- En Torno a La Funcion Del Capital, Joaquín Reig
- Reflections On the Keynesian Episode, W. H. Hutt
- Ludwig Von Mises and the Market Process, L. M. Lachmann
- Values, Prices and Statistics, Bettina Bien
- The Tax System and a Free Society, Oswald Brownlee
- How “should” Common-access Facilities Be Financed?, James M. Buchanan
- Pitfalls In Planning: Veterans' Housing After World War Ii, Marshall R. Colberg
- Presents For the Poor, R. L. Cunningham
- Restrictions On International Trade: Why Do They Persist? W. Marshall Curtiss
- “human Action”, E. W. Dykes
- The Genius of Mises' Insights, Lawrence Fertig
- On Behalf of Profits, Percy L. Greaves, Jr.
- Tax Reform: Two Ways to Progress, C. Lowell Harriss
- The Future of Capitalism, Henry Hazlitt
- Prices and Property Rights In the Command Economy, Arthur Kemp
- The Inevitable Bankruptcy of the Socialist State, Howard E. Kershner
- Entrepreneurship and the Market Approach to Development, Israel M. Kirzner
- The New Science of Freedom, George Koether
- Financing, Correcting, and Adjustment: Three Ways to Deal With an Imbalance of Payments, Fritz Machlup
- On Protecting One's Self From One's Friends, Don Paarlberg
- Recollections Re a Kindred Spirit, William A. Paton
- Ludwig Von Mises, William H. Peterson
- The Economic-power Syndrome, Sylvester Petro
- Ownership As a Social Function, Paul L. Poirot
- To Abdicate Or Not, Leonard E. Read
- The Book In the Market Place, Henry Regnery
- Lange, Mises and Praxeology: the Retreat From Marxism, Murray N. Rothbard
- The Production and Exchange of Used Body Parts, Simon Rottenberg
- The Education of Lord Acton, Robert L. Schuettinger
- Chicago Monetary Tradition In the Light of Austrian Theory, Hans F. Sennholz
- Hubris and Environmental Variance, Joseph J. Spengler
- An Application of Economics In Biology, Gordon Tullock
- What Mises Did For Me, John V. Van Sickle
- Economics In a Changing World, G. C. Wiegand
- Can a Liberal Be an Equalitarian? Leland B. Yeager
- The Political Economy of Nostalgia, Ramon Diaz
Can a Liberal Be an Equalitarian?
Leland B. Yeager
An answer to the question posed by my title depends obviously, on how its terms are defined.
I shall deny that a liberal can consistently advocate government action to chop down high incomes or especially favorable opportunities out of zeal for a closer approach to material equality as a goal in its own right.
Instead of using the term “liberal” as it is used in modern American politics, I use it, as Professor Mises and the “Austrian” and “Chicago” economists do, in the traditional sense. Liberalism is a doctrine that rejects any supposed social or national purpose transcending the purposes of individuals. Instead, it seeks to assure each individual a wide range of free choice among purposes and pursuits. (While emphasizing the goals of each individual, it in no way denies the healthy fact that he may largely relate his own interests and satisfactions to those of many people beyond himself.) Liberalism calls for preserving, adopting, and devising the social, political, and economic institutions likeliest to minimize the frictions that inevitably arise to some extent among the pursuits and the specific freedoms of different individuals. Yet it cannot give an equal blessing to whatever goals individuals might have. Malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of other people, or envy, or a sheer delight in meddling—all are hard to square with liberalism. This judgment holds even when such tastes are gratified through voluntary transactions among all persons concerned. More about this later.
As for equalitarianism, instead of defining it explicitly, I want to distinguish between leveling up and leveling down. Consider a minority of people whose wealth or income or opportunities are distressingly inferior to those of most people. Redistribution to help them, perhaps through the government budget, is leveling up. With that I have no quarrel in principle. Such relief of actual poverty—of definitely sub-modal circumstances—is not meddlesomeness. Rather, it is an effort to remedy a situation almost universally recognized as bad. (This is not to say that monks and nuns and other ascetics should be barred from choosing a life of poverty.) Involuntary but eradicable poverty is a blemish, making a society less attractive for practically everyone who comes in contact with or even is keenly aware of it. Its elimination would be in the recognized interest of almost everyone.
