Demonizing Inequality

In 1915, The Supreme Court of the United States, through Justice Mahlon Pitney, acknowledged and embraced what has become perhaps the most-cited argument by those on the Left who oppose conservative and libertarian reforms. Pitney wrote,

"it is impossible to uphold freedom of contract and the right of private property without at the same time recognizing as legitimate those inequalities of fortune that are the necessary result of the exercise of those rights."

He wasn't wrong.

Of course, it is true that in a country as large and diverse as ours, liberty would give society seemingly iinnumerable choices of ideas, products, services, and everything else. These choices would compete with one another in their respective categories for the endorsements of as many individuals in our society as they could earn. Naturally, the mot preferable choices in each category would receive the most endorsements; and, as a result, the givers of those choices would benefit more than those of the less popular ones.

What's so evil about that?

In Federalist No. 10, James Madison stated:

"theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions."

Many a liberal might say that this admission of the inevitability of unequal outcomes, by perhaps our nation's most revered founding father, should make the choice of liberty vs. government intervention an easy one. We've all heard the spiel:

"Look!" they say. "Even Madison knew that inequality would result from these libertarian ideas which so many right-wing tea partiers seem to love." Then comes the boogeyman: "What if it's you who ends up on the bottom?" Then, the salvation pitch: "Vote for us, and we'll make sure you don't end up with too little."

Liberals, including President Obama -- who recently asserted, "[income] inequality is not just morally wrong, it's bad economics" -- have been characterizing unequal outcomes as an evil of libertarianism for years. This line of argument has fueled the debate of legal vs. actual equality that continues to rage on American editorial pages every day.

Barry Goldwater summarized the libertarian position in this debate quite nicely:

"Equality, rightly understood as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences; wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism."

Goldwater's quote explains how, while recognizing that inequalities would result in a system where only legal equality was guaranteed, Madison could at the same time refer to any pursuit of "an equal division of property" as a "wicked project," and market the Constitution as an instrument which would guard against movements to that end.

Yet, one of the biggest reasons libertarian ideas have not been more widely embraced is because many people have bought into precisely the kind of attacks on liberty and personal freedom described above. No one seems to consider the idea that mandating the equality of outcomes might very well involve greater evils than a system that prefers liberty. This fact leads many classical liberals and conservatives to wonder if perhaps De Tocqueville was right when he famously contended

"Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom."

Now, let's go back to the point I made earlier about liberty leading to choices which would compete with one another. What libertarians and conservatives need to explain is that these choices and their competition with each other (which only liberty makes possible) are good for society:

● First, the competition for endorsements helps ensure that the wants of any particular niche within a particular category are met. (Case in point: Vegan restaurants, gay bars, historically Black colleges, S&M conventions -- you name it -- there's something for everyone.)

● Secondly, the competition to acquire more endorsements within a category or niche drives innovation by rewarding choice-givers (with more endorsements) who offer products, services, ideas, etc. that are better, cheaper and more efficient than what exists at a particular moment. (Hence the evolution of the mobile phone, personal computers, fitness supplements, medicine, Television, etc.)

The Right needs to articulate (with greater authority and mastery than it has) the detriments that naturally accompany any attempts to equalize outcomes; such as the diminishment of the incentives to enter or compete within particular markets, and the effects of such a diminishment. Think about it: if both Apple and Microsoft were forced to split the earnings of their category equally, what motivation would they have to beat each other to the punch with newer technology or improvements on existing products?

This example is admittedly an oversimplification. But the overall point still stands. Efforts to equalize outcomes disincentivize competition and hard work, which hurts everyone. Those of us who cherish our liberty must remind the American people of why, although not everyone can "win" (if such a term may be applied), social utility is best served when, as John Stuart Mill put it, "the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual" is limited.

Ralf Mangual is a second-year law student at DePaul University's College of Law and a contributor to The Heartland Institute's blog, Somewhat Reasonable. Ralf's commentary has also appeared in The Daily Caller and Human Events.