Inequality: The Points Lindsey is Missing

I haven’t read Brink Lindsey’s new book, Human Capitalism: How Economic Growth Has Made Us Smarter — and More Unequal, yet. But I’m following his exegeses thereof over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, and I think I see some worthwhile points to argue in his post on the book’s “inconvenient implications” for libertarians:

Inequality matters,” writes Lindsey. “Libertarians typically feel like they’re on the defensive when the subject of inequality comes up, and they tend to react by minimizing its importance. Growth and opportunity are what we should care about, not equal outcomes. Indeed, inequality is a corollary of freedom: people with different abilities and preferences will naturally diverge in terms of socioeconomic achievement. … But if you’re any kind of contractarian, and I am, you recognize that a society’s policies and institutions should be judged on how well they work for everybody. So if one group in society is thriving while the rest lack vital opportunities or are failing to take advantage of those that are available, it makes sense to sit up, take notice, and look carefully at whether current policies and institutions need to be altered.”

My first problem with this as a libertarian is not that I oppose “equality” and prefer growth and opportunity.

Rather it is — or at least stems from the fact — that I am not a “[social] contractarian.” As I mentioned in a comment over at Gene Callahan’s blog, I consider the notion of a “social contract” to be a political class weapon, on par in terms of innovation and destruction with the introduction of gunpowder, chemical weapons or the atom bomb, rather than as a treaty that ends Hobbes’s alleged “war of all against all.”

The poison pill in “equality of outcome” schemes pursuant to “social contract” is that they do a lot more to entrench and protect the status quo than they do to actually remedy injustices. They do the latter only temporarily, arbitrarily and capriciously. They are undertaken for the express purpose of simmering down discontent so as to prop up the wobbly (not Wobbly!) states which such discontent might topple.

The obvious example is the American civil rights movement as it manifested in the 1950s and 1960s. The resulting changes, from the Voting Rights Act to desegregation to “affirmative action,” were not implemented because they were right. They were implemented because that movement credibly threatened the continuation in power of the existing political class. So the political class vomited up a mess of pottage and enough people accepted it in lieu of their birthright to keep the establishment rolling along and on the rails.

My second problem is with Lindsey’s premise, to wit “people with different abilities and preferences will naturally diverge in terms of socioeconomic achievement.” The Center for a Stateless Society’s Kevin Carson has argued — to my mind compellingly — the opposite, in “Inequality as a Revolt Against Nature.”

The “social contract,” as embodied by the state, is inherently anti-equality. Its raison d’etre is to effect a continuous redistribution of wealth — an imposed inequality of outcome — “upward” from the productive class to the political class, and absent that imposed redistribution we would see a natural convergence, not a divergence, of socioeconomic achievement.

If “bleeding heart libertarians” really value equality, they have to give up the state to get it. Policy tweaks will never address the problem. The existence of “policy” — of political government — is the problem.

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