Redistribution to level down unusually great wealth or incomes or unusually favorable opportunities is quite a different thing. Great wealth is the opposite of something that almost everyone would consider bad for himself. It, or the opportunity to choose it, broadens the range of alternatives open to people, as we can recognize without supposing that material abundance must form the very core of the good life. Ideally, a liberal would like each person to have the opportunity for it if that is what he wants. A policy aimed at leveling down the exceptionally wealthy few would deprive some people of their good fortune—a good fortune that a liberal would welcome for everyone-because other people are less fortunate. If everyone cannot be very lucky, no one shall be. This attitude may be a very human one; but it is an unlovely one, unworthy of being sanctified in public policy.
But do any people who consider themselves traditional liberals really advocate leveling down as distinguished from leveling up? Does any liberal really favor tax progression of such a degree that direct benefits to poor people are doubtful or trivial? It is true that this idea seldom appears unequivocally in print. But it crops up often in discussions. And it seems to underlie the ubiquitous slogan that “Equality is an end in its own right.” Henry Simons, who deservedly ranks as one of the saints of the Chicago School, has expressed his preference
for rather steep progression. The tax system should be used systematically to correct excessive economic inequality and to preclude inordinate, enduring differences among families or economic strata in wealth, power, and opportunities.
According to Simons,
Sound meliorative measures must yield not mere leveling of incomes but leveling accretions of capacity, capital, and possessed power. Equality of opportunity is an ideal that free societies should constantly pursue, even at much cost in terms of other ends.
According to Allan T. Peacock,
Liberal support for such measures as progressive taxation does not rest on the utilitarian belief that an extra pound is more “valuable” or will “afford a greater utility” to a poor man than to a rich man. It rests on a positive dislike of gross inequality.
Frank H. Knight has repeatedly likened social life to a “game” or “contest”, has talked about the “distribution of prizes”, has mused on what arrangements tend to make the contest “interesting to participants and spectators”, and has considered the imposition of “handicaps”. His thought is so rich and complex that a reader cannot be sure whether Knight really favors some degree of leveling down for the sake of equality as an end in its own right. Qualifications can also be found in Simons's writings. But whatever the correct interpretations may be, Knight and Simons have furnished intellectual stimulation for some of their more forthrightly equalitarian Chicago School disciples. Ideas of the kind under consideration abound, of course, in the works of writers who do not even claim to be traditional liberals.
I wonder whether liberals who speak of equality as an end in its own right have really examined their values thoroughly. Why is equality an end? Perhaps some people honestly have no idea of how to answer this question because they consider equality as an ultimate desideratum that they cannot describe as a means of serving any more basic values. But this position must be rare. Most equalitarians presumably consider equality a means to more basic values with which the connection is obvious.
What might these still more basic values be? One might be the avoidance of concentrated power. But great wealth is not great power. Being wealthy does not enable a person to coerce others or to restrict the opportunities open to them. His ability to offer them financially attractive deals is not the same as power to deprive them of alternatives they would have had anyway. The situation would be different if one person or group, or a very few of these, accounted for a large enough fraction of national income or wealth to possess monopoly power in dealing with other people. Then, however, the unsatisfactory condition would be precisely this monopoly power; and it would confuse the issue to talk about inequality instead. When a country has several thousand separate individuals or families of great wealth, it is almost a contradiction in terms to speak of concentration of wealth or power in their hands. On the contrary, the existence of several thousand pillars of economic strength, many of them able and some of them willing to support causes and persons that may be unpopular with the general public and with the government, may be of great value in preserving a free society.
