Sunday, March 15, 2009

Egalitarian Fallacies

Tibor R. Machan

Very few duplicities are as blatant as those exhibited by academic champions of egalitarianism. This is because most of them are extremely well positioned in the academy, published by the most prestigious journals and book publishers, invited to the fanciest conferences, and otherwise singled out for privileges unknown to others, especially to those who do not advocate egalitarianism.

Take, for example, a couple of famous law professors, one at the University of Chicago, another at Yale University. They are both avid and indeed fervent supporters of equal opportunity for people (although not necessarily for everyone across the globe). They insist it is grossly unjust for children to be born into widely varying economic circumstances, ones that see them enjoy vastly different health, educational, and other benefits. They champion, instead, public policies that would provide everyone with nearly identical opportunities. They realize that in time some of them would turn these equal opportunities into varying actual advantages because of their own decisions or the vicissitudes of nature and society. But as far as starting points are concerned, they insist it is a categorical imperative of justice that we all begin just like everyone else does, akin to how those running a marathon race must all begin at the same point.

However, none of these champions of human equality volunteer to share their professional positions with others who do not enjoy the benefits they enjoy from theirs. I once actually asked the late John Kenneth Galbraith, who was then a professor at Harvard University and whose works would get published in the best places—the joke is that someone like Galbraith would have publishers’ representatives rummage through his or her trash to find something to include in the house’s latest catalogue—but received an instant brush off instead of an answer as to why he, the fountainhead of egalitarianism, should not share his riches with, say, some community or junior college professor.

The late Robert Nozick, himself an unapologetic beneficiary of high academic appointment at Harvard University, gave a fine illustration of how egalitarianism is a complete nonstarter. Let’s assume a society enjoys public policies that manage to start everyone off with nearly identical benefits. As soon as this occurs, people begin to redistribute the benefits among themselves and upset the established equal pattern.

Nozick’s example was Wilt Chamberlain, the famous basketball player, who would immediately receive a disproportionately large amount of wealth from all those who want to see him play. Multiply this case over all kinds of athletes and other performers, as well as people with talent in the sciences, law and, yes, the academy, and you can see how the hope of a same starting point immediately crumbles.

What is morally odious to me is how little the champions of egalitarianism try to walk their talk. I know that none of them has ever offered to exchange their powerful academic post with my meager one. Nor have I ever heard of any of them make such an offer to anyone else. And for good reason—such an effort would be in vain. The result would look like what George Orwell illustrated so poignantly in his novella, Animal Farm, where in no time the equal distribution of benefits among members of the farm produced a condition in which some were clearly “more equal” than the rest.

As the late Murray N. Rothbard pointed out, in his book, Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays (1977), that equality is simply everywhere and cannot be erased if for no other reason than the simple one that those doing the erasing of it would enjoy vastly greater—unequal—powers from what those do who are subjected to the erasure. I personally won’t ever understand what is so appealing to people about everyone being equally well off. Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Bergeron, published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (October 1961), is another nifty bit of fiction that shows just how unattractive is this idea once examined closely and how it wreaks of envy rather than justice.

Those who are in dire straits or suffer disadvantages may well benefit from some serious help but attempting to make us all equal just doesn’t do it at all.