Feature Article: Human difference does not mean inequality

Two apparently unrelated attacks on freedom enjoy widespread support: one by the late and unlamented Stalinist fellow traveller Eric Hobsbawn, and the other by French economist Thomas Piketty.

Let‘s start with Hobsbawn, who, Edward Fawcett, in a lacklustre defence of liberalism in Aeon, quoted: “None of the major problems facing humanity in the 21st century can be solved by the principles that still dominate the developed countries of the West: unlimited economic growth and technical progress, the ideal of individual autonomy, freedom of choice, electoral democracy.” This comment appears to glow with the patina of truth and draws knowing nods of approval from those who like to believe they care for humanity. It, unfortunately, is ignorance dressed up as philanthropy; an attack on freedom disguised as a noble truth.

Let’s consider that tired shibboleth of socialist malcontents, "unlimited economic growth", and more specifically the clear misconception it embodies. "Unlimited economic growth" pictures economic growth as more junk, more despoliation, more clutter, ever bigger super-sizing, and a voracious consumer appetite that feeds upon itself. But why? This is a wholly erroneous and perverted view of "economic growth", a view specifically designed to forward a prior ideological position.

Growth need not mean any of these things and there is no reason why it shouldn't be "unlimited" - in fact we should all be grateful for the fact that it is unlimited. Growth doesn't mean more and more unnecessary things. Quite the contrary. The most obvious feature of economic growth in the last few decades has in fact been miniaturisation: things - nearly everything is getting smaller, not bigger. Growth has resulted in providing more for less. And when things are getting bigger, like jumbo jets, they are getting quieter and more fuel efficient. A great deal of growth is in fact invisible and immaterial: it lies in the ether.

Growth also means enhanced quality, which makes things better, not worse, which means less despoliation, not more. When someone uses the phrase "unlimited economic growth" as a complaint, he or she is simply revealing his or her prejudice against a better life for all, particularly the poor.  With the economic growth that Hobsbawn deplores - unlimited or otherwise – we have the means to solve the “major problems facing humanity in the 21st Century”, without it we are defenceless against them.

What's wrong with "technical progress"? Show me a person who claims to be against "technical progress" and I'll show you a hypocrite who enjoys the best that technical progress has achieved in the field of dental treatment or ophthalmology (for instance). Why is "individual autonomy and freedom of choice" regarded as an "ideal", thereby implying that it is also "idealistic" and therefore unrealistic and therefore objectionable? Show me a person who claims to be against individual autonomy and freedom of choice and I will show you a hypocrite who wants the autonomy to impose his or her choices on others, and who is therefore a living contradiction of the ideology he or she propounds.

Electoral democracy ...? I am aware that democracy has its shortcomings, but if electoral democracy provides a defence against the tyranny of Hobsbawnian central planners, then we need it.  

Now to Piketty:  Piketty claims that what he calls "capitalism" exacerbates inequality. For me, at least, the word "capitalism" (coined by Karl Marx) has no useful or discernible meaning that I can engage with. Communists, mine workers, school teachers, brain surgeons, stock brokers, pensioners and even the unemployed are today all “capitalists”. If a word had no differentiating power it has no meaning. Therefore, for me, a more useful question is this: "does freedom exacerbate inequality?” This is a much more interesting question, and much more rewarding to think about. Under conditions of freedom, concepts like "inequality" lose a great deal of their cogency.

Freedom enhances human difference rather than human inequality, and when we use our freedom to exercise personal choice, to be different, and to live as we would prefer, even when external factors influence those choices, factors such as intelligence, values, aspirations, preferences, opportunity and economics, it is probable that the bare issue of "inequality" hardly even occurs to us.

Human fulfilment takes so many forms, and is so varied, that, under the circumstances of freedom, it is unlikely that we would bother to concern ourselves with so-called "inequalities" at all. To be free is to be free to be yourself, and whilst we are bound to acknowledge many disparities of intelligence, skill, courage, and probity among us, I believe we all strive - or at least should strive - to be as authentically ourselves as we can be, and an authentic self can never be regarded as more or less equal with any other authentic self. Human fulfilment is achieved in an unlimited number of spheres, and when we limit the possibility of that fulfilment to a financial reward, we endorse the view that we are all no more than economic actors. 

Our current obsession with the equality/inequality paradigm is also a consequence of the view that the economy is an instrument that can and should be used to achieve desirable human outcomes. This is erroneous: under conditions of freedom, an economy doesn’t exist to do anything. It is not an instrument, it is an outcome. Yes, you can, of course, treat the economy as an instrument, but only at the cost of curtailing the freedoms of all those whose actions create that economy. And when planners and collectivists use the economy as an instrument of “economic distribution”, they create the very problem of economic inequality that they pretended they were setting out to solve, because they create an expectation of economic equality that can never and will never be satisfied.

Author Colin Bower is a journalist and former book publisher. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the FMF.

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