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The Absurdity of Egalitarianism

Egalitarians believe that inequality is unjust and justice requires a society to move steadily toward greater equality. This is the aim of proportional taxation, equal opportunity programs, and the various anti-poverty policies of a welfare state. These policies cost money. The egalitarian approach to getting it is to tax those who have more in order to benefit those who have less. The absurdity of this is that egalitarians suppose that justice requires ignoring whether people deserve what they have and whether they are responsible for what they lack. They suppose that it is just to ignore the requirements of justice.

Here is a consequence of egalitarianism. According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, men’s life expectancy is on the average about seven years less than women’s. There is thus an inequality between men and women. If egalitarians really mean that it would be better if everyone enjoyed the same level of social and economic benefits, then they must find the inequality between the life expectancy of men and women unjust. Following their reasoning, it ought to be a requirement of justice to equalize the life expectancy of men and women. This can be done, for instance, by men having more and better healthcare and working shorter hours than women.

Moreover, an inequality that follows from the unequal life expectancy of men and women is that men are less likely to benefit after retirement from Social Security and Medicare. As things are, men and women are required to contribute an equal percentage of their earnings to these programs. This is clearly unjust from the egalitarian point of view: Why should men be required to subsidize the health and wealth of women? The egalitarian policy this suggests is to decrease the levy on men, or increase it on women. There is much that egalitarian policies could do to reduce the inequalities flowing from the disparate life expectancy of men and women.

Why Not Government-Sponsored Pleasure Centers?

There remains the question of how to compensate the present generation of men for the injustice of having shorter lives than women. No compensation can undo the damage, but it may make it easier to bear. The obvious policy is to set up programs designed to provide for men at least some of the benefits they would have enjoyed had their life expectancy been equal to women’s. There is a lot of pleasure that could be had in those seven years that men are not going to have. One efficient way of compensating them for their loss would be to set up government-sponsored pleasure centers in which men may spend the hours and days gained from having shorter working days and longer vacations.

These absurdities, which follow from egalitarianism, cast doubt on its fundamental logic. This ought to lead to the suspicion that the measures more usually associated with egalitarianism—anti-poverty programs, various welfare legislation, proportional taxation, the preferential treatment of minorities and women—suffer from an analogous absurdity. One may actually come to suspect that the familiar egalitarian policies do not appear absurd only because they are made familiar by endlessly repeated rhetoric that disguises the lack of reasons for them.

The Egalitarians’ Stereotypes

Can egalitarians avoid these absurdities? They might claim that there is a significant disanalogy between the unequal life expectancy of men and women, and the inequality between rich and poor, whites and blacks, or men and women. The difference, egalitarians might say, is that the poor, blacks, and women are unequal as a result of injustice, such as exploitation, discrimination, or prejudice, while this is not true of the life expectancy of men.

A moment’s thought tells us this claim is untenable. The “men” category includes poor men, and also black men, both of whom, according to egalitarians, have suffered injustice in the past. And blacks and women include high-achievers, people with considerable wealth, and recent immigrants who came to this country voluntarily and could not have suffered from past injustice here. It is but the crudest prejudice to think of men as deplorable, women as sexually abused great talents, and blacks as ghetto-dwellers doomed to a life of poverty, crime, and addiction. Many men have been victims of injustice, and many women and blacks have not suffered from it. Overcoming injustice requires a much more precise identification of the victims than merely membership in such amorphous groups as those of women, blacks, or the poor. It requires asking and answering the question of why specific individuals are in a position of inequality.

Egalitarians, however, ignore this requirement. According to them, the mere fact of inequality is sufficient to warrant redistribution and compensation. Regardless of whether egalitarians are right about this, they face a dilemma. If the policies of redistribution and compensation do take into account the extent to which people are responsible for being in a position of inequality, then the justification of these policies must go beyond what egalitarians can provide. For the justification must involve consideration of the choices people make, as well as their merit, effort, and responsibility. To the extent to which this is done, the justification ceases to be egalitarian.

If, on the other hand, the policies of redistribution and compensation do not take into account the responsibility people have for their inequality, then there is no disanalogy between the inequality of men and women in respect to life expectancy, and the poor, blacks, and women who are unequal in other respects. Consistent egalitarian policies would then have to aim to overcome all inequalities, and that is just what produces the absurd policies spelled out above.

Egalitarians may try to avoid absurdity in another way. They may say that it is unjust that some people’s prospects at birth are radically inferior to those of others. But this inequality is a matter of statistical necessity, not of justice. Being a necessity, it holds in all societies, even in a socialist heaven. Given any basis of ranking the prospects of individuals at birth, some will rank higher and others lower. Those who rank lowest will have prospects radically inferior to those who rank highest. Complaining about this statistical necessity is as reasonable as lamenting differences in intelligence or beauty. To call this statistical necessity unjust is absurd.

Suppose that egalitarianism is seen for what it is: an absurd attempt to deny, in the name of justice, that people should be held responsible for their actions and treated as they deserve based on their merits or demerits. A nagging doubt remains. It is undeniable that there are in our society innocent victims of misfortune and injustice. Their inequality is not their fault, they are not responsible for it, and they do not deserve to be in a position of inequality. The emotional appeal of egalitarianism is that it recognizes the plight of these people and proposes ways of helping them. Taking advantage of the compassion of decent people, egalitarians then accuse their society of unjustly ignoring the suffering of innocent victims.

Those Who Suffer through No Fault of Their Own Should Be Helped

What needs to be said in response to this frequently heard charge is that anyone committed to justice will want people to have what they deserve and not to have what they do not deserve. Innocent victims do not deserve to suffer, yet they do. A decent society should do what it can to alleviate their suffering. But this has nothing to do with equality. What is objectionable is not that some people have less than others, that millionaires have less than billionaires. What is objectionable is that some people, through no fault of their own, lack the basic necessities. They are our fellow citizens, and because of that we should feel compassion for their plight.

Furthermore, the plight of innocent victims who lack the basic necessities is not ignored. On the contrary, they are being helped by their fellow taxpaying citizens. A family with an annual income of $100,000 (being in the 25 percent federal tax bracket, and depending on deductions taken) would be likely to pay at least $25,000 in federal, state, property, and school taxes. About 62 percent of the federal budget is spent on mandated benefits, the main ones being Medicaid, Social Security, Medicare, and various welfare programs. Applying that percentage at the family level, we can say that about 62 percent of the family’s annual taxes, or roughly $15,000, is spent on these programs. It thus sends over 15 percent of its annual income to the government, including for the purpose of assisting the innocent victims. This ought to acquit the family of the charge of shamefully ignoring the plight of their fellow citizens that egalitarians baselessly level against them.

Yet the relentless egalitarian propaganda eagerly parroted by the media would have us believe that our society is guilty of dooming people to a life of poverty. What this ignores is the unprecedented success of our society in having 13.5 percent of the population live below a very generously defined poverty level and 86.5 percent above it. The typical ratio in past societies was closer to the reverse. It is a cause for celebration, not condemnation, that for the first time in history a very large segment of the population has escaped poverty. If egalitarians had a proper historical perspective, they would be in favor of the political and economic system that has made this possible, rather than advocating absurd policies that undermine it.

Reader Discussion

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on November 19, 2018 at 08:57:52 am

Consistent egalitarian policies would then have to aim to overcome all inequalities

Yes, this is precisely the logical endpoint of egalitarianism as a social or political theory or philosophy. Overcoming all inequalities logically entails the eradication of all difference. The end state of a radically egalitarian society is total entropy. (Well, not total: there will always remain a class/group/Party who retain the social energy leached out of the equal mass and use it to keep that mass equal).

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QET
on November 19, 2018 at 09:06:40 am

Minorities do not have a monopoly on suffering;

NOR

Do whites have a monopoly on racism, bigotry or callousness.

Thomas Sowell has remarked that the "inequalities" consequent upon differing birth circumstances is a product of *cosmic* injustice.
One may as well howl at the moon for not being as bright as the sun as to arrogate to oneself the ability to equalize cosmic injustice.

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Image of gabe
gabe
on November 19, 2018 at 14:57:07 pm

The tendencies of current "modern commentary" to infer degrees of entitlements, ameliorations of burdens, privileges & immunities (var.), as indicators (if not measures) of "Justice," and thus of "INjustice," make it difficult to comb apart the fibers of thinking about ideas of Justice conflated with ideas of Inequality in social orders.

As Jacobi urged for mathematical problems, it may be useful, even necessary to "invert, invert!" Consider Justice as the performance (and the manner or means of performance) of obligations, then consider the equality and inequality of obligations amongst members of a society to one another.

There is another approach by Amartya Sen:

http://www.ophi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Sen-1979_Equality-of-What.pdf

Perhaps it may be possible some day for us to consider viewing equality is a social order as a matter of individuality, determined by the recognition and acceptance of the equal obligations of each member, in accord to that individual's capacities, to all other members. That concept of equality may come closer to Justice in that society.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on November 19, 2018 at 19:55:51 pm

Anyone read Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron”? We will ensure that everyone is equal in every way. It sounds less and less far fetched every day.

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Image of CulperJr
CulperJr
on November 20, 2018 at 12:55:00 pm

The most fundamental absurdity of egalitarianism is its premise that everyone should have the same income & wealth. This is neither possible nor desirable.

All work is not the same, therefore all income can't be the same. Each job has two aspects - financial & qualitative. The qualitative aspects include the degree to which one enjoys the work, the stress level, ease or difficulty in obtaining the skills to do the work, the hours, physical labor, environment, required talent, danger, etc. etc. etc.

