastic differences in the population’s economic well being. This is evident in America, too, although again, initially, the only kind of equality the country was supposed to strive for is the equal protection of everyone’s basic rights, those laid out in the Declaration of Independence, for example, or the Bill of Rights. Sadly even this limited equality was badly violated with slavery.

Later matters changed, under the influence of prominent thinkers and various political movements, so that by the time of the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt the leading political figures endorsed not only the goal of the equal protection of individual rights to life, liberty and property—rights, which if conscientiously protected would make economic inequality pretty much the norm—but massive wealth redistribution so as to make people equally well off by political or legal means.

As an immigrant to America my expectations were based on the earlier idea—I thought that here most of the citizens would be at liberty to seek goals of their own which might or might not lead to economic equality. When I was in college I came across a spirited defense of egalitarianism in one newspaper and responded with a similarly spirited criticism of the idea. I noted that while to some people economic welfare may be a priority, to others it may well be something else—having artistic talents, traveling a good deal, or even gaining the favors of outstanding romantic mates. Certainly to quite a lot of us what is most important, at least at a certain stage of our lives, is to be preferred by potential mates whom we find really appealing. Quite a lot of people lament the fact that they are left behind while others are way ahead in the struggle to find appealing partners!

So perhaps what politicians and bureaucrats should set out to do is to secure equal opportunity or even equal results where these important matters to so many people are concerned. Money—economics—may be of considerable importance but money cannot buy happiness, at least not romantic happiness, for most of us. We would, to speak plainly about this, have to have been born and developed to become aesthetically quite appealing but, alas, there is a widespread unequal distribution of such qualities among the population. (I am willing to bet that if people expressed themselves honestly about this, they would agree that to them finding an appealing mate is more important than being as well of economically as the next person.)

Fact is, about some matters there is just no way to get things arranged politically no matter how hard it is tried. Most efforts to establish economic equality lead to some people having much greater political power than others, power that easily leads to abuse. Moreover, even if for a bit of time economic equality is established, by way of taxation and governmental wealth redistribution, in just a short time the pattern is upset by people making all kinds of different decisions about how they will used their resources.

Instead of aiming for economic equality the task of law and politics should be to make sure that in the quest to achieve whatever goals people have, they do not violate one another’s rights, they do not engage in violence but carry on peacefully, kind of like runners in a marathon race do, knowing well and good that at the end they will not be at the finish line all together.

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