Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3: The Ideal of Equality - Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
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3: The Ideal of Equality - Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis 
Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane, Foreword by F.A. Hayek (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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The Ideal of Equality
Political democracy necessarily follows from Liberalism. But it is often said that the democratic principle must eventually lead beyond Liberalism. Carried out strictly, it is said, it will require economic as well as political rights of equality. Thus logically Socialism must necessarily evolve out of Liberalism, while Liberalism necessarily involves its own destruction.
The ideal of equality, also, originated as a demand of natural law. It was sought to justify it with religious, psychological, and philosophical arguments; but all these proved to be untenable. The fact is that men are endowed differently by nature; thus the demand that all should be equally treated cannot rest on any theory that all are equal. The poverty of the natural law argument is exposed most clearly when it deals with the principle of equality.
If we wish to understand this principle we must start with an historical examination. In modern times, as earlier, it has been appealed to as a means of sweeping away the feudal differentiation of individuals’ legal rights. So long as barriers hinder the development of the individual and of whole sections of the people, social life is bound to be disturbed by violent upheavals. People without rights are always a menace to social order. Their common interest in removing such barriers unites them; they are prepared to resort to violence because by peaceable means they are unable to get what they want. Social peace is attained only when one allows all members of society to participate in democratic institutions. And this means equality of All before the Law.
Another consideration too urges upon Liberalism the desirability of such equality. Society is best served when the means of production are in the possession of those who know how to use them best. The gradation of legal rights according to accident of birth keeps production goods from the best managers. We all know what role this argument has played in liberal struggles, above all in the emancipation of the serfs. The soberest reasons of expediency recommend equality to Liberalism. Liberalism is fully conscious, of course, that equality before the Law can become extremely oppressive for the individual under certain circumstances, because what benefits one may injure another; the liberal idea of equality is however based on social considerations, and where these are to be served the susceptibilities of individuals must give way. Like all other social institutions, the Law exists for social purposes. The individual must bow to it, because his own aims can be served only in and with society.
The meaning of legal institutions is misunderstood when they are conceived to be anything more than this, and when they are made the basis of new claims which are to be realized at whatever cost to the aim of social collaboration. The equality Liberalism creates is equality before the Law; it has never sought any other. From the liberal point of view, therefore, criticism which condemns this equality as inadequate—maintaining that true equality is full equality of income through equal distribution of commodities—is unjustified.
But it is precisely in this form that the principle of equality is most acclaimed by those who expect to gain more than they lose from an equal distribution of goods. Here is a fertile field for the demagogue. Whoever stirs up the resentment of the poor against the rich can count on securing a big audience. Democracy creates the most favourable preliminary conditions for the development of this spirit, which is always and everywhere present, though concealed.46 So far all democratic states have foundered on this point. The democracy of our own time is hastening towards the same end.
It is a strange fact that just that idea of equality should be called unsocial which considers equality only from the point of view of the interests of society as a whole, and which wants to see it achieved only in so far as it helps society to attain its social aims; while the view which insists that equality, regardless of the consequences, implies a claim to an equal quota of the national income is put forward as the only view inspired by consideration for society. In the Greek city State of the fourth century the citizen considered himself lord of the property of all the subjects of the State and he demanded his part imperiously, as a shareholder demands his dividends. Referring to the practice of distributing common property and confiscated private property, Aeschines made the following comment: “The Athenians come out of the Ecclesia not as out of a political assembly but as from the meeting of a company in which the surplus profit has been distributed.”47 It cannot be denied that even to-day the common man is inclined to look on the State as a source from which to draw the utmost possible income.
But the principle of equality in this form by no means follows necessarily from the democratic idea. It should not be recognized as valid a priori any more than any other principle of social life. Before one can judge it, its effects must be clearly understood. The fact that it is generally very popular with the masses and therefore finds easy recognition in a democratic state neither makes it a fundamental principle of democracy nor protects it from the scrutiny of the theorist.
[46. ]To this extent one can say with Proudhon: “La democratie c’est l’envie” (“Democracy is envy”) (Poehlmann, Geschichte der sozialen Frage und des Sozialismus in der antiken Welt, vol. 1, p. 317, fn. 4).
[47. ]Ibid., vol. 1, p. 333