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The Basis of Left and Right, Part 3: Equality

Continuing the classroom series I began with Part 1 and Part 2, here’s Part 3–a short sketch on some of the problems of different understandings of the principle of equality:

The differences between left and right about reform, the use of reason, and progress are susceptible to some degree of consensus or compromise on both the conceptual and practical level.  Contrasting views of the idea equality are more difficult to reconcile.  The liberal at his extreme may believe in nearly perfect equality; the conservative at his extreme may believe human beings are profoundly unequal, and that social stratification based on this fact are not only necessary but desirable.  Most actual liberals and conservatives inhabit a world well inside of these extreme poles, but the undertow of the consequent logic of the extreme positions colors most controversies on particular issues where the principle of equality is in play.  Although the Declaration of Independence sets out the principle that “all men are created equal,” the conservative, while accepting the idea of equal rights, is much more oriented toward James Madison’s axiom that the protection of the “different and unequal faculties of acquiring property” is “the first object of government.”  (Emphasis added.)  In other words, a regime of equal rights will recognize, and protect, unequal results.

The Marxist-inspired radical who sees property as the ultimate illegitimate convention to be swept away need not concern us here.  Of more interest and relevance is the moderate liberal who argues two related and compelling points: first, from a view harmonious with conservatism’s bias for social stability, large inequalities in wealth, or a static distribution of wealth, undermine society’s social cohesion.  As a consequence, second, unequal wealth distribution should be measured by its utility to all classes (Rawls’ argument).  Both of these concepts elude convincing and unequivocal empirical demonstration, let alone obvious policy responses.  But one can observe the least amount of friction between left and right when policy choices regarding opportunity are on the table.

This leads inevitably to an important corollary of the right-left split over the nature of equality, concerning the efficacy of government itself, not only on direct distributional questions, but also on subsidiary matters regarding the “playing field” of opportunity.  Liberals believe in using government—through regulatory and ameliorative means—to correct market failures, which liberals perceive as occurring on a wide scale.  Conservatives are much more prone to wariness about government failure, often going so far as to attribute political intervention as the final cause of all market failures—often with good reason: the role of multiple government mistakes in bringing about the housing bubble and subsequent crash is hard to minimize.  The arguments about the nature and reasons for both government failure and market failure are serious and extensive, but suffice it here to note that the extreme libertarian position ironically shares in common the same utopian expectation as Marxism: the belief in the possibility of the withering away of the state.

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