Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Free people are not equal, and equal people are not free

I first heard this principle discussed when I attended a lecture a few years ago by it's author, Lawrence Reed, who wrote it during his tenure as the Head of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The excerpt posted below is with his kind permission; it is the first item in an address entitled "Seven Principles of Sound Public Policy." Reading the entire document would be well worth your time.

The message in the passage below is especially pertinent as we watch our government in a headlong rush to a centrally planned economy amid broad clamoring for mandated "social and economic justice," which I take as code words for mandated equal outcomes.


Free people are not equal, and equal people are not free.

First, I should clarify the kind of “equalness” to which I refer in this statement. I am not referring to equality before the law — the notion that you should be judged innocent or guilty of an offense based upon whether or not you did it, with your race, sex, wealth, creed, gender or religion having nothing to do with the outcome. That’s an important foundation of Western civilization, and though we often fall short of it, I doubt that anyone here would quarrel with the concept.

No, the "equalness" to which I refer is all about income and material wealth — what we earn and acquire in the marketplace of commerce, work and exchange. I’m speaking of economic equality. Let’s take this first principle and break it into its two halves.

Free people are not equal. When people are free to be themselves, to be masters of their own destinies, to apply themselves in an effort to improve their well-being and that of their families, the result in the marketplace will not be an equality of outcomes. People will earn vastly different levels of income; they will accumulate vastly different levels of wealth. While some lament that fact and speak dolefully of "the gap between rich and poor," I think people being themselves in a free society is a wonderful thing. Each of us is a unique being, different in endless ways from any other single being living or dead. Why on earth should we expect our interactions in the marketplace to produce identical results?

We are different in terms of our talents. Some have more than others, or more valuable talents. Some don’t discover their highest talents until late in life, or not at all. Magic Johnson is a talented basketball player. Should it surprise anyone that he makes infinitely more money at basketball than I ever could? Will Kellogg didn’t discover his incredible entrepreneurial and marketing talent until age 46; before he struck out on his own to start the Kellogg Company, he was making about $25 a week doing menial jobs for his older brother in a Battle Creek sanitarium.

We are different in terms of our industriousness, our willingness to work. Some work harder, longer and smarter than others. That makes for vast differences in how others value what we do and in how much they’re willing to pay for it.

We are different also in terms of our savings. I would argue that if the president could somehow snap his fingers and equalize us all in terms of income and wealth tonight, we would be unequal again by this time tomorrow because some of us would save our money and some of us would spend it. These are three reasons, but by no means the only three reasons, why free people are simply not going to be equal economically.

Equal people are not free, the second half of my first principle, really gets down to brass tacks. Show me a people anywhere on the planet who are indeed equal economically, and I’ll show you a very unfree people. Why?

The only way in which you could have even the remotest chance of equalizing income and wealth across society is to put a gun to everyone’s head. You would literally have to employ force to make people equal. You would have to give orders, backed up by the guillotine, the hangman’s noose, the bullet or the electric chair. Orders that would go like this: Don’t excel. Don’t work harder or smarter than the next guy. Don’t save more wisely than anyone else. Don’t be there first with a new product. Don’t provide a good or service that people might want more than anything your competitor is offering.

Believe me, you wouldn’t want a society where these were the orders. Cambodia under the communist Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s came close to it, and the result was that upwards of 2 million out of 8 million people died in less than four years. Except for the elite at the top who wielded power, the people of that sad land who survived that period lived at something not much above the Stone Age.

What’s the message of this first principle? Don’t get hung up on differences in income when they result from people being themselves. If they result from artificial political barriers, then get rid of those barriers. But don’t try to take unequal people and compress them into some homogenous heap. You’ll never get there, and you’ll wreak a lot of havoc trying.

Confiscatory tax rates, for example, don’t make people any more equal; they just drive the industrious and the entrepreneurial to other places or into other endeavors while impoverishing the many who would otherwise benefit from their resourcefulness. Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said, "You cannot pull a man up by dragging another man down."


And as a "little bit," I'm adding this paragraph from Principle 7 in the same work:

Too often today, policymakers give no thought whatsoever to the general state of liberty when they craft new policies. If it feels good or sounds good or gets them elected, they just do it. Anyone along the way who might raise liberty-based objections is ridiculed or ignored. Today, government at all levels consumes more than 42 percent of all that we produce, compared with perhaps 6 percent or 7 percent in 1900. Yet few people seem interested in asking the advocates of still more government such cogent questions as, "Why isn’t 42 percent enough?"; "How much more do you want?"; or, "To what degree do you think a person is entitled to the fruits of his labor?"

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