Misconceptions of Natural Equality

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Equality

One of the greatest issues in political ideology is the topic of equality. Most western ideologies advocate some form of equality, whether it be equality of outcome, gender equality, racial equality, equality under the law, equality of opportunity, social equality, etc.

Equality is one way to divide the political spectrum into left and right. The left tends to support equality of outcome, while the right tends to support a more hierarchical view.

The fundamental difference between these views on equality is one’s perception of reality. An ideology can be principled and consistent, but it is entirely worthless (destructive, even) if it is not in line with reality.

This is one issue with communism. No matter how internally consistent its philosophy and how principled its advocates, if the worldview does not align with human nature, it cannot work as expected.

Thus when forming a worldview in regards to equality, human nature is vitally important. If human beings naturally move away from the society an ideology aims to bring about, it’s not a very good ideology.

We know human beings aren’t fans of inequality in principle. Most people can agree that equality (without any specific definition) is a good thing. People tend to be less satisfied with their own condition if they become aware that others around them are better off. This is theoretically due to an innate sense of fairness or justice. People judge their own conditions based on those around them.

But two of the most important concepts of human nature in regards to a philosophy of equality are tabula rasa and hierarchies.

Tabula rasa

The concept of tabula rasa, sometimes referred to as “The Blank Slate” or “Clean Slate” theory, places emphasis on environment in the development of the individual.

Advocates of the blank slate theory, like John Locke and David Hume, did not believe that the human mind was literally blank and empty at birth, but rather believed that all human minds begin incredibly similar, and that experience  leads to individual differences.

In the debate over the influence of nature and nurture (in individual differences) those advocating tabula rasa believe that nurture plays an overwhelming role, and nature plays a very minor role.

Thomas Sowell describes this as the “Unconstrained View” in his book, A Conflict of Visions. If it is true that human nature is malleable and can be modified entirely by experience, then equality of outcome is possible. All that is (theoretically) needed is an egalitarian society that treats everyone the same, and equality of outcome will naturally occur.

Unfortunately for the egalitarians, this isn’t anywhere close to truth. There are many natural differences between individuals that are influenced by genetics. Environment does indeed play a role that can’t be dismissed (the Koreas, for example), but genetic differences set the rules.

Steven Pinker comprehensively debunks tabula rasa (which he calls “the modern denial of human nature”) in his book, The Blank Slate. Some people have natural talents and skills that others do not have. Some people have a natural talent for music that, when developed, can make them a great musician. Others do not have this natural talent, and no amount of environmental forces could make them great musicians.

Rothbard also critiques egalitarianism from a libertarian perspective in his essay Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature. He argues, as the title suggests, that this blank slate view is contrary to the reality of human nature.

In the meritocratic free market, people will be “equal” in the sense of equality under the law, and will have the greatest opportunity to improve their own condition. This is the only form of equality that aligns with human nature.

Hierarchy

All societies have hierarchies because hierarchies are natural. Every attempt at a classless society results in an oppressive hierarchy. Every organization has some sort of hierarchy. We can argue if hierarchy is a good or bad thing, but that doesn’t eliminate the natural development of hierarchies. All that can be done is to develop and advocate a hierarchy that incentivizes merit and what is good, and disincentivizes corruption and abuse.

John Adams wrote on his idea of an inevitable natural aristocracy. As he defines it, an aristocrat is simply a person in society with influence. This person could be a philosopher, entrepreneur, podcaster, media personality, or politician. Donald Trump, Joe Rogan, Rachel Maddow, Paul McCartney, Stephen King, Ron Paul, and Oprah are all aristocrats as Adams defines it. All of these people have influence within society in some manner, and have earned their place in different ways.

If Adams is right, the goal should not be a society without an aristocracy, but rather a society with an aristocracy developed through merit rather than corruption. There will be aristocrats in a libertarian society, but they will be determined by market forces, not by politicians.

Because equality is so contrary to human nature, any philosophy, including libertarianism, would do better to dispense with it. This does not mean we can’t advocate for equality under the law. This is a good thing. But the kind of equality that ignores human nature is doomed to failure.

One of the great things about libertarianism is the focus on Austrian economics and human action. It’s not enough to simply pass a law and expect it to work.

Human action must be accounted for.

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Nathan A. Kreider is the host of The Conversation, a podcast about ideas and how to spread them. He also publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]

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