In Defense of Egalitarianism


Part of the baggage that tends to come along with contemporary libertarian politics is a rejection of egalitarianism. The notions of liberty and equality are conceived of as being in an antagonistic relationship, with egalitarian ideas being equated to a forced plan that attempts to circumvent “the natural order” or as a rosy description of the abilities or merits of humans as being flat. This generally functions as the background assumption for a rather convoluted discourse on the matter.

One of the common ways in which this plays out is when someone says that egalitarianism makes no sense because it is obvious that people have different levels of intelligence, different physical attributes, different abilities and specializations, and so on. In other words, egalitarians are characterized as proposing that everyone is inherently equal in such a literal sense. But, to my knowledge, no one actually claims this, and hence it is a gigantic straw man. So when egalitarianism is attacked as if it claims that there are no differences between individuals, the ideas of actual egalitarians haven’t been touched.

A related route that the opponent of egalitarianism may take is to act as if egalitarianism aims at making everyone equal in such a sense, that the elimination of natural differences between individuals is its prescriptive purpose. But perhaps with some rare exceptions on the fringes, this is also a straw man. Not even communists actually propose, for example, that everyone should have the exact same quantity of wealth. Feminists don’t generally advocate that we turn mankind into a unisexual species, anti-racists don’t generally advocate that we morph mankind into a single “race”. At best, these are bizarre exaggerations stemming from misunderstandings. At worst, it’s a scare tactic.

Of course, the opponent of egalitarianism usually ends up falling back on an equation between current conditions that egalitarians seek to address and an appeal to nature or meritocracy. For example, it is just taken for granted that someone is wealthy because they earned it on the basis of their merits or hard work, and hence the egalitarian is characterized as attacking merit. On the flip side, it is taken for granted that someone is poor or in negative economic conditions because they simply didn’t take advantage of their opportunities or they simply lack the merit necessary to produce and improve their condition. This is classic vulgar libertarianism, I.E. it ignores the systematic or social context in order to engage in status quo apologetics, as if the conditions in question must necessarily be a reflection of meritocratic forces.

The problem is that when we are talking about social and economic conditions in the context of systems, we are not dealing with a natural meritocracy. The conditions in question are partially determined by institutions, laws, customs, social norms, circumstances, and hence they cannot be completely reduced to a reflection of biology or some sort of inherent pecking order of virtue. Responding to a feminist by appealing to the biological categories of sex, while they are speaking of social conditions in relation to gender, doesn’t address their concern. Appealing to race and I.Q. statistics to an anti-racist, while they are speaking of social conditions that are largely determined by legal and social norms, is just vulgar nonsense.

What this boils down to is that anti-egalitarians seem to think that economic, social, and political disparities can be reduced to “nature”, while egalitarians are more likely to see such disparities as largely being a consequence of something much more “nurtured” or “socially constructed” rather than a simple reflection of some inherent law of nature. What the anti-egalitarian sees as “just how it is” or some sort of representation of superiority, the egalitarian sees as a “privilege” within a systematic context, whether it be legal in nature or something more general than that. What the opponents of egalitarianism tend to do is engage in a rationalization for the power relations that egalitarians question by making out-of-context appeals to nature or science.

As far as this relates to politics, what goes on is some severe package dealing. Support for liberty is package-dealed with opposition to notions of “social justice”, while support for notions of “social justice” are package-dealed with opposition to political liberty or some sort of statist political ideology. But there seems to be no good reason to consider these two spheres to be diametric opposites or completely separate from each other. On one hand, political structures play a role in determining social conditions. On the other hand, social conditions play a role in determining political structures. If one takes such considerations into account, there is no reason why one cannot be a libertarian and simultaneously be a proponent of “social justice”.

Insofar as the state can be shown to play a role in creating or exacerbating power disparities and the socio-economic conditions that egalitarians dislike, this creates a case for egalitarians to be anti-statist. Insofar as certain power disparities and socio-economic conditions that egalitarians dislike can be shown to lead to or fuel the power of states, this creates a case for anti-statists to be egalitarians. To put the matter in more positive terms, it may be that certain egalitarian conditions or ideas function as a healthier precondition to the attainability and sustainability of a free society, and that a free society presents the most effective long-term means for achieving egalitarian goals. This is basically a two-pronged “thick libertarian” analysis of egalitarianism.

