Liberalism and Equality

Liberalism and Equality
Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises
[This article is excerpted from Liberalism, Chapter 1]
4. Equality

Nowhere is the difference between the reasoning of the older liberalism and that of neoliberalism clearer and easier to demonstrate than in their treatment of the problem of equality. The liberals of the eighteenth century, guided by the ideas of natural law and of the Enlightenment, demanded for everyone equality of political and civil rights because they assumed that all men are equal. God created all men equal, endowing them with fundamentally the same capabilities and talents, breathing into all of them the breath of His spirit. All distinctions between men are only artificial, the product of social, human?that is to say, transitory?institutions. What is imperishable in man?his spirit?is undoubtedly the same in rich and poor, noble and commoner, white and colored.

Nothing, however, is as ill-founded as the assertion of the alleged equality of all members of the human race. Men are altogether unequal. Even between brothers there exist the most marked differences in physical and mental attributes. Nature never repeats itself in its creations; it produces nothing by the dozen, nor are its products standardized. Each man who leaves her workshop bears the imprint of the individual, the unique, the never-to-recur. Men are not equal, and the demand for equality under the law can by no means be grounded in the contention that equal treatment is due to equals.

There are two distinct reasons why all men should receive equal treatment under the law. One was already mentioned when we analyzed the objections to involuntary servitude. In order for human labor to realize its highest attainable productivity, the worker must be free, because only the free worker, enjoying in the form of wages the fruits of his own industry, will exert himself to the full. The second consideration in favor of the equality of all men under the law is the maintenance of social peace. It has already been pointed out that every disturbance of the peaceful development of the division of labor must be avoided. But it is well-nigh impossible to preserve lasting peace in a society in which the rights and duties of the respective classes are different. Whoever denies rights to a part of the population must always be prepared for a united attack by the disenfranchised on the privileged. Class privileges must disappear so that the conflict over them may cease.

It is therefore quite unjustifiable to find fault with the manner in which liberalism put into effect its postulate of equality, on the ground that what it created was only equality before the law, and not real equality. All human power would be insufficient to make men really equal. Men are and will always remain unequal. It is sober considerations of utility such as those we have here presented that constitute the argument in favor of the equality of all men under the law. Liberalism never aimed at anything more than this, nor could it ask for anything more. It is beyond human power to make a Negro white. But the Negro can be granted the same rights as the white man and thereby offered the possibility of earning as much if he produces as much.

But, the socialists say, it is not enough to make men equal before the law. In order to make them really equal, one must also allot them the same income. It is not enough to abolish privileges of birth and of rank. One must finish the job and do away with the greatest and most important privilege of all, namely, that which is accorded by private property. Only then will the liberal program be completely realized, and a consistent liberalism thus leads ultimately to socialism, to the abolition of private ownership of the means of production.

Privilege is an institutional arrangement favoring some individuals or a certain group at the expense of the rest. The privilege exists, although it harms some?perhaps the majority?and benefits no one except those for whose advantage it was created. In the feudal order of the Middle Ages certain lords had the hereditary right to hold a judgeship. They were judges because they had inherited the position, regardless of whether they possessed the abilities and qualities of character that fit a man to be a judge. In their eyes this office was nothing more than a lucrative source of income. Here judgeship was the privilege of a class of noble birth.

If, however, as in modern states, judges are always drawn from the circle of those with legal knowledge and experience, this does not constitute a privilege in favor of lawyers. Preference is given to lawyers, not for their sake, but for the sake of the public welfare, because people are generally of the opinion that a knowledge of jurisprudence is an indispensable prerequisite for holding a judgeship. The question whether a certain institutional arrangement is or is not to be regarded as a privilege granted to a certain group, class, or person is not to be decided by whether or not it is advantageous to that group, class, or person, but according to how beneficial to the general public it is considered to be. The fact that on a ship at sea one man is captain and the rest constitute his crew and are subject to his command is certainly an advantage for the captain. Nevertheless, it is not a privilege of the captain if he possesses the ability to steer the ship between reefs in a storm and thereby to be of service not only to himself, but to the whole crew.

In order to determine whether an institutional arrangement is to be regarded as the special privilege of an individual or of a class, the question one should ask is not whether it benefits this or that individual or class, but only whether it is beneficial to the general public. If we reach the conclusion that only private ownership of the means of production makes possible the prosperous development of human society, it is clear that this is tantamount to saying that private property is not a privilege of the property owner, but a social institution for the good and benefit of all, even though it may at the same time be especially agreeable and advantageous to some.

