Published Thursday, February 07, 2013
While equality before the law is a noble goal worth fighting for (indeed, many Americans have sacrificed both their lives and fortunes for it), equality in wealth is both dumb and unachievable. In purely economic terms, we should understand this fundamental truth: Free people are not equal, and equal people are not free.
Put another way, then, the statement might read, “Free people will earn different incomes. Where people have the same income, they cannot be free.”
Free people are different people, so it should not come as a surprise that they earn different incomes. Our talents and abilities are not identical. We don’t all work as hard. And even if we all were magically made equal in wealth tonight, we’d be unequal in the morning because some of us would spend it and some of us would save it.
To produce even a rough measure of economic equality, governments must issue the following orders and back them up with firing squads and prisons: “Don’t excel or work harder than the next guy, don’t come up with any new ideas, don’t take any risks and don’t do anything differently from what you did yesterday.” In other words, don’t be human.
We should rejoice that free people don’t earn equal incomes. Economic inequality, when it derives from things like merit and free exchange and not from political power, 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 covet. 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 a legislature, they can do real harm by passing dumb laws and jacking up taxes.
If economic inequality is an ailment, punishing effort and success is no cure in any event. Laws and taxes that aim to redistribute wealth prompt the smart or politically well-connected “haves” to seek refuge in havens here or abroad, while the hapless “have-nots” bear the full brunt of economic decline. A more productive expenditure of time would be to work to erase the many laws, orders and ordinances that assure that the “have-nots” are also the “can-nots.”
Economic equality is neither possible nor desirable in a free society. We’d be so much better off if this basic truth was understood by governments, especially that really big, bloated one that sits in Washington.
(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N.Y., and Atlanta.)