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Hierarchical Equality

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     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