My Own Pie

Libertarian Thoughts from Renaissance Guy

Hierarchical Equality

with 7 comments

     Two quotations of  Friedrich Hayek struck me today:

A claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers.

Even the striving for equality by means of a directed economy can result only in an officially enforced inequality – an authoritarian determination of the status of each individual in the new hierarchical order.

     His statements seem obvious to me. 

     In order to make people “equal” there must be some force applied.  I see it on a small scale in my family.  My wife and I used to distribute snacks and treats to our children when they were small.  That was the only way that we could make sure that nobody got more than their fair share.  In that system, though, it’s obvious that the children were not equal to their mom and me.  If we, the parents, wanted a double portion of dessert, we could take it.

     That’s Hayek’s other point.  Not only must a totalitarian government (the parents) be the means to acheive equality, but such a system, by definition, is unequal.  In a nation we can note at least three levels of a hierarchy:  the political leaders who authorize favors, the beaurocrats who dole out the favors on behalf of the political leaders, the ordinary people.  There is nothing inherently wrong with having a hierarchical system, but there is no way for such a system to create the equality that socialists, statists, progressivists, et al. talk about.

     It is appropirate in a family for there to be inequality.  The children need responsibile parents to control what they do for their own good, but, of course, they need the parents to turn control over to them gradually, as they become more mature and more responsible for themselves.  Which is why it is inappropriate for political leaders to follow the same model.

     If nations are to be run like families, an immediate problem arises.  Some of the adults in the nation must act as the parents, while others must remain in the role of  the children.  How should that be decided?  Should the smartest people be placed in the parent role?  The richest?  The most popular? 

     And where does that leave people not so gifted?  The least intelligent are the runts of the family.  The most unlikeable become the Cinderellas who must do all the grunt work and do all the chores.  (The fairy godmother, by the way, would be a little thing called Freedom.  More on that later.)

     Our President and our members of the Congress make well above the median income in the United States.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but the average person is certainly not “equal” to them.  It’s hard to imagine some way that they could ensure “equality” without their being way above the average person in earnings and status.  It probably wouldn’t do to have a cafeteria lady or a street sweeper running the state–although sometimes I think that such people might do a better job.

     (Someone recently wrote to me that it is totally appropirate for Al Gore to have huge electricity bills, since he is who he is.  Well, I can tell you that I am nowhere near “equal” to him, although he is a big proponent of equality.)

     The President and the Congress are the ones who set up all the departments and agencies that strive to implement equality.  Most of those people make more than the median American income.  They are one tier down from the political leaders, since their salaries are generally lower and their jobs depend upon the whims of those leaders.  They are usually chosen because of favors that they have already done or that they will have the power to do for the elected leaders.  Even among this tier, though, there is inequality.  The assistants and clerks certainly do not make as much as the heads of agencies.  Regional leaders make less than national leaders, as one would expect.  It’s ironic that even people who espouse equality usually pay people at different scales.

     Then there are the ordinary people.  In theory, they should all be equal, according to socialist and semi-socialist political philosophies.  It has never worked that way in real life.  Political leaders favor certain groups and certain individuals and disfavor others.  Most of this favoritism is based on political expediency.  If trade unions can help them retain power, politicians will favor trade unions.  If business owners are more likely to give them what they want, politicians will favor business owners.  Some politiicans will try to keep both groups on their side.  A few, very few, politiicans actually act on principle in choosing their allies and adopting their positions.

     When it comes to the status of business in the hierarchy, it depends on the nature of the business.  At one time in America it was illegal to manufacture or sell alcoholic beverages.  At the same time that the government shut down businesses related to those beverages, it was continuing to support the railroad industry and the communications industry, among others.  How equal was that?

     I want to state again what I am saying.  I am not arguing for an unstratified nation.  There will always be strata.  I am arguing precisely that point, and I think that Hayek would agree.  The dream of “equality” is an impossible dream, if equality is taken to mean that everyone has the same economic status or even something close to it. 

     Orwell understood it.  In Animal Farm, the utopian government devolved quickly into a system in which some animals were “more equal” than others.  It is inescapable.

    There is something beter than equality, and its name is freedom.  With freedom, people can become as “equal” as they are willing and able to become.  But before you start pointing to present inequalities in America, let me say that we do not have enough freedom in America.  You cannot prove your point by looking at a state-regulated system and saying it proves that a free market doesn’t work.


Written by ambrosianideas

August 12, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Posted in Equality, Freedom

7 Responses

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  1. […]      I wrote about equality as an impossible dream in “Hierarchical Equality.” […]

  2. But what is freedom? I think there must be basic efforts to approach equal opportunity for there to be true freedom. Equal opportunity only means that one is responsible for what one earns, it’s not the result of the conditions in which one is born into.

    Scott Erb

    August 13, 2010 at 3:54 am

  3. There’s legal equality and “equality of material position” that Hayek is arguing against.

    Most people in the United States believe in legal equality. You can’t discriminate against black people for being black, you can’t discriminate against men for being men, etc., etc. Everyone has the same rights, and laws passed by the government affect people in the same ways no matter their sex, race, or creed.

    “Equality of material position,” i.e. Communism, is something entirely different. As a governmental philosophy, I oppose it too. The clerks shouldn’t be paid as much as the heads of agencies. The Mayor of Bell shouldn’t make more than the President of the United States.

    That, of course, is because just about everyone in the United States disagrees with communism, liberal and conservative alike. The liberal policies that drive some people crazy are more socialist than communist, not that you’d think that there was any difference listening to some of the radio talking heads.

    Still, nothing in those policies is arguing for equality of pay between a CEO and a custodian.

    Finally, on Animal Farm . . . it argued against Communism, but it also argued against the abuse of power. I would argue that it made a clear case for the need for checks and balances on the various branches of government. There shouldn’t be a unitary executive, regardless of whether the person that holds that seat is a “good” person or not.

    Spherical Time

    August 13, 2010 at 12:52 pm

  4. We are writing these things at a time when our President wants to “spread the wealth around.” Hmm. . .

    ST, if I understand you correctly, you would like a plural presidency. Is that right? I actually like the idea myself. Switzerland has a council for their executive, and I think it is a good idea.


    August 13, 2010 at 1:26 pm

  5. “Spread the wealth around” is a meaningless statement — cherry picking one liners and reading into them isn’t really saying much. Let’s look at real policy arguments and proposals. The left, after all, is mad that Obama is not pushing an extreme agenda. I do think too much power is centralized in the US, so borrowing from Switzerland sounds good to me! It’s not politically feasible, but…

    Scott Erb

    August 13, 2010 at 2:46 pm

  6. ST,

    We would still have legal equality if we removed every entitlement program in America. It’s clear that some on the left want more than legal equality; they want equality of outcomes.

    So now are you ready to admit that we have a socialist state in America. As long as we don’t try to call it communist? Most leftists don’t even want to call it socialist.


    Are you saying that Barack Obama is prone to make meaningless statements?

    Shall we debate the health insurance legislation, then, since youwant to talk about real policy proposals?


    August 14, 2010 at 5:21 am

  7. We’re all prone to making meaningless statements! I think the health care reform bill was a positive move, but not a solution to all the problems.

    Scott Erb

    August 15, 2010 at 3:42 am

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