It is not on behalf of property owners that liberalism favors the preservation of the institution of private property. It is not because the abolition of that institution would violate property rights that the liberals want to preserve it. If they considered the abolition of the institution of private property to be in the general interest, they would advocate that it be abolished, no matter how prejudicial such a policy might be to the interests of property owners. However, the preservation of that institution is in the interest of all strata of society. Even the poor man, who can call nothing his own, lives incomparably better in our society than he would in one that would prove incapable of producing even a fraction of what is produced in our own.

5 The Inequality of Wealth and Income

What is most criticized in our social order is the inequality in the distribution of wealth and income, There are rich and poor; there are very rich and very poor. The way out is not far to seek: the equal distribution of all wealth.

The first objection to this proposal is that it will not help the situation much because those of moderate means far outnumber the rich, so that each individual could expect from such a distribution only a quite insignificant increment in his standard of living. This is certainly correct, but the argument is not complete. Those who advocate equality of income distribution overlook the most important point, namely, that the total available for distribution, the annual product of social labor, is not independent of the manner in which it is divided. The fact that that product today is as great as it is, is not a natural or technological phenomenon independent of all social conditions, but entirely the result of our social institutions. Only because inequality of wealth is possible in our social order, only because it stimulates everyone to produce as much as he can and at the lowest cost, does mankind today have at its disposal the total annual wealth now available for consumption. Were this incentive to be destroyed, productivity would be so greatly reduced that the portion that an equal distribution would allot to each individual would be far less than what even the poorest receives today.

The inequality of income distribution has, however, still a second function quite as important as the one already mentioned: it makes possible the luxury of the rich.

Many foolish things have been said and written about luxury. Against luxury consumption it has been objected that it is unjust that some should enjoy great abundance while others are in want. This argument seems to have some merit. But it only seems so. For if it can be shown that luxury consumption performs a useful function in the system of social cooperation, then the argument will be proved invalid. This, however, is what we shall seek to demonstrate.

Our defense of luxury consumption is not, of course, the argument that one occasionally hears, that is, that it spreads money among the people. If the rich did not indulge themselves in luxuries, it is said, the poor would have no income. This is simply nonsense. For if there were no luxury consumption, the capital and labor that would otherwise have been applied to the production of luxury goods would produce other goods: articles of mass consumption, necessary articles, instead of “superfluous” ones.

To form a correct conception of the social significance of luxury consumption, one must first of all realize that the concept of luxury is an altogether relative one. Luxury consists in a way of living that stands in sharp contrast to that of the great mass of one’s contemporaries. The conception of luxury is, therefore, essentially historical. Many things that seem to us necessities today were once considered as luxuries. When, in the Middle Ages, an aristocratic Byzantine lady who had married a Venetian doge made use of a golden implement, which could be called the forerunner of the fork as we know it today, instead of her fingers, in eating her meals, the Venetians looked on this as a godless luxury, and they thought it only just when the lady was stricken with a dreadful disease; this must be, they supposed, the well-merited punishment of God for such unnatural extravagance. Two or three generations ago even in England an indoor bathroom was considered a luxury; today the home of every English worker of the better type contains one. Thirty-five years ago there were no automobiles; twenty years ago the possession of such a vehicle was the sign of a particularly luxurious mode of living; today in the United States even the worker has his Ford. This is the course of economic history. The luxury of today is the necessity of tomorrow. Every advance first comes into being as the luxury of a few rich people, only to become, after a time, the indispensable necessity taken for granted by everyone. Luxury consumption provides industry with the stimulus to discover and introduce new, things. It is one of the dynamic factors in our economy. To it we owe the progressive innovations by which the standard of living of all strata of the population has been gradually raised.

Most of us have no sympathy with the rich idler who spends his life in pleasure without ever doing any work. But even he fulfills a function in the life of the social organism. He sets an example of luxury that awakens in the multitude a consciousness of new needs and gives industry the incentive to fulfill them. There was a time when only the rich could afford the luxury of visiting foreign countries. Schiller never saw the Swiss mountains, which he celebrated in Wilhelm Tell, although they bordered on his Swabian homeland. Goethe saw neither Paris nor Vienna nor London. Today, however, hundreds of thousands travel, and soon millions will do so.

Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises

Ludwig von Mises was one of the most notable economists and social philosophers of the twentieth century. In the course of a long and highly productive life, developed an integrated, deduct­ive science of economics based on the fundamental axiom that in­dividual human beings act purposively to achieve desired goals. Even though his economic analysis itself was "value-free" — in the sense of being irrelevant to values held by economists — Mises concluded that the only viable economic policy for the human race was a policy of unrestricted laissez-faire, of free markets and the unhampered exercise of the right of private property, with government strictly limited to the defense of person and property within its territorial area.

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