Furthermore, the financial & qualitative aspects counter-balance each other: the less appealing the qualitative aspects of any work to the general population, the more difficult it will be to find those willing to perform the work, so the higher the compensation required to fill these positions.

Finally, it should be noted that the same dynamic will exist in a socialist economy. If a government designs a system through which all citizens receive equal income, it will quickly find long lines for more desirable positions while less desirable positions go unfilled.

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Alan Green
on November 21, 2018 at 01:02:48 am

The logical endpoint of utopian egalitarianism is the Killing Fields, where in the quest to create the perfect society where everyone was equal, the Khmer Rouge killed everyone who slightly more than equal.

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Douglas Levene
on November 21, 2018 at 11:16:01 am

This article has some logic to it, but overstates its case. The tax example is particularly specious:

The same hypothetical family that sends 15% of its income to the government for the purposes of alleviating innocent victims of inequality, also receives most of those same benefits. Only Medicaid and some welfare programs are true transfers. Most Social Security and Medicare flows primarily to the middle-class citizens who paid into them, and the benefits received are mostly greater than the payments made.

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John Johnston
on November 21, 2018 at 18:31:29 pm

<<<<<>>>>>>
.
Very Well Said.
.
Some jobs (such as a surgeon) involve non-monetary benefits or rewards. Doctors are revered as gods or something closer to that partly because you can never fully compensate a doctor for having saved your life. That results in more prestige being associated with the job of doctor. And egalitarians hate social prestige being unequally distributed. Egalitarians want janitors and surgeons to have exactly same social prestige. That is just not possible. Meaning unrealistic.
.
My opinion - Equality (and Egalitarianism) is world-class nonsense served on a golden plate.
.

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MP
on July 03, 2019 at 21:22:09 pm

[…] Enemies of true democracy, per force based in true egalitarianism before the law (which does not mean everyone is identical) are logicaly found among those who defend deep class division and the system that creates the most extreme inequalities: capitalism. To these people, the very word “egalitarianism” or “equality” make them reach for their guns. Below some links defending inequality. Yea, a large number of people in the US are fierce believers in inequality, thinking that equality is the source of all social disasters. Read these materials if you like. See how you emerge from immersion in this kind of sordidly distorted type of fetid moral thinking.  Their arguments, often sophomoric, soon fall into ridiculous contortions. Consider this para from John Kekes’ The Absurdity of Egalitarianism: […]

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A Misunderstanding about Democracy – The Greanville Post
on August 31, 2019 at 14:40:38 pm

Right off the bat, you mention a concern for the "cost" of taking care of the less fortunate...but never mind the MASSIVE SPENDING for war, or the hundreds of billions paid each year just in interest to a criminal, private banking cartel that prints money out of thin air. The total just last year for these two was nearly $1 TRILLION of our tax dollars handed directly over to corporations that profit off of death, destruction and debt. And let's not forget the greatest robbery of American wealth ever with the banker bailouts. The list of examples goes on and on but point being, socialism for the rich is totally fine, because they're so benevolent we need to protect them, but when it comes to the lower strata, well they get what they "deserve".

Get something straight sir - America was founded on the near total genocide of native peoples, followed by 400+ years of slavery, followed by rabid imperialism and exploitation which, in the last century, has only intensified. We live in an infinite consumption economy on a planet with finite resources...how brilliant!! There's absolutely NO incentive to actually solve problems (war, crime, debt, disease, pollution, over consumption, etc.) because its far more profitable servicing them. THIS is the history behind, and current state of, our grossly stratified, narcissistic social paradigm...and you're calling for celebration???

The simple fact is that poverty and inequality are a cultural choice. We have the tools (technology) and capability to end poverty, to end servitude, AND to take care of every single person at the highest standard of living possible. And this does NOT mean we would all be living equal lives like drones with no individuality. In fact the opposite would be true...people would finally be free to live HUMAN LIVES and individualism, creativity and natural human incentives would flourish, rather than the contrived incentives we see today, like money, power and status. We're immersed in a "winner take all" global game of monopoly, and clearly, there are some who WANT IT ALL. The entire planet, GIVEN TO ALL OF US TO SHARE, is being carved up into pieces and bought up by the highest bidders, with zero regard for the social and environmental consequences. And another big laugh - that "generously defined poverty line" you mention now sits at $1.90 a day...oh my, how generous!!! 80% of the global population is living on less than $10/day while and the wealth gap widens with no limit in sight.

So I ask you, just how much is enough for the wealthy to take for themselves?? If nothing else, PLEASE answer this one question so we can have some idea of when this sickness might finally subside. If the top 1% control some 50% of global wealth, what happens at 60%, or 90%?? Will that be enough??? Should we celebrate when the bottom 80% of people completely die off because their lands and resources have been milked dry by the same group that you praise???

Sincerely,
Gordon Liddy

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Gordon
on September 30, 2020 at 13:26:46 pm

Thank god there's someone with some sense here! Thank you Gordon

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Grace

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.