I must admit that so far I haven’t particularly defined egalitarianism, although I think some part of it can be implied from what has been said. By egalitarianism I don’t simply mean equal liberty, although that can be understood to be a part of it. I mean “social justice”: a respect for “the other”, an opposition to extreme power disparities between social groups, generally favoring a more equitable distribution of wealth rather than the concentration of wealth in the hands of a class, and so on. By “egalitarianism” I basically mean “equity”, in contrast with extreme social and economic hierarchy. This doesn’t necessarily mean a purely flat structure, but a structure that minimizes extreme concentrations of power at any particular point. It signifies the goal of “fair outcomes”, or at least a comparative sense of equality.

I think that the marginalization of certain social groups from the benefits of society and the concentration of economic benefits in the hands of an elite is something to oppose. I oppose the oppression of people by virtue of belonging to a particular ethnicity or gender, even if it isn’t strictly a matter of physical aggression. I think that this is not simply describable as a consequence of state intervention (although it partly is), but rather it is a social problem in and of itself that requires a deeper level of analysis. Free market libertarians, when not vulgar, tend to be pretty good at the former, but I think that the latter tends to be neglected in comparison. In a sense, yes, “social justice” depends on “political justice”, but I also think that “political justice” ultimately depends on “social justice” at a deeper level.

I do not think that a society with extreme social and economic hierarchy would be healthy, even if it nominally had “political justice”, and I don’t think that it could sustainably have “political justice” in such conditions, which is why I think that the inverse approach to “the state caused it” is just as important if not more important than looking at state intervention as a cause of problems. A society with hierarchical distributions of wealth and power seems like the perfect atmosphere for a state to arise out of, so it seems like there are strong reasons for at least favoring some sense of economic egalitarianism. And in spite of certain dogmas, there is nothing about this that presents dissonance for libertarianism. In fact, it is very consonant with libertarian tradition. In light of this, I am suggesting that libertarians reclaim their egalitarian roots.

Posted by Brainpolice at 3:37 PM

Original comments:


kylben said…

“But there seems to be no good reason to consider these two spheres to be diametric opposites or completely separate from each other. ”

I’ve mentioned before why this disconnect happens. It’s a structural difference in the conceptual chains leading to what are actually fairly similar political positions.

This is going to be highly abstract, and grossly oversimplified, so don’t get caught up in my labels and what you might think I’m trying to imply, because I’m not.

Both the libertarian right and the libertarian left have core principles, call it “C”, that overlap some, but have differences. They both have social principles, “S”, and political principles “P”.

The left tends to look at S as derivative of C, and P as derivative of S. It’s a straight chain from C to P. The right tends to see both S and P as deriving independently from C. Its a “V” shape.

This is why the right looks to you like it is compartmentalizing the two, because you expect S to be implied in any conversation about P. Those on the right (that you call “anti-egalitarian”), expect a conversation to be about either P or S. To the right, they are linked by C.

There are substantive differences in P, but to understand them without simply demeaning the right as vulgar requires understanding that the right’s relationship betweeen P and S is mediated by C, instead of the left’s view that the relationship between P and S is direct.

The “reduced to nature” accusation is not fully correct in this light (there is some truth to it). What it is is that within the realm of the right’s P as they envision it should be consistent with C (and considered tabula rasa), the differences would be nature. The problems in S are a different discussion, but those too would be improved by being consistent with C.

When you bring in the disparities in S caused by the flaws in P, it doesn’t compute. When you put it in terms of disparities in S caused by flaws in the status-quo *C*, and how those flaws also propogate to P, it makes more sense.

The right thinks that to make P and S right, they both must each comport with C. The left thinks that you must first improve S to comport with C in order for P to be made right.

There are differences in all three levels between the left and right. And there is some merit to both structures. But without taking into account the different conceptual structures, the discussion will always be as if it were two species of aliens arguing. I come from the right, and it took me a long time to understand this about the left, but since I took the time and effort to do so, my conversations with the left have been far more productive.

April 18, 2010 5:50 PM 


Brainpolice said…

I don’t take offense to your comment, although the language in which it is expressed (with all the C’s and S’s and P’s) confuses me.

But part of my point in this article is that there is a mutual reinforcement in both directions. One level of analysis says that X causes Y, and another level says that Y causes (or grounds) X. I think that both are true, and can maintain this without formal contradiction.

April 18, 2010 5:57 PM 


anarcho-“mercantilist” said…

This post has been removed by the author.

April 18, 2010 6:24 PM 


anarcho-“mercantilist” said…

Excellent article. I agree that the opponents of egalitarianism defame egalitarianism to argue against it. Though how obvious their argument doesn’t work, they are still tempted to use that argument. It’s because their argument functions like an ex post facto justification against egalitarianism.

