Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on August 18, 2014

in Hayek, Inequality

… is from page 82 of the 1976 Vol. II (“The Mirage of Social Justice”) of F.A. Hayek’s Law, Legislation, and Liberty:

The great problem is whether this new demand for equality does not conflict with the equality of the rules of conduct which government must enforce on all in a free society.  There is, of course, a great difference between government treating all citizens according to the same rules in all the activities it undertakes for other purposes, and government doing what is required in order to place the different citizens in equal (or less unequal) material positions.  Indeed, there may arise a sharp conflict between these two aims.  Since people will differ in many attributes which government cannot alter, to secure for them the same material position would require that government treat them very differently.

We are forever being warned by enthusiasts for forcible ‘redistribution’ of monetary incomes or wealth that great differences among individuals or families in financial earnings or holdings will lead to destructive social unrest.

There are several problems with this warning.  Here are just two.  First, those who issue this warning seldom, if ever, distinguish between historical epochs in which the quality of life of even the poorest members of society are improving over time, and conditions in which the quality of life of even the poorest are not improving.  Historical instances, prior to the industrial revolution, of political revolts of the have-nots are not so obviously applicable to today’s world in which the size of the real economic pie is expanding practically without cessation and the quality of life of even the poorest members of society is improving over time.

Second, fans of forcible ‘redistribution’ – while worrying publicly and theatrically over the potential social unrest unleashed by financial inequality – are quiet and sanguine about the potential for social unrest unleashed by power inequality.  If it is so worrisome that the Jones’s increasingly large financial holdings relative to those of the Smiths will spark revolutionary anger in the Smiths, why is it not at least as worrisome if the Joneses accumulate increasingly greater political power relative to that the Smiths?  If the Smiths – regardless of the trend of their absolute quality of life – will be propelled by their human nature into violent revolt against the financially successful Joneses, why will the Joneses – regardless of the trend in their absolute quality of life – not be propelled by their human nature into violent revolt against the politically successful Smiths?

In short, if large differences in monetary incomes and wealth are likely to spark revolution, why will not the inevitable differences in the way that governments must treat people in order to make them more materially equal not spark revolution?  As I assess matters, the latter differences are far more likely than are the former to give rise to revolutionary anger.

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