The United States has become more of a political hotbed now than at almost any other time during its history. It seems that everyone has a strong opinion and is willing to voice it at any available opportunity. Most of these opinions come in the form of an “us versus them” ultimatum. Men vs. Women. White vs. Black. Gay vs. Straight. We’ve seen it all couched into buzzwords and boxes that one must adopt or disavow in order to have a sense of belonging. This tribal scheme threatens to tear apart our way of living.
However, a great deal of this rhetoric is couched in terms of “equality”. We say that X should be equal to Y. We can’t go a day without hearing how income and wealth inequality are scourges that threaten society as we know it. But the discussion naturally raises the question of what our alternative is. If we denounce inequality, then ostensibly we want equality to solve all of our problems. But what would this kind of equality even look like?
I think it is important to break down exactly what equality means in this context. Usually, when people think of equality, they think of cases like Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. They think that the government should step in to ensure a constitutional prohibition against the sort of nefarious discrimination that we have seen in the past. We want to make it so that schools can’t segregate, lunch counters must seat everyone regardless of race, and employers can’t refuse to hire women. These are all laudable objectives, and we should certainly seek to ensure that this kind of discrimination is not allowed to thrive under the law.
However, there is a new narrative creeping in. Beyond these obviously necessary forms of equality, people have begun to spread the idea that actual equality among all people is not only desirable but necessary to solve our collective social ills. Usually, one hears this argument in the context of discussions concerning income and wealth inequality.
But we need to stop and think about what actual equality would look like, particularly with respect to income or wealth. In order for true equality to exist, millions of people would need to willingly surrender billions of dollars to others who are less fortunate. This proposition is about as farfetched as they come. However, if we assume that this could happen, how long would it take for the whole thing to fail and for inequality to dominate once more? I think it would be a matter of days. True equality exists, at best, like a newly-discovered element. It can theoretically be seen for a very short time before devolving into a more stable form.
Deals would take place and certain skills would prove to be more valuable than others. In short, markets would emerge again. If markets for goods and skills could not give us the hope of earning more and distinguishing ourselves in the world, we would have no motivation to strive for more. True equality with respect to income and wealth would therefore be one of the worst things that could happen to our world. Capitalism certainly has its flaws. But it has spawned innovation beyond our wildest dreams. Mandating equality would stall all of that progress. Hopefully people think of that before continuing to spread this narrative.