Some of the wisest and most beautiful words ever put to parchment are these:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Declaration of Independence)
Not far behind are these words:
“No one shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” (Fourteenth Amendment)
At its core, the Declaration of Independence was a statement rejecting the king of England’s governance of the American people and explaining the reasons for that rejection. The concept, “all men are created equal,” is the idea that government should treat each person equally and that everyone is entitled to equal protection and rights under the law. (This concept was also embodied by rights set forth in the U.S. Constitution and its amendments.) Of course, it took years of infighting and a civil war to end some of the worst violations of these rights, but the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution planted the seeds that would eventually lead this country to recognize these rights more fully than any other nation ever. They propelled it to become the richest and most powerful nation ever as well.
It’s important to note that the rights and privileges protected by the Constitution offer no guarantee anyone will achieve wealth or happiness. Apart from individuals’ inalienable rights, they have varying endowments that affect the extent to which they obtain life, liberty, and happiness. Governments are particularly unsuited to change citizens’ aptitudes, attitudes, desires, determination, perseverance, and trustworthiness, all of which are useful characteristics are to obtain property and happiness. Consequently, a constitution could not—and the U.S. Constitution does not—try to equalize outcomes. Instead, it attempts to ensure a fair game for citizens, and it’s up to society and individual players to determine what constitutes winning as well as who wins.
Some governments are founded to ensure the “right to an adequate standard of living” for everyone, or they have some other lofty result-oriented goals. Leftists in general, and especially Franklin D. Roosevelt (who espoused the “right to an adequate standard of living” as a worthy role for government), have tried to change the American government to reflect these ideals. Specifically, they have advocated for government to better ensure equal outcomes rather than equal rights. The propaganda in support of these ideas usually includes the assertion income inequality is a bad thing. (The reason most politicians advance this theory will be the subject of future blogs, though a hint is in this footnote*.) To a large degree, however, ensuring equal outcomes is antithetical to ensuring equal rights.
“Collectivism” is a general name for the theory that government’s role is to ensure equal outcomes. In the theory, everyone contributes to the wealth of a group, such as a family, tribe, state, or nation, and all the wealth of the group belongs equally to everyone in the group. Of course, the extent to which collectivism is implemented varies across governments. Results also vary among collectivist groups. Things which vary little, all other things being equal, are: 1) governments designed to enforce equal rights achieve better results for their citizens than governments designed to enforce equal outcomes, and 2) government officials of collectivist governments fare far better than those they govern.
The founders looked to history to assess whether collectivism would be an effective way of governing the United States. For example, they evaluated the history of one of the first European colonies in America, Plymouth Colony. The colony was started in 1620 with a collectivist form of governance. While Karl Marx coined the phrase, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” centuries later, that was the general idea the religious people who founded the colony believed would be the best way to do things. As such, everyone was entitled to take an equal share of the commonwealth produced by all the people in the colony. The colony owned the land and the colonists worked the land. As is always the case, some people worked harder to add to the community’s common wealth than others, while others did next to nothing, or nothing at all. As is typical, less and less was added to the commonwealth as the productive people realized that they were exploited suckers. Competition to be the most exploited and most suckered has never been a game people are motivated to play to the fullest. Before long their governor, William Bradford, saw the colony failing, and decided to grant property rights to individuals and to allow the colonist to own what they produced. And they lived happily ever after (or at least as happy as humans could be in those days).
After considering past government structures as well as the recently minted theories of The Enlightenment, the founders rejected a government that would have enforced equal outcomes in favor of one that enforced equal rights.
Though collectivist ideals fly in the face of our founding principles, they are not wrong solely for this reason. If leftist (or progressive, “Liberal,” and socialist**) ideals would make the world or country a better place, they should be adopted. But do collectivist ideals make for better governance than the ideals set forth by America’s founders?
The history of collectivist societies is long, and the many attempts to make them work have varied. In general, however, when countries have tried to equalize standards of living, the majority of their citizens have become poorer, they have contributed less to innovation and development that benefits everyone, but their governors have fared far better than the governed (up to the point the economy and government collapses – which they inevitably do – at which point the heads of leaders generally roll). Collectivist countries have repeatedly failed the test of history, and it may even be impossible to disprove the saying, “Socialism fails every time it’s tried.” As deftly described by Hayek in The Road To Serfdom, collectivist societies also typically lead to tyranny. Recent examples of this truth are Venezuela, China, the U.S.S.R, Cuba, Greece, and Sweden, (yes, Sweden!) among others. (Sweden, however, is also a heartening example that a country on the road to serfdom need not stay on that road. Such examples, however, are rare. Why it is so hard to get off that road is illustrated daily in news of the objections, marches and riots which accompany efforts to take a less collectivist path in the U.S.)