Another motive for equalitarianism might be the belief that a marginal dollar adds less to the utility of a rich person than of someone else and that redistribution might accordingly increase total social utility. Besides taking some old-fashioned strands of economic theory too seriously, this argument blinks the ethical question whether an involuntary transfer can be justified by the mere fact or conjecture that the gainers gain more than the losers lose. A more plausible version of the argument is that the surplus of the rich can be taken for such socially important purposes as building and running schools and hospitals. In considering this argument, we must distinguish between two cases, though the analysis does not hinge on any exact dividing line between them. First, suppose that those who benefit from the schools and hospitals are so poor that they could not pay for them without trenching painfully on consumption of still more urgent necessities: they could not pay by ordinary private purchase of schooling and hospitalization, through premiums on private or governmental insurance, by taxes, or in any other way. The problem is then one of their actual poverty, and rhetoric about schools and hospitals in particular beclouds the issue. Most liberals would favor measures to relieve actual poverty; but precisely because it is in almost everyone's interest to live in a society free of actual poverty, it is not clear—at least, not without further argument—why the cost should be concentrated on a rich minority. Secondly, suppose that the beneficiaries of the schools and hospitals are not especially poor and could afford to pay for their services in one of the ways mentioned. Why, then, should a rich minority have to pay a share of the costs out of proportion to their share of the benefits? So far as the beneficiaries of the schools and hospitals escape the cost, they have money left over to spend on other things. Redistributive taxation may thus in effect make the rich help pay for the clothing, automobiles, entertainment, and liquor of people who are not poor. Perhaps this is defensible; but what, then, becomes of the special emotional aura of schools and hospitals?
Perhaps equalitarianism is an extension of the liberal case for relief of actual poverty. For (redistributionists might argue) the dividing line between poverty and adequate income is vague. Even persons in the modal or typical income brackets may suffer relative poverty: they may be uncomfortable about not being able to live on the same material plane as the wealthy minority. If relieving the discomfort of actual poverty is urgent, then relieving the mental discomfort of relative poverty may be advantageous. In reply, it may be pointed out that while a line between poverty and material comfort cannot be drawn precisely, a general basis for the distinction exists. In the United States, the persons to be considered actually poor are a fairly small minority in material circumstances well below what is typical. Redistribution to benefit this poor minority is different in principle from leveling down a rich minority in the supposed interest of a modal majority. Principle, not definite tax schedules, is what is at issue here. A further aspect of the issue is whether public policy should recognize the notion of relative poverty and should dignify whatever uneasiness some people may feel about the better fortune of others by basing tax legislation upon it. It is not enough to consider what attitudes may in fact prevail, causing mental pain or pleasure; social philosophers also have the job of considering what sorts of attitudes should or should not be encouraged because they do or do not tend to promote a good society, coherently conceived.
Perhaps the redistributionist case rests less on any of the foregoing arguments than on inchoate notions about what makes for a healthy tone of society—notions about avoiding social distinctions and feelings of inferiority and about promoting solidarity and brotherhood. Slogans about equality as part of the democratic ideal support this conjecture. I admittedly would consider it a good thing (though I would be hard pressed to explain just why) if the distributions of physical and mental talent and energy, personal ambition and inclination, inherited property, advantageous family backgrounds, and so forth meshed with the derived demands for material and human factors of production in such a way that the personal incomes distributed on the free market were not conspicuously unequal. Spontaneous equality of this sort could perhaps be furthered by measures to break down any contrived restrictions on economic opportunity.
Spontaneous equality would still contrast sharply with deliberately leveling down the rich. Deliberate leveling would be likely to do the reverse of overcoming incentives to envy, embarrassments to social intercourse, and obstacles to brotherhood and mutual respect. The degree of envy and so forth would probably not correlate at all closely with the size of inequalities remaining under an avowed program of equalization; sometimes the smallest distinctions are the most keenly resented. More important, the idea of deliberate leveling seems dangerously akin to ideas that all men are not equal in those respects which concern the State, that men with different incomes are different in intolerable ways, and that differences in people's material wealth and life style—differences going beyond the discomforts of actual poverty—are conditions to emphasize, to be suspicious of, and to take action about. To work against poverty is admirable, but to be concerned about other people's exceptional good fortune and to want to interfere strikes me as hardly compatible with a coherent liberalism. People are all too ready, anyway, to pass judgment on their fellows. They are all too ready to display intolerence, bitterness, Puritanism, a busybody spirit, and suspicion of other people and their personalities and life styles. Many redistributionists, it is true, are moved by humanitarian motives; they do not want to promote suspiciousness or pander to resentment. But “good intentions are not enough.” The spirit of live-and-let-live, so crucial to a free society, is fragile. Any policy that dignifies and reinforces the less lovely traits of human nature, however unintentionally, deserves bad marks on this score.
