Acton Commentary

The Problem of Equality


Of all things, an indiscreet tampering with the trade of provisions is the most dangerous, and it is always worst in the time when men are most disposed to it; that is, in the time of scarcity. Because there is nothing on which the passions of men are so violent, and their judgment so weak, and on which there exists such a multitude of ill-founded popular prejudices. (Edmund