Leftists in America have tried and have largely succeeded in tilting the playing field to benefit certain groups over others. As a consequence, the government’s role has shifted from what it was founded to be. That intended role was similar to a league organizer/rule maker whose goal was to ensure equal rights and which provided unbiased referees to watch over the game. Government now has become a combination league organizer/rule maker, player, and provider of referees whose bias is to produce equal outcomes. (Everyone gets a trophy too.) To enable this new role, the public has had to cede power to government which was denied government in the founding documents. The founding documents, approved by We the People, did not grant to the federal government the power to take wealth from some people so that it can be given to the needy. Granting such power to the federal government inevitably leads to the need to cede even more power to government.
No form of government can deliver universal happiness to the governed. As discussed in my blog on Wealth, no matter the form of government, or the absolute standard of living of the poor, the poor will be among us, i.e., no government can eliminate poverty – no matter how hard a war on poverty is fought. Collectivist governments, however, promise to deliver on that impossible dream. People who do not know better are fine with government taking a little fat away from the rich to provide lean to the poor. Following every additional grant of power to government needed to slice an addition layer from the rich, the presence of the poor persists. The power needed to redistribute increases as the government slicing approaches the meat of the rich. All the while, the motivation to produce wealth falls as the rich gradually feel the effect of being the exploited suckers of society. (Those motivational effects are present whether or not a taxed person realizes such effects.) To satisfy the poor’s ever growing desire for more, government must cut even deeper. Consequently, no matter how much wealth is redistributed from the rich to the poor, the poor does not go away until everyone is equally poor. Hence the title of the book, The Road To Serfdom.
As if the presence of tyrannical rulers were not bad enough, governments whose goal is to achieve equal outcomes have devastating impacts on the people it purports to help. Of course, providing food to people who are starving helps them in the short term. But humans have not figured out a way to have government provide immediate relief to people without simultaneously trapping many of them in situations with terrible schools, broken families, danger, disgruntlement, hopelessness, drugs, and self-destructive attitudes. I recognize that I may be wrong and that the following ideas do not apply to everyone on welfare, but I think that able-bodied, sane people*** have a deep seated understanding that they should “do their part.” Everyone understand the clear logic of “I’ll bring home the game and you will cook it.” Everyone also understands it is wrong for a 19 year old sitting around the house all day playing video games while other members of the household earn the money to pay the bills, go to the grocery store, prepare the meals, etc. Worse, the inner voice of the able-bodied, sane person who does not do her part to provide for herself tells her she needs to either get to work or find an excuse for her freeloading – lest she live a life of guilt for not being a decent human being. This human trait is a major driver of the adoption of self-destructive attitudes and beliefs.
To salve their conscious, people whom are given things they have not earned glom onto all kinds of theories to justify (at least in their own minds) why it is okay that other people must work to support and feed them. In short, since it is okay to receive from others that which you deserve, it becomes the job of welfare recipients to dream up theories or accept the theories of others as to why they deserve money from the government.
For example, a welfare recipient might view herself as entitled to welfare because her ancestors were treated terribly. (The underlying theory is something like: Justice is served if descendants of evildoers pay the price for what their ancestors did.) A variation on that theme would be a welfare recipient who views herself as merely collecting on a debt owed to her ancestors, i.e., the debt accrued because the labor of her ancestors was exploited by the ancestors of taxpayers alive today. (A typically unattended detail of this theory is how a tax system could be designed to exclude taxation of current taxpayers whose ancestors came to America after slavery was abolished, and tax only that portion of a taxpayer’s heritage that came from slaveholders.)
A popular theory is that because other people are luckier than I am, the lucky ones should share their luck with me. I have never seen a logical argument as to how this theory carries any water, but it is clear that the general principle makes no sense, and is not a justification for first-world welfare recipients to draw from the supposed pool of universal luck. For example, by the luck of having been born in the U.S., most U.S. welfare recipients are wealthier than the average human on planet Earth. So, if luck is something which should be shared equally by all, U.S. welfare recipients would have to pay into such the pool of universal luck in order to equalize luck. Neither does it properly take into account that people often make their own luck. It would be tremendous luck to someone if a cushy, high-paying computer programing job opened up in my town. It would not be lucky for me because I did not study and train to be eligible to take advantage of that luck. Exactly what would the person who landed that job owe me because of her luck of getting that job? What would I owe her for my luck in getting the job I have?
