Last week during his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke at length about his view of how America works and what the people have a right to expect from the government. Lines about people who work hard and fulfill their obligations being able to live a decent life, increases in minimum wage and so forth brought standing ovations. If you listened to any conservative commentary you likely heard much of what Obama said referred to as egalitarian, but just what does it mean to be egalitarian?
Imagine you are the manager or owner of a small movie theater with several screens. You have been in business for quite some time and have developed a good knowledge of your customers and what sort of movies they like. You are notified that the state legislature has passed a new law requiring you to show all films offered to you. The intention, so they claim, to help ensure that small film makers have the opportunity to have their films shown and make money. You protest but are told that this is being “supporting the arts”, since it should not just be big films or films from well known directors that are shown in theaters. You cringe to think what types of films you may be forced to accept since your own experience and judgment are no longer final and you will lose customers as they will no longer be able to trust your choice of films.
Further, you learn as you actually read the law, you will also be required to equally share revenue between any films you show each week, regardless of how many people actually attend each one. While this does not directly or immediately impact how much money you will make, you know that in the long term it will be devastating. Film distributors of expensive “blockbuster” films will likely stop dealing with you as they are unlikely to see as much of a return from your theater as they would from theaters in other states. You know that this will mean that eventually the quality of films available in your state will decline as there will be less incentive to make or distribute films in your state that require a large investment as they will not be able to recoup it as the income from ticket sales will be diluted by the share taken to give to poorly made and/or attended films.
Later you hear rumblings that this type of legislation will become national, to “protect” the theaters in those states that are just trying to “support the arts”. You know that if such a law passes it means the end of the film industry in the United States, but you have long since closed your theater as your customers have increasingly turned to DVD, streaming video and other means of obtaining films that are not available in theaters in your state. If the law goes national, well, at least you will still have foreign films. Until the government passes the Film and Video Protection Act slapping a large tariff on foreign entertainment available in the United States, the proceeds of which will, of course, be used to support the arts. Well, at least those arts the government deems as needing support.
While the events described above might seem unlikely, they do illustrate the most common types of egalitarianism: equality of opportunity and equality of results.
In the first part of the story, I describe equality of opportunity, where everyone gets a chance, regardless of merit. While this may sound good, a little thought will show that it cannot actually exist in reality without violating someone’s rights. In my theater example, it should be obvious that the manager/owner’s rights are being violated pretty significantly. He is no longer allowed to use his own judgment to select the films he will show, but rather he has to show whatever films someone wants to offer him, regardless of any sort of objective assessment of quality or appropriateness. Other examples include, but are certainly not limited to: providing home loans to people who do not meet the standard requirements for borrowing simply because the “deserve” the opportunity to own a home; giving tax payer funds to a company to develop products regardless of whether there is, or will be, any demand for them; forcing hiring quotas based on criteria that are non-essential to job performance such as race, gender, and age regardless of the number of candidates from those categories actually applying for the job. In all these cases, the ability of some are being suppressed or devalued to give opportunity to others.
I go on in the next paragraph to describe the second definition of egalitarianism: equality of outcome. As with equality of opportunity it should be apparent that this is impossible to achieve without infringing on someone’s rights. In the theater example, the makers of a successful films are penalized (actually they are stolen from) in order to provide equal outcome to the less popular film. You can find further examples of this in the world today such as the Marxist theory of “from each according to his ability and to each according to his needs”; social promotions in schools with no regard to the actual achievement of the student in their classwork; pay or employment based solely on seniority rather than performance; or, as in Obama’s speech, providing a “decent living” to someone who “works hard” and “fulfills their obligations” (with no real definition of what those terms mean) regardless of the actual value created. In all of these cases, results earned by one group are either taken away or devalued in order to provide them to another.
If infringing on the rights of some to provide benefits to others as egalitarianism requires is immoral, which it is, then what type of equality, if any, can we strive for? The only moral type of equality is equality before the law. If your rights are infringed on by someone, the courts should only recognize the facts of the case. Non-essentials such as race, gender, age, wealth, social standing, political connections and so forth should play no part in the proceedings.
Sadly, as Obama’s address illustrated, we appear to be moving toward increasing collectivism and egalitarianism and away from true, achievable, equality. Virtually every government program claims to be all about “equality” and “fairness”, again without defining what exactly this means, while trampling the rights of other groups to provide those benefits to another group that is claimed to be at a disadvantage. At the same time these programs often reward with special privileges individuals or groups who are favored by those currently in power.
Until we actually embrace the notion of equality before the law and reject any other supposed type, we will be increasingly at risk of finding ourselves in one of the groups whose rights need to be infringed in order to be “fair” to the politically important group of the moment.