Memorize the following line, teach it to your children, and shout it from the rooftops every chance you get. It’s one of the most important truths you’ll ever learn or teach: Free people are not equal, and equal people are not free.
Your first reaction might be, “I thought equality was supposed to be a wonderful thing, something we should all strive for, but this sounds like a rejection of it.”
As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. Whether equality is good or bad depends on the kind that you’re talking about.
Equality before the law—such as being judged innocent or guilty based on whether you committed the crime, not on what color, sex, or creed you represent—is an indisputably good thing. We should all want the law to be applied fairly and equally to all citizens.
That kind of equality is a virtue and an ideal. It’s a pillar of Western Civilization for which untold numbers of men and women have given their lives.
The meaning of “Free people are not equal and equal people are not free,” however, is economic in nature. It refers to material income or wealth. Put another way, it might read, “Free people will earn different incomes. To ensure their incomes are equal, you must attack their freedom by using force.”
Consider two violinists. One plays in an underground subway for whatever coins that passersby toss into his violin case. The other performs in concert halls before audiences of thousands. It does not matter that they may play the same tunes and be equally pleasing to the ear. The income of the first one will never come close to the income of the second unless and until he cleans up his act and finds himself a good marketer. This is economic inequality. It arises through no compulsion and reflects very different magnitudes of service to happy customers. It’s both natural and beneficial.
Deploying force to somehow make those two violinists equal in income would be stupid, counterproductive, and downright evil.
Even in unfree societies (such as Cuba or North Korea), we see inequality in incomes. The masses there live in quiet desperation while the political elites live in luxury. In the name of “equality,” such places not only fall far short of it, but they also produce tyranny and mass poverty in the effort.
Economist Milton Friedman stated this truth in a famous and memorable way: “The society that puts equality before freedom will end up with neither. The society that puts freedom before equality will end up with a great measure of both.”
One of my favorite movies is Enemy at the Gates, which appeared in 2001. Disillusioned with the communist system, a Soviet propagandist named Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) heaves himself into the line of fire but not before he mutters, “We tried so hard to create a society where everyone was equal, where there was nothing to envy or appropriate. But there is no ‘new man.’ There will always be envy. There will always be rich and poor.” Then he adds, “Rich in gifts, poor in gifts. Rich in love, poor in love.” That is both common sense and profound.
Economic equality in a free society is neither obtainable nor desirable. Free people are different people, so it should come as no surprise that they earn different incomes. Our talents and abilities are not identical. Some work harder than others. And even if we all were magically made equal in wealth tonight, we would be unequal again in the morning because some of us would spend it and some of us would save it.
To impose economic equality, or anything remotely close to it, governments must issue these orders and back them up with firing squads and prisons: “Don’t work harder or smarter than others, don’t come up with any new ideas or inventions, don’t take any risks, and don’t try to be more successful than anybody else.” In other words, don’t be human.
Consider the wisdom of this remark in a 1945 essay by Austrian economist F. A. Hayek: “There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal. While the first is the condition of a free society, the second means, as De Tocqueville describes it, a new form of servitude.”
The fact that free people are not equal in economic terms is a cause for rejoicing. Economic inequality, when it stems from the freedom of creative individuals and not from government power and political advantages, testifies to the fact that people are being themselves, each putting his uniqueness to work in ways that are fulfilling to himself and of value to others.
People obsessed with economic equality do strange things. They become envious of others. They divide society into two piles: villains and victims. They spend far more time dragging someone else down than they do pulling themselves up. They’re not fun to be around. And if they make it to public office, they can ruin a nation. The envy that fuels their passions is at the root of many modern evils, as I explained in this essay.
Philosopher Eric Hoffer, in his classic book The True Believer, offered an interesting explanation for much of the quest to make us all equal.
Those who see their lives as spoiled and wasted crave equality and fraternity more than they do freedom. If they clamor for freedom, it is but freedom to establish equality and uniformity. The passion for equality is partly a passion for anonymity: to be one thread of the many which make up a tunic; one thread not distinguishable from the others. No one can then point us out, measure us against others, and expose our inferiority.
This economic equality thing is parent to endless harm. When it’s just an idea, it’s nonsense. When it finds its way into public policy, it’s poison. Don’t drink it.