Another popular theory goes something like this: “If the government can spend $X billion on X, e.g., fighting unnecessary wars, then it can afford to give people Y, e.g., welfare.” The logic as to why spending money on one thing justifies spending money on anther escapes me – spending money on one bad thing has no bearing on whether spending on another thing is good. More important, the fact that government has spent $X billion on (you name it) necessarily means it has $X billion less to spend on anything else, i.e., it is less able to afford to pay for other stuff.
A favorite, go-to theory to justify freeloading is that the people who provide the manna are demons, i.e., they deserve to be punished for their evil ways. That is why it is not sufficient to just soak the rich. On the contrary, CEOs, trust fund babies, everyone on or in Wall Street, Big Oil, Walmart, or simply “The Rich” must be demonized to boot. Otherwise the soaking cannot be justified. Given the importance of justifying the taking, any ol’ presumption of evil will do, e.g., see my blog post on Greed. The rationales as to why the revenue from the extra taxes should go to the poor rather than some other objective (e.g., education or the environment) are usually weak or non-existent (this is not to suggest they are not plentiful).
While there is some logic in some of the theories used to justify “you work, I eat,” they are not a justification for people who could add to the community’s wealth (if only to work for their sustenance) but choose to let others do the work for them. Embracing these theories leads to greater disgruntlement, not greater happiness. Counting ones misgivings is self-destructive. Subcultures that adopt these theories tend to eschew life-enriching habits such as applying oneself to becoming educated. Rather than encourage the uplifting pursuit of education, these subcultures instill the belief that pursuing education is selling out the subculture by putting a lie to the theories upon which they rely to freeload. In short, pursuits of equal outcomes are not a recipe for human flourishing. On the contrary, pursuits of equal outcomes are recipes for ever greater unhealthy grievances. To the extent redistributing income rewards envy, such redistribution is increasing evil to boot.
Government programs intended to help the poor also hurt the poor in other ways. The Great Society programs of the 1960s are a good case in point. Before those initiatives to help black people, the percentage of two-parent households was greater for black individuals than for white individuals, and black Americans were making great strides in climbing the ladder of success. The Great Society initiatives stopped that progress for more than ten years**** and rapidly began tearing families apart, which had a disparate impact on black families because a higher percentage of black people were recipients of this “help” than were other people. According to this report, non-Hispanic white single-parent households made up 25 percent of all families with children under 18 in 2015, while 66 percent of single-parent households with children under the age of 18 were made up of black individuals. The Great Society programs’ devastation of so many black families is both heartbreaking and hurtful to the people the programs were intended to help.
People often claim that the government is simply not giving enough to the poor. This may be true, but I’ve never seen evidence that more government handouts can feed empty stomachs without also feeding grievances. Moreover, more money is not always the right answer. It makes no difference how much money is pumped into schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods if doing so increases the need to foster the sentiment that applying oneself is a betrayal of one’s subculture. In short, to a large degree feeding more money into the flawed welfare system makes matters worse for society and the participants in that system.
Finally, consider what affirmative action has done to the credentials of its recipients. America is blessed with colleges that are suitable for the most intelligent and prepared students in the world, colleges suitable for the least intelligent and prepared students, and colleges for everyone in between. As Malcolm Gladwell so astutely observed in David and Goliath, students who are fully capable of excelling in a school appropriate for their gifts and preparation could live a happy and productive life in the discipline about which they are passionate, but they will flunk out or give up on their passion if they go to a college where they are outmatched. The biggest cost of affirmative action is that it propels disadvantaged students into colleges where their peers are better prepared and suited for the coursework. As a result, disadvantaged students are often disheartened, and they drop out to take on less challenging disciplines, i.e., the ones about which they are less passionate. Additionally, employers are often more skeptical about the credentials of individuals who have been excelled by affirmative action, as they assume professors were more lenient in their grading of minority students. This fact is certainly unfair to the students who earned their credentials (of which there are many), but there is no way for an employer to determine which applicants deserved their grades or promotions on the basis of scholastic merit. No law can undo this unavoidable downside of affirmative action.
