The Importance of Real Equality

And why the government can't provide it

(Editor’s note: This commentary originally appeared at www.burtfolsom.com on Jan. 21. Folsom, a professor at Hillsdale College, is the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s senior fellow in economic education.)

The subject of "equality" is the source of much political debate these days.

Ever since the founding era, free market thinkers have argued for equality of opportunity in the economic order. Equality, in other words, is a framework, not a result. In modern terms, the goal is a level playing field. Government should be a referee that enforces property rights, laws and contracts equally for all individuals.

What the free market view means in policy terms is no (or few) tariffs for business, no subsidies for farmers, and no racism written into law. Also, successful businessmen will not be subject to special taxes or the seizure of property.

In America this view of equality is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence ("all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights"), and the Constitution ("imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States" and "equal protection of the laws").

Much of America's first century as a nation was devoted to ending slavery, extending voting rights, and securing property and inheritance rights for women — fulfilling the Founders' goal of equal opportunity for all citizens.

Progressives and modern critics of equality of opportunity have launched two significant criticisms against the Founders' view. First, that equality of opportunity is impossible to achieve. Second, to the extent that equality of opportunity has been tried, it has resulted in a gigantic inequality of outcomes.

Equality of outcome, in the Progressive view, is desirable and can only be achieved by massive government intervention.

To some extent, of course, the Progressives have a valid point — equality of opportunity is, at an individual level (as opposed to an institutional level), hard to achieve. We are all born with different family advantages (or disadvantages), with different abilities, and in different neighborhoods with varying levels of opportunity. As socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw said, "Give your son a fountain pen and a ream of paper and tell him that he now has an equal opportunity with me of writing plays and see what he says to you."

What the Progressives miss is that their cure is worse than the illness.

When government tries to correct imbalances in family, ability and neighborhood, government intervention produces other inequalities that may be worse than the original ones.

Thomas Sowell writes, "Attempts to equalize economic results lead to greater — and more dangerous — inequality in political power." Or, as Milton Friedman concluded, "A society that puts equality — in the sense of equality of outcome — ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests."