The Supposed Ideal of Universal Equality

Yesterday evening, the FT reported that Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, has bought a penthouse at One Hyde Park for £136.6 million ($222 million). Having contrasted this wonderful extravagance to the hardship of the masses, it is no wonder that the consensual mind deems this to be ‘disgusting’ and/or ‘immoral’.

 

Cartoon of One Hyde Park & a Normal Person

Click to enlarge.

 

As contrarians, we should be keen to critically examine this unchallenged prejudice – is universal equality really an ideal?

 

Even back in 1974, the egalitarian ideal was unquestioned and widely held. In Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, Murray N. Rothbard writes;

 

It is rare indeed in the United States to find anyone, especially any intellectual, challenging the beauty and goodness of the egalitarian ideal. So committed is everyone to this ideal that “impracticality” – that is, the weakening of economic incentives – has been virtually the only criticism against even the most bizarre egalitarian programs.

 

Nowadays, this is particularly true when applied to the policy of progressive taxation. It is deemed to be a moral ideal to ‘take from the rich and give to the poor’ – the only charge held against it is that it might induce a ‘brain drain’ (i.e. the rich might leave). That is, the policy of charging progressively higher tax rates is deemed to be a “good” from a moral point of view, but a “bad” from an economic point of view. Rothbard points out that even advocates of progressive taxation admit this:

 

Consider, for example, the late Henry C. Simons. After properly criticizing various “scientific” arguments for progressive taxation, he came out flatly for progression as follows:

 

The case for drastic progression in taxation must be rested on the case against inequality – on the ethical or aesthetic judgment that the prevailing distribution of wealth and income reveals a degree (and/or kind) of inequality which is distinctly evil or unlovely.

 

After decades (or perhaps centuries) of this kind of thinking, we’re left with enormous marginal tax rates for high earners across the globe:

 

Global Marginal Tax Rates for High Earners

Click to enlarge. Source: OECD Statistics

 

In 2009, the average high earner in the OECD was paying 41% of every additional currency unit earned in income tax alone. Astonishingly, high earners in Denmark pay around 63% in taxes for every additional Danish Krone earned!

 

But what if this moral ideal is – itself – misguided? Then policies such as progressive taxation would have no ground to stand on at all. This is precisely what Murray Rothbard contended (in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature):

 

Let us proceed, then to a critique of the egalitarian ideal itself – should equality be granted its current status as an unquestioned ethical ideal?… if an ethical goal violates the nature of man and/or the universe and, therefore cannot work in practice, then it is a bad ideal and should be dismissed as a goal. If the goal itself violates the nature of man, then it is also a poor idea to work in the direction of that goal.

 

Rothbard contends that, if we can show the notion of ‘equality’ to be categorically at odds with the nature of man and the universe, then it should be disregarded as an ethical ideal. So, what is equality?

 

The term has been much invoked but little analyzed. A and B are “equal” if they are identical to each other with respect to a given attribute… There is one and only one way, then, in which any two people can really be “equal” in the fullest sense: they must be identical in all of their attributes. This means, of course, that equality of all men – the egalitarian ideal – can only be achieved if all men are precisely uniform, precisely identical with respect to all of their attributes.

 

… An egalitarian society can only hope to achieve its goals by totalitarian methods of coercion; and, even here, we all believe and hope the human spirit of individual man will rise up and thwart any such attempts to achieve an ant-heap world. In short, the portrayal of an egalitarian society is horror fiction because, when the implications of such a world are fully spelled out, we recognize that such a world and such attempts are profoundly antihuman; being antihuman in the deepest sense, the egalitarian goal is, therefore, evil and any attempts in the direction of such a goal must be considered evil as well.

 

… The age-old record of inequality seems to indicate that this variability and diversity is rooted in the biological nature of man.

 

… The egalitarian revolt against biological reality, as significant as it is, is only a subset of a deeper revolt: against the ontological structure of reality itself, against the “very organization of nature”; against the universe as such. At the heart of the egalitarian left is the pathological belief that there is no structure of reality; that all the world is a tabula rasa that can be changed at any moment in any desired direction by the mere exercise of human will – in short, that reality can be instantly transformed by the mere wish or whim of human beings. Surely this sort of infantile thinking is at the heart of Herbert Marcuse’s passionate call for the comprehensive negation of the existing structure of reality and for its transformation into what he divines to be its true potential.

 

Rothbard delivers the final blow to the supposed ideal of egalitarianism by this succinct paragraph:

 

Since their methodology and their goals deny the very structure of humanity and of the universe, the egalitarians are profoundly antihuman; and, therefore, their ideology and their activities may be set down as profoundly evil as well. Egalitarains do not have ehtics on their side unless one can maintain that the destructuion of civilization, and even of the human race itself, may be crowned with the laurel wreath of a high and laudable morality.

 

Conclusion:

 

Behind the calls for intervention to achieve equality in wealth is the ideal that we should all be equal. This ideal is antihuman and anti-reality, and hence should be disregarded as a foolish and immature goal. Murray N. Rothbard dismissed these childish notions years ago, and yet they still pervade consensual thinking today.

 

Rothbard’s book is available for free at the mises institute.

 

See here for our collection of rare historical economic data.

Posted Apr 19, 2011
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