Some people (the “nurture-ists”) believe that the variations of mental abilities within the current population is mainly determined by the variations of their upbringing or environment.

Other people (the “nature-ists”) believe that the variations of mental abilities within the current population is mainly determined by the variations of their genetics.

As more and more people see the current system as unjust, more and more people will view the system through a more nurture-ist lens.

As more and more people see that “criminals” and those with “mental illnesses” are more alike to us than different, more and more people will view the world through a more nurture-ist lens.

As more and more people see that schoolteachers, parents, and policemen are more alike to their subordinates than different, more and more people will view the world through a more nurture-ist lens.

Justice is often unjust. What you evaluate as “just” may be unjust to another. Those who you judge as “evil”, “good”, “productive”, or “criminals” may not actually be so to another person.

Even though the peculiarities of “justice” and “equality” differ from one to another, humanity in general agree with one basic conception of justice. One may not murder. One may not rape. One may not steal, assault, or defraud. And that’s what we mean by “justice.”

Those who see the “rule of law” as a myth will see that the law can be interpreted any way. They will believe that culture determines the interpretion of law. So they are thick libertarians by definition.

April 18, 2010 6:24 PM 


anarcho-“mercantilist” said…

This post has been removed by the author.

April 18, 2010 6:24 PM 


kylben said…

It might be illustrative to show my own error in this, from the opposite direction, and how understanding it led me to correct errors not only in my understanding of the left, but even in my own positions.

Coming from the right, I’m thinking that political principles and social principles derive independently from core principles. It doesn’t even cross my mind that it could be constructed any other way.

In fact, both the left and the right (libertarians) share at least the core principle of freedom. But I encounter lefties who are always conflating their political principles with their social principles. Since they both independently derive from core principles, this can only mean that the lefties have certain social positions in their core principles, and that these must at least partially displace their so-called core principles of freedom. The conclusion is that “libertarian left” is a contradiction in terms.

But then I keep hearing lefties saying things that don’t quite jibe with this. Their principle of freedom seems genuine. Eventually, I come around to the understanding described above. Now, I see both the diffeences in opinion and the similarities, but no longer presume that the former obviate the latter.

I still maintain the V structure, that’s something we’ll just have to disagree about until one or the other of us comes around (or some kind of synthesis is developed). But I did realize that I was giving too short shrift to the social disparities, and put too much emphasis on a tabula rasa analysis of my ideal political situation. Some small bits of social consideration had to be moved down to C. Not as much as yours, but some.

April 18, 2010 6:27 PM 


anarcho-“mercantilist” said…

This post has been removed by the author.

April 18, 2010 6:35 PM 


Brainpolice said…

Where did he say that he “hates men”? That sounds like either a misunderstanding or a lie to me.

April 18, 2010 6:43 PM 


anarcho-“mercantilist” said…

I’m sorry for the last comment. I realized that Charles doesn’t really mean it by that way.

April 18, 2010 7:01 PM 


JOR said…

I’m not so sure that’s the difference between “right” and “left” libertarians, though. Does Hoppe derive P and S separately from C? He seems to me to have a similar structure of commitments to what you characterize as “left” libertarians. They’re just substantially very different.

On the other hand, there’s something to this. Perhaps it’s something more like a difference between so-called “thick” and so-called “thin” libertarianism?

April 19, 2010 1:53 PM 


Anonymous said…

Off topic: has anyone seen at LRC or LVMI mention of the recent pope pedophile conspiracy? I would love to see them sycophant their way out of this one.

April 19, 2010 9:39 PM 


Edgaras said…

Great great article 🙂 Cleared some misconceptions to me about egalitarianism (saw myself from the other point of view). Food for thought.

April 21, 2010 1:03 AM 


kylben said…

@JOR, yeah, the labelling is a bit iffy as a predictor of individual approaches. I was mainly getting at that there is a difference there that explains much of the disconnect Alex runs into.

I think that what is often called “vulgar”, or thin libertarianism, at least in Carson’s formulation, is exactly this. On the other hand, many “right” libertarians would say that defining “thick” as solely that which is derived from social norms is arbitrary. The vulgar libertarians are not the ones that derive their political norms directly from core norms, but those that don’t derive them from anything and hold them as ungrounded entirely. I take this view myself, and there are certainly numerous examples of the latter.

April 21, 2010 11:01 PM 



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