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Published onMay 26, 2020

“Inequality would exist as long as liberty existed,” Alexander Hamilton instructed the constitutional convention. “It would unavoidably result from that very liberty itself.”1 Tocqueville granted that “there is in fact a manly and legitimate passion for equality”—gotta love that curious nod to gender—“that incites men to want all to be strong and esteemed.” But he immediately cringed from another nightmare: “One also encounters a depraved taste for equality in the human heart that brings the weak to want to draw the strong to their level and that reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.”2

That last suggestion has tipped over repeatedly into contempt for egalitarians. Anyone competent in economics knows that socialism and market interventions are “utterly discredited,” commented Ludwig von Mises. What explains popular affection for such bankrupt policies? “The immense majority of ignorant people,” he suggested, are “exclusively driven by the most powerful human passions of envy and hatred.”3 That’s a daring conjecture, but Ayn Rand effortlessly raised the stakes. With what might look like a nod to Tocqueville, she said that we can achieve equality “either by raising all men to the mountaintop—or by razing the mountains.” “If mankind were leveled down to the common denominator of its least competent members,” she continued, “it would not be able to survive.” But that doesn’t faze egalitarians, it exhilarates them. “The greater the evidence of their policy’s consequences, i.e., the greater the spread of misery, of injustice, of vicious inequality through the world, the more frantic their pursuit—which is one demonstration of the fact that there is no such thing as a benevolent passion for equality and that the claim to it is only a rationalization to cover a passionate hatred of the good for being the good.”4 That’s just another disheartening instance of labeling one’s opponents stupid or wicked. It begs the question: Is the quest for equality so awful?

The thesis that equality destroys liberty comes dressed in road-to-serfdom garb, too. Nineteenth-century liberal Thomas Babington Macaulay shrank in horror from democracy: “Institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty, or civilization, or both.” “Distress everywhere makes the laborer mutinous and discontented, and inclines him to listen with eagerness to agitators who tell him that it is a monstrous iniquity that one man should have a million while another cannot get a full meal.” So the poor will vote to soak the rich. “When a society has entered on this downward progress, either civilization or liberty must perish.”5 Refresh the prose style and you have Paul Ryan’s makers and takers,6 Mitt Romney’s denunciation of the 47% who don’t pay income taxes, but luxuriate in government entitlements.7 You have searing hostility to the very idea of the welfare state.

I’ll wrap up this ominous survey with my favorite, Kurt Vonnegut’s inadvertently hilarious vision of our bleak future: “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.” If you’re brainy, the government makes you wear “a little mental handicap radio” that assails you with noise so you can’t think well. If you’re good-looking, you have to disfigure your face, say by putting on a clown nose. If you’re strong, you have to be weighed down with scrap metal.8

I’m tempted to say that I don’t see the slightest conflict between equality and liberty, let alone one so apocalyptic that it will destroy civilization or liberty. Oh, I certainly agree that if equality means that everyone should earn $29,389.27 a year, and liberty means that wages should be determined by a free market, there’s a conflict. And I certainly agree that if equality means that everyone is the same, on any and every dimension you can imagine—everyone is five feet eight and a half inches tall, everyone weighs 151 pounds, everyone has 2.3 children, everyone lives in an identical 1,285-square-foot apartment, everyone watches the same TV shows every day—liberty would disappear. Let people make unsupervised choices and they won’t be identical. But those trivial observations won’t begin to explain the apocalyptic tone of the warnings I find mistaken.

I know plenty of egalitarians. Not one thinks that everyone should make the same amount of money or that everyone should be identical. They are—we are—bemused, even baffled, by the repeated stricture that equality threatens liberty, that it is a tattered fig leaf barely covering resentment and envy. We see the critics I’ve quoted as flailing at thin air, never landing a blow. How so?

It’s customary to contrast equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, where the first is fine, even imperative, but the second repulsive. Life, we’ve been told—the image goes back to scripture—is a race.9 We can and should demand that the race be run fairly, that the rules be impartially enforced. But how insane would it be to insist that everyone cross the finish line at the same instant? Um, very insane. But conspicuously missing in this stylized contrast is any conception of equality of starting points, which must be part of any sensible rendition of equality of opportunity. To see why, stick with the time-honored image of life as a race. For the race to be fair, shouldn’t the runners start at the same starting line? Why should some get a head start?

So what does the metaphor entail? Suppose—it’s no idle supposition—that governments finance public schools in part on the local property tax base. Then you’d expect the schools in Wealthy Land to be better than those in Poor Land. No, money is not the sole determinant of educational quality, and no, throwing more money at bad schools is not a foolproof strategy for improving them. But there’s a limit to such skeptical observations. Would you rather your child attended a well-funded school or one starved for resources? And yes, it’s possible that a child from a dismal school will do better, in whatever sense you like, than one from a wonderful school. That happens all the time. It’s also possible that the runner with a head start will lose to one from the back of the pack. But it seems less likely, no? If you were running the race, which starting position would you choose?

When parents from deprived high schools—behind that bland adjective are decrepit textbooks, moldy walls, leaky roofs, overcrowded classrooms, few or no elective and enrichment offerings, a handful of battered laptops with cracked screens and missing keys—learn that several miles away is a high school teaching four foreign languages, with an Olympic swimming pool and a recording studio, they do not storm the barricades with pitchforks or bombs. Instead they organize and struggle to improve their own schools. The haunting fear that your child is disadvantaged because of the wealth of your community has never led anyone to insist that every child in every school get the same grades. Equality of starting points has nothing to do with equality of outcome.

Actual egalitarians are interested in leveling up, not leveling down. Those awestruck by the majestic spires of Harvard and Yale, Oxford and Cambridge, and wondering why the students all seemed to be white guys with money and status, did not lob Molotov cocktails into the libraries, did not dynamite the old stone buildings, did not disrupt lectures to stop the students from learning. Instead they fought to build new universities, public and private, open to one and all. Ezra Cornell’s motto—“I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study”—vigorously embraces equality. No exclusions on the kind of person you are, no curricular restrictions either. “I want to have girls educated in the university as well as boys, so that they may have the same opportunity to become wise and useful to society that the boys have,” Cornell wrote to his granddaughter in 1867.10 Scant years after Cornell University’s opening, co-founder Andrew Dickson White vowed to accept black students “even if all our five hundred white students were to ask for dismissal on that account.”11 Former slave George Washington Fields earned his Cornell law degree in 1890.12 It would be risible to see the motto or the university animated by it as even a veiled threat to liberty. It opens up new options for new people without depriving others. So did American land-grant universities—if you squint at their inspiring history and detect the coercive state throttling voluntary arrangements, you need better glasses—and other public schools.

The presence of a keyboard instrument once meant you were in church, in a royal palace, or in some aristocrat’s or rich person’s house. But egalitarians did not brandish pickaxes and smash harpsichords. They rejoiced in the increasing wealth and productivity that let ordinary people buy pianos and take music lessons. When decent medical care was a luxury, egalitarians did not strangle doctors and cackle sadistically as their wealthy patients squirmed and died. They opened public hospitals and clinics. When egalitarians learned that residents of the city’s better quarters enjoyed clean water, they did not pollute it with typhoid bacteria or human filth. They launched public health campaigns to make clean water generally available.

The actual history of egalitarianism is crammed with struggles to improve the lives of those badly off. Not simply to get them more money, but to get them recognized and treated as dignified equals. Once ordinary men and women were subjects, not citizens. They were ruled by their betters, by men of quality. And egalitarians protested. Listen to soldier Thomas Rainborough in 1647, demanding a voice in elections as the radicals fighting King Charles I debated their agenda: “The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.”13 Listen to would-be regicide Richard Rumbold’s speech at the scaffold in 1685: “None comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.”14 Ten days before dying, Thomas Jefferson would echo this trenchant bit of equality, and I’m delighted to repeat it: “The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”15 Resentment and envy? An attack on liberty? The end of civilization? Oh, please.

Today we think of personhood as a binary concept: You either are a person or you’re not. But for centuries, personhood was dimensional: Some (“men of quality,” “the world”) were more fully human than others (“silly clowns,” “villains”). The infamous three-fifths compromise of the Constitution is merely a formal legal expression of this sort of thing. The campaign against slavery is simultaneously a campaign for freedom and for equality, the two more or less indistinguishable here.

Or take equality under the law. Justice is blind. As classical liberal John Locke put it, “the community comes to be umpire, by settled standing rules, indifferent, and the same to all parties.”16 In Locke’s day, that was a battle cry against special legal privileges for churchmen, aristocrats, and the king, all in different ways not legally accountable as others were—indeed, sometimes not legally accountable at all. Rinse and repeat for struggles against racism, misogyny, homophobia, and the rest. It shouldn’t count against you that you are black or female or gay or Muslim. It shouldn’t affect whether you get a speeding ticket, whether you’re more likely to be shot in an exchange with the police, whether you can serve on a jury or run for office, whether you go to a minimum-security prison and emerge praising the exercise facilities or to Attica and emerge raped, battered, and traumatized. This ideal is constitutionally enshrined in the guarantee of equal protection of the laws. It is central to our understandings of liberty and of civilization, not some pernicious threat to them.

Crucial as these legal strictures are, blindfolded justice has a more general form. In any social setting, you have to ignore some facts about others as irrelevant. When I’m grading students, I pay keen attention to how good, bad, or indifferent their class performance was, how crisp and clear their exams or papers are, and so on. I must not pay the slightest attention to whether they’re good-looking, whether I politically sympathize with them, whether they share my sensibilities about religion or music or spicy food.

Celebrants of the market have seized on the same structural demand. Economist James M. Buchanan ruminates on a roadside produce stand. People buying and selling “can enter into and complete exchanges without detailed knowledge of the political persuasions, sexual attitudes, or economic statuses of their actual trading partners.” Then, amusingly, he turns up the volume: “The fruit stand operator may beat his horse, shoot dogs, and eat rats. But none of these qualities need affect my strictly economic trade with him.” Likewise, the produce merchant might despise pointy-headed university professors. But Buchanan’s dollar is as good as anyone else’s. Buchanan enlists the point as one of the “Bases for Freedom in Society.”17 It is every bit as much a basis of equality.