The leveler philosophy may rest in part on the feeling that extremely high incomes are undeserved. Of course not all large incomes derive from hard work, ingenuity, or alertness in meeting consumer tastes. Large incomes obtained by force, fraud, restraint on competition, or dishonest advertising and salesmanship are indeed open to question. More precisely, it is the illegal or immoral activities themselves that deserve attention; to focus on the sheer size of the resulting incomes beclouds the issue. Large incomes due to inheritance of talent or energy or beauty or connections or wealth, or to sheer luck, pose a trickier question: why should some not particularly virtuous people enjoy luxury while millions of harder-working and worthier people must scrape to make ends meet? In partial reply, one may ask another question: If the processes of allocating the services of persons and property into the lines of most intense consumer demand yield very large incomes for some not especially deserving persons and for their heirs, who is actually hurt and entitled to complain? In an innovating, enterprising society, total real income is not a rigidly fixed pie; larger slices for some do not necessarily mean smaller slices for others. Perhaps people with lower incomes are harmed in the sense that their taxes would be lower if the rich paid still higher taxes. But this “harm” is different from harm positively inflicted by the rich. As for rich persons innocent of illegal or immoral activities, the demand that they justify or forgo their exceptional incomes raises fundamental questions about what prerogatives of organized society are compatible with liberalism. Like busybodiness, it is perhaps a human trait to begrudge one's fellows whatever exceptional good luck may come their way—I say “perhaps” because the general public does not seem to bear grudges against lottery winners and against the exceptionally glamorous rich—but grudges about good luck are unworthy of being dignified as the basis of public policy.
Note that I am not accepting—instead, I explicitly reject—the “marginal productivity ethics” of John Bates Clark and his followers, a doctrine rightly dissected by Frank Knight and other liberal economists. The mere fact that a man's own work or the services of his property happen to have an exceptionally high market value does not mean that he is especially deserving, in any ethical sense, of an exceptionally large income. Market value is not a measure of ethical merit, and people in general would be happier if this fact were explicitly recognized. My concern is with what sort of a politico-economic system would replace capitalism if productivity and market-value considerations were set aside as a basis of income distribution. More specifically, in this paper, I am concerned about the implicit redistributionist conception of the State as an agency that, while not allotting individuals their fates outright, at least takes a decisive hand in readjusting that allotment. I am rather horrified at the idea of the State as a dispenser of “justice” in the concrete, material sense, and as a God that passes judgment on what people deserve and steps in not merely to allay the unfortunate consequences of bad luck but also to strip people of the fruits of what it considers too much good luck.
Before returning to the question of equality of opportunity, I shall now shift from examining possible strands in a rationale of leveling down to expressing some actual doubts. A much-discussed problem in political ethics arises when people who expect material or psychological gain from redistributionary taxation act as judges in their own cause. By imposing higher tax rates than they themselves are willing to pay, the majority of voters ask a a rich minority to “work more days out of the year for the government” than they themselves are willing to do. As Hayek has said, “That a majority, merely because it is a majority, should be entitled to apply to a minority a rule which does not apply to itself is an infringement of a principle much more fundamental than democracy itself, a principle on which the justification of democracy rests.
This “discrimination” argument infuriates redistributionists, who suspect that its user's heart is bleeding for people who will have more income and wealth per head, even after taxes, than their alleged despoilers. The critic has a hard time proving that his real worry is over the attitude that might makes right—the sheer might of numerous votes.
The “discrimination” argument would lose much of its force if leveling down were enacted not merely by an overall majority but also by a majority of even those persons who would have to pay the exceptionally high tax rates. But then why not rely on voluntary redistribution? One reason, apparently, is the “public-good” character of redistribution: the typical rich person might be willing to redistribute only if all other rich persons did the same; only compulsion could achieve the general redistribution assumed to be desired by the rich themselves. But if this coerced action would be noble and praiseworthy, would it not be still more so for each rich person to redistribute independently? A generous act is tarnished by being made compulsory and by satisfaction in seeing other persons coerced along with oneself. Those who failed to respond to an educational campaign for voluntary redistribution—I am setting aside, for the sake of argument, doubts about the desirability of even such a campaign—could be left unmolested as monuments to the toleration of eccentricity so essential in a free society. Apart from the matter of voluntary action versus coercion, much can be said for distribution from numerous individual sources and in favor of a great variety of independent purposes rather than through the monolithic agency of the State.
The doctrine of coercive redistribution has a subtle affinity with materialism. Why should it disturb us that some people are very wealthy? If we are unwilling to tolerate great superiorities in income and wealth, how do we feel about superiorities in talent, physical and mental strength and health, influence through family connections and personal friendships, ability and time to appreciate conversation and art and music and sports, amount of formal education, experience gained through travel, and so forth? People's circumstances can be different in innumerable ways. Why do redistributionists single out material inequality unless they think that money is—and should be—the prime measure of a man's capacity to enjoy life and of his worth to himself and other people, his social status, and his personal dignity? The reason cannot be that material inequality is the only kind susceptible of being leveled down. We could partially level out advantages of early training by requiring all children to attend democratically standardized public schools. (Even some self-styled liberals are perverse enough to recommend compulsory military training for similar reasons.) We could level down physical attractiveness by requiring everybody to wear masks and shapeless uniforms, or we could put especially heavy taxes on beauty as well as on brains.
Aurèle Kolnai has perceptively said:
... the true Christian is inclined to feel a certain disdain for the wealthy inasmuch as he disdains wealth, more or less factitious goods of which the rich man is a slave, while the believer in the “social gospel” will call for the elimination of the wealthy for the gain of all because wealth seems to him to be the sole good that counts. In the old liberal-democratic conception, a poor man seemed invested with human dignity, had a claim to honour and was entitled to freedom no less than a prosperous one; the refurbished ideology denies him the capacity for freedom unless or until he is also made wealthy.
In doubting whether the pursuit of material equality will achieve any of the more decent motives of its proponents, I can quote Frank Knight on my side:
... the significance of consumption itself is largely symbolic; the inequality which really “hurts” is the unequal distribution of dignity, prestige, and power. Neither abstract reasoning nor the evidence of experience affords ground for belief that, given the moral drive toward such values as the dominant motive in society, democratic political process could fail to distribute them even more unequally still than does competitive business.
Furthermore, pursuit of an unattainable material equality will foster attitudes and political behavior incompatible with a quasi-equality of a more human and more nearly attainable type. Ideally, people should not have to be ranked above or below each other according to the fields in which their accomplishments lie. Each person should have a chance to excel in something, with the different types of excellence regarded as incommensurable. Adventure, scholarship, conviviality, self-effacing service to mankind—all should be as respectable as the amassing of fortunes. People of modest talents or ambitions who do routine work and content themselves with inexpensive pleasures should be regarded as contributing to a desirable diversity in personalities, modes of thinking, and styles and goals of life. A teacher could continue associating without embarrassment with congenial former colleagues or students who had become business tycoons not because progressive taxation had lopped off their larger monetary incomes but because scholarly values and monetary values were regarded as incommensurate but of equal dignity. As Herbert W. Schneider has noted, the equality of the equalitarians implies measurement; he emphasizes, instead, what he calls “the incommensurability of human beings”.
“All men are created equal” and statements like that are obviously not meant literally. They use poetic language legitimate in their contexts. They are meant as normative prescriptions for social actions and attitudes. They express disapproval of trying to classify individuals as more or less worthy, more or less entitled to pursue happiness in their own ways, and more or less entitled to have their views or interests considered in the forming of public policy.
