Sunday, May 15, 2011

Some Serious Flaws of Egalitarianism

Tibor R. Machan

Egalitarianism teaches that everyone deserves to be treated with equal consideration and respect. Mostly this is meant to stress how everyone should be provided (as a matter of public policy) with basic necessities like food, health care, schooling, etc. But that is too selective and excludes millions who would much rather gain equal provisions of different goods and services--say to exhibit one’s paintings in a famous museum and or to star in a movie. Or why not an equally plush home or car or vacation? Why not an equally meaningful occupation or career? Why not, indeed, an equally happy relationship or life?

Well, perhaps because such provisions cannot possibly be given to all, in equal quantity and quality. Yet, of course, that very same problem faces egalitarianism when it comes to the so called basic necessities. There is scarcity in food, education, health care (e.g., in the supply of professionals, equipment, and materials), etc., etc. At any given time only so much of these benefits is being produced. Perhaps they could be increased with some nudging or outright coercion but even that cannot make them available to all and usually backfires so shortages are the result. And any effort to ration is going to involve major unequal features, such as the blatantly unequal power to impose the rationing that some will have while others lack.

These flaws of egalitarianism ought to be evident to all, especially to those who are familiar with George Orwell’s little story, Animal Farm, or Kurt Vonnegut’s novella, Harrison Bergeron, both of which are excellent depictions of the dystopian nature of any egalitarian political-economic system. But if that isn’t enough or has escaped the attention of egalitarianism’s champions, there are the zillions of examples from real life.

Consider something as simple as the provision of a forum for public comment on policies being considered by governments. There simply is no time for everyone to chime in, nor space. Even as egalitarian a forum as The New York Times must limit the number of comments it can accept from readers in response to columns published in the newspaper. (Indeed, some columns accept no comments at all!)

Now this may not seem as vital as getting an equal share of so called basic goodies, in fact it is. One of the most erudite advocates of egalitarianism considers it vital for members of a just society to have the opportunity to chime in on public policies. Such democratic discourse is deemed to be essential to justice by the Nobel Laureate economist, Amartya Sen of Harvard University--to see, check his mammoth recent book, The Idea of Justice (Harvard, 2009)? Only if men and women are equally free to give input when public policies are discussed are they properly empowered. Indeed, the term “freedom” for Sen has this implication above all--we must all be free to chime in when public policies are being considered. As Sen has said, “participation in political decisions and social choice ... have to be understood as constitutive parts of the ends of development in themselves,” development toward economic justice, that is.

But even if one were to regard such universal equality a good thing and worth the very risky cost of empowering government officials to implement it, it simply cannot be achieved since even mere participation in public debates involves costs. No country could afford it and, paradoxically, it would consume and thus diminish many of the resources that might be slated for equal distribution.

Take another case in point. People are always clamoring to be part of discussions, e.g., as they try to call talk shows or submit comments to the Op Ed pages of newspapers, yet there is scant room for them so only very few can succeed. Moreover, whatever goods and services are produced by people could not possibly be slated for equal distribution since there is no assurance that the producers will come up with the amount of these needed for such massive consumption. Just look at how few books get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review--something I am particularly aware of since it has never bothered to review any of my now more than 40 books. Where is the editors’ famous commitment to egalitarianism here?

Well, it is nowhere because it is an impossible commitment or if you will, ideal. (Only “ideal” assumes it is something good whereas that is just what is at issue--if it has so many inherent flaws, it is most probably a bad idea!) As it is often pointed out, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and while egalitarianism may be well intended by some of its proponents, both the process and the end result turn out to be teeming with disappointment.

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