Remember the mistake of casting social relations as generally voluntary. Remember the point I suggested that you’ve known your whole life, that one institution after another runs on authority and governance. No wonder that we then find campaigns against wage slavery and household slavery. You can worry about the hyperbole—chattel slavery was a hell all its own—but the strategy is clear enough. Why should owning a workplace entitle you to govern the workers? Why should being a husband entitle you to govern a wife and consign her to chores? Here again, equality isn’t the enemy of freedom. It’s more or less the same thing, packaged a bit differently: The underlings are denied liberty. If none are born booted and spurred to ride over others, a wide range of social practices simultaneously undercut equality and liberty. When those subjugated wrest free, they emerge not just as dignified equals but also as free individuals.

These conceptions of equality don’t even begin to lend themselves to the jaundiced sneers of the critics I began with. Actual egalitarians aren’t the comic-book villains enchanted by the Procrustean image of forcing everyone to be identical or by the resentful drive to “raze the mountains.” To take just one ongoing example, #BlackLivesMatter does not in fact stand for leveling down. The activists brandishing that hashtag do not long for the day where the authorities display contempt for white lives, too. They assume, sensibly enough, that everyone already understands that white lives matter, that blue lives matter, too. (When suffragettes marched behind signs that screamed VOTES FOR WOMEN, no one should have feared for an instant that they wanted to rip the vote away from men.) They want black lives to count, to matter as much and in the same way as others’ lives matter. What liberty is threatened by that bid for equality? The liberty to shoot others and get away with it?

A while ago, I confessed that I was tempted to say I didn’t see the slightest conflict between equality and liberty. I won’t succumb to that temptation, though, and now I want to turn to three recent policy disputes that could plausibly be described as posing that conflict.

One: There’s an ongoing collision between antidiscrimination law and free exercise claims. A gay couple wants to buy a cake to celebrate their wedding. The baker believes that same-sex marriage is sinful and wants no part of it. He says he is not discriminating against the couple on grounds of sexual orientation. He’d be happy to sell them birthday cakes, for instance. They respond that of course he’s discriminating. He sells wedding cakes to straight couples but not to gay couples. That, in bald and partial outline, is the recent notorious case, Masterpiece Cakeshop.18 You needn’t describe the conflict here as one between equality and liberty. But that description isn’t dumb, either.

Two: Sometimes people denounce others’ speech as racist or misogynist or homophobic. Such speech, they say, is not simply unpleasant or offensive. It is downright harmful: It helps cement the second-class status of some members of the community. Lurking in this terrain is a fantasy about free speech, the one disqualifying any constraints on what anyone can say as political correctness. But—back to rules and freedom—that can’t be right. A boor with a megaphone can shut down any conversation or debate he likes: “I have my right of free speech!” he bellows. “I will not be silenced!” Nor is it enough to invoke what First Amendment law calls “time, place, and manner constraints” and say the problem is the volume of his speech, not its content. We do want to exclude particular content. A boor without a megaphone can also shut down conversation: “You’re just a fucking”—well, I really don’t want to write down some bit of nasty invective, and you don’t want to read it, but make yourself choose one of those poisonous words and insert it—“You’re just a fucking [invective], so shut the fuck up.” Even if we’re right to want to exclude such speech, once again it isn’t stupid to diagnose the problem as a conflict between equality and liberty.

Three: Some recent denunciations of economic inequality focus on the shape of the income distribution or how it’s changed over time. People calculate Gini coefficients, a statistical measure of inequality. They lament the fact that over the last several decades the top 1% have gained the lion’s share of new income. Or, turning to wealth, they complain, say, that the top 0.1% are worth on average over $100 million, while the bottom 40%’s net worth is negative.19 Some of these critiques point to the rules of the game, to worries about equality of opportunity, the tax code, and so on. But some are unabashedly about equality of outcome. Doesn’t that show that there’s no mistake in spying a conflict between equality and liberty? Nope. Again, if you cast equality as requiring that everyone earn or have the same amount of money, and liberty as meaning everyone gets to keep whatever they make in a free market, you can gin up a conflict. Back in the real world, though, even enthusiastic egalitarians don’t think anything of the sort. Elizabeth Warren proposed a wealth tax of 2% on holdings over $50 million, with an additional 1% kicking in on holdings over $1 billion.20 Like the proposal or not, it would leave the very wealthy very wealthy.

Perhaps you’re tempted to enlist these three recent policy disputes as evidence for the grand thesis that equality threatens liberty. But you shouldn’t be, because that makes no sense. It would mean adopting a particular understanding of three particular problems, generalizing like mad, and ignoring all the other points I’ve adduced. So it would be an illicit bait and switch. Equality means so much more than its critics imagine. And though I haven’t put as much explicit pressure on it, liberty means so much more than its champions imagine. Equality and liberty sometimes coincide and often cohere. Summoning up a pointed conflict between the two is hysterical.


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