We should not exalt materialism, but neither should we despise it. Just as a healthy society needs statesmen, humanitarians, esthetes, and eggheads, so it also needs money-minded Philistines. It takes all kinds of people to make a world. Each person's freedom to choose the niche in life that best accords with his own talents and inclinations gains from the willingness of other people to fill other niches.
Erosion of monetary incentives unleashes pressures toward conformity. One of the individual's best protections against the arbitrary whims of the business firm employing him is the fact that his employer and other employers are seeking profit in a competitive market. Policy that weakens the profit motive or the competitiveness of markets is likely to reduce the cost to employers of tyrannizing over employees. (This fact, in the academic world, leads teachers to demand other forms of protection.) Furthermore, to the extent that the tax structure leads companies to compensate their executives in kind rather than in freely spendable money—stock options, club memberships, pleasure travel in the guise of business travel, use of company cars, planes, apartments, vacation lodges, and expense accounts—to this extent business and private lives become intermingled. We see the rise of the Organization Man. From the liberal point of view, this state of affairs seems questionable not only or not even especially for the Organization Men themselves but also for members of society in general.
I offer as a mere conjecture one more doubt about equalitarianism. Especially if it is dignified by serving as a basis for public policy, the philosophy that encourages people to brood about whether wealthier people “deserve” their material abundance, and whether they themselves are not “entitled” to a larger share, may well have something to do with crime. Even relatively poor people are likely to suffer in the long run from the far-reaching consequences of a philosophy that undermines respect for personal safety and property rights.
The postponed topic of equality of opportunity will now serve as a transition to the concluding sections of this paper. Ideally, everyone should have a decent start in life, free from the cumulative disadvantages of initial poverty. But should the State go so far as to try to deprive fortunate young people of whatever advantages they might enjoy from bodily or mental or financial inheritance or from family background and contacts? Much could be done, after all, towards offsetting even the nonfinancial aspects of exceptionally favorable opportunity. Any really close approach to equality of opportunity is, however, impossible. Liberals should shun a slogan—“equality of opportunity”—whose implementation is impossible, especially since even an attempt to implement it approximately would entail extreme totalitarianism. Furthermore, it is logically difficult to establish equality of opportunity as a desideratum distinct from equality of income or status, since unequal attainments in income or status must be due either to unequal luck or to unequal endowments of the abilities and inclinations conducive to achieving income or status. From an equalitarian standpoint, inequality of results would show that unequal luck had not been properly compensated for or that opportunities had not been properly equalized.
From the liberal standpoint, the whole discussion would be simplified by calling for adequacy rather than equality of opportunity. Removal of actual poverty and of caste and race restrictions that arbitrarily hamper people in the pursuit of their own goals is quite different from chopping down advantages.
Why, incidentally, might anyone want to chop down advantages rather than merely remove disadvantages? I wonder whether one of the objectives of equalitarians who consider themselves liberals might not be to make the outcome of the market process a more nearly plausible indicator of personal worth. Their likening of life to a “game” or “race” and their talk of imposing “handicaps” to make the game “interesting” certainly suggests so. Everyone is to have the same purpose in life, overriding the diverse purposes that individuals might otherwise have; and this common purpose is to be success in the game. Everyone is to engage in—if necessary, be drafted into—the game. The score will be kept, especially in terms of money and status. No one will have an excuse for not taking this rivalry seriously, for proper handicaps will have been imposed. By persuading themselves that the “game” has been made “fair”, the self-styled liberal equalitarians will have more supposed basis than ever for indulging their propensity to pass judgment on their fellows, smugly dispensing praise and scorn.
This view of society as an organized activity, with the government as a busybody game-master or social director imposing handicaps and otherwise trying to drum up “interesting” rivalry, strikes me as profoundly anti-liberal. It is putting things backwards to regard the game—or the market of the textbooks—as a supreme value in its own right, with the diverse values of individuals taking second place.