I could present many more examples of ways redistribution does more harm than good. Hopefully, however, this blog has already led you to reconsider any beliefs that go against the ideals established by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Additionally, there is the fact that income inequality is not just a bug of the system, it is also an essential feature of the system. But that is the subject of a future blog.
The Progress of American Blacks
*The politicians elected in such collectivist societies are those who are most skilled at convincing poorer factions of the electorate (and voters who are sympathetic to their plight) that they will take from and control the rich for the benefit of that particular faction. All the while, most of those politicians are primarily serving themselves and doing favors for the people who can help them the most. The favors sought by those who pay politicians (e.g., by contributing to their campaign fund) usually implement policies which will hurt the people who elected the favor selling politicians.
**When it comes to issues that have direct economic effects, “liberal” ideals are almost the opposite of the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment, i.e., the ideals that propelled the modern world.
***This discussion of “able-bodied, sane people” obviously does not apply to people who do not fit this description. Everyone, able and disabled alike, understands that people who are physically or mentally incapacitated are exempt from doing what is expected of a decent person who is not incapacitated.
**** ““The poverty rate among black families fell from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent in 1960, during an era of virtually no major civil rights legislation or anti-poverty programs. It dropped another 17 percentage points during the decade of the 1960s and one percentage point during the 1970s. . .” Thomas Sowell.
6 thoughts on “Equal Rights or Equal Outcomes?”
Harvey, I think this is an excellent critique of leftist, or collectivist, philosophy. And I whole-heartedly agree that people who focus on equal outcomes are not just wrong just dangerous too. I think many that would identify as rightist would find much reassurance in your words.
For me personally though, I am not either ‘left’ or ‘right’. I don’t identify with either side because, at my core, I never believe in binary options. Much of this is from having an Eastern upbringing. Western societies, grounded in Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, tend to view most things as binary. The answers to most questions are thought in terms of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. However, Eastern societies and eastern languages have three answers to most questions, ‘yes’ ‘no’ or ‘this is not an appropriate question’.
So from that perspective, I offer this feedback. Very good critique of ‘equal outcomes’. Very inadequate analysis of what ‘equal rights’ means or should mean. Just one example – studies show that male children born in single mother households inevitably have disturbingly higher rates of incarceration and lack of relationship success, even though they have equal rights. Some children are born in much poorer families, or have incompetent parents, or trapped in awful public education systems. Despite ‘equal rights’ and probably equal talent, they are doomed from the very beginning. Once this meant being born in slavery, but the dynamic is still very much present today.
The real question, at least to me, is ‘equal opportunity’ vs. ‘equal outcome’. And whether America’s founding guarantee of ‘equal rights’ does or should equate to ‘equal opportunity’.
Your comments are fair. Certainly all significant public policy issues are multifaceted. Therefore, binary analysis of necessity must leave things out. Ultimately, when it comes to policy, the question will be, “Is it a good policy or a bad policy” – to adopt or not to adopt or to repeal or not to repeal. The answers to those questions can swing from positive to negative depending on the value dimensions on which policy can be fairly judged. A relevant example would be, if one were to value equal outcomes as the ultimate goal – at the expense of all other considerations – neither equal rights nor equal opportunity as goals would carry any weight.
You will find that this blog will consistently place general human flourishing above all other goals. This, of course, is a fuzzy goal. There is no consensus even as to what it means. It is neither “the greatest good for the greatest number” nor a goal of cosmic fairness. It is very results oriented, but it assumes there is a natural equality among all people. Exactly what I’m getting at with these notions will be sorted out in this blog over time.
You point to examples of how equal rights do not result in equal outcomes. Of course that is true. I would be delighted if government could make everyone tall, beautiful, intelligent, wise, healthy, born to good parents who live in wonderful environments. . . . It cannot. I wish that government knew how to help everyone who finds themselves in sub-optimal circumstances advance to better circumstances. It does not know how to do that. I wish that what government does to alleviate negative situations did not make the situation worse and affect ever more people; but that is what it does.
In short, I wish government were the cure-all people believe it can be. It is not and cannot be. It is that reality with which we must deal. It is that reality which is addressed by my “Equal Rights or Equal Outcomes?” blog.
BTW: I very much disagree with the notion that a question with respect to a public policy issue which explores any of its consequences can be rejected as, ‘this is not an appropriate question.’ It strikes me as willful ignorance. but I may be missing your point entirely.
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