Here I have admittedly drifted into considering the possible motives of the equalitarians. Questioning motives is often bad form. It is rank anti-intellectualism, in particular, to dismiss purportedly factual or logical propositions by a mere sneer at the alleged motives of their propounders. But when policy goals and conceptions of the good society are at issue, motives are at the core of the discussion. If we ask why a certain person advocates certain policies, the reason is that we are trying to understand his conception of the good society. The tastes gratified by leveling policies—the taste for making a goal out of the social and economic game itself, the taste for smugly passing judgment on other persons, the taste for sheer meddling-clash with the spirit of liberalism.
Am I denying that liberalism accords equal esteem to all tastes of individuals, regardless of what they are? Should liberalism discriminate between worthy and unworthy tastes, ones that “ought” and others that “ought not” to count in a liberal social order? Yes. As a conception of the good society, liberalism cannot, with consistency, give its blessing to all kinds of taste, indifferent to the kind of society that emerges in response. If social philosophy has any role at all, it is to investigate and promote consensus about what social institutions and policies and attitudes are conducive to human happiness. Its job is to paint a coherent picture of the good society. It cannot just offer a ticket instead of a picture, a ticket reading that the good society looks like whatever a substantially unanimous opinion thinks it looks like. There may be no substantially unanimous opinion. Prevalent opinion may be unenlightened. Social philosophy shirks its job whn it offers no positive guidance. Quite properly, de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill inveighed in the name of liberalism not only against governmental tyranny but also against the conformist pressures of public opinion.
Suppose one man were to buy the fawning submissiveness of another, or even the other's submission to torture to gratify the sadism of the first. Can liberalism bless such transactions in the name of the free market? Of course not. Voluntary though they may be, they gratify and encourage attitudes subversive of an enduring liberal social order. A number of practical reasons, to be sure, tell against making them illegal. On the other hand, public policy should not provide examples that sanctify tyrannical and meddlesome private tastes. Policymakers should recognize that State actions today may well influence what private attitudes will prevail tomorrow.
Does liberalism sanctify illiberal practices freely agreed upon? Does tolerance imply toleration of intolerance? Does democracy imply the right of the people to vote democracy out and dictatorship in? Such questions are reminiscent of certain logical paradoxes discussed by Bertrand Russell and untangled by his distinction between levels of discourse. We have to be clear whether we are talking “in” or “about” language, “within” or “about” democracy, “within” or “about” liberalism. An action or policy that embodies or sanctifies meddlesomness cannot properly be called liberal merely by postulating that it is freely agreed to, perhaps in some market transaction or by some democratic procedure. Liberalism is defined, instead, in terms of the nature and motivation and probable consequences of policies and institutions. For the word to have any content, we must recognize the possibility that people may freely choose the negation of liberalism. To define liberal policies in terms of negotiating procedures or of degree of agreement is to empty the word of meaning. The choices that emerge from political or market processes may quite conceivably not be coherent; they may not fit in with a coherent picture of the good society. One reason among many is that the choices may not be sufficiently enlightened. A decision-making process is no substitute for a social philosophy. If totalitarianism were adopted by unanimous consent, would this decision be a liberal one? Of course not; for liberalism values arrangements that enable individuals to pursue their own diverse ends with a minimum of interference with each other.
In conclusion, I recognize that some would-be levelers of income and wealth and opportunity are honorable men. They do not believe that numerical might makes right; they do not want to aggrandize the power of the State; they do not pander to envy; they do not make money the measure of all things; they do not savor the prospect of feeling superior to the losers in a suitably handicapped contest. But in appraising a line of policy, it is not enough to satisfy oneself about the motives of the more honorable among its proponents; one must also consider the type of society that it tends to promote. One must consider that a policy may exert some of its effects over a long period of time through its influence on what attitudes prevail. If I am a good judge of my own motives, I oppose fiscal leveling because I want the kind of society that respects but puts no special emphasis on material values, one that allows niches for people with diverse drives and goals in life, one characterized by tolerant attitudes, and one whose institutions facilitate voluntary cooperation while minimizing the scope for clashes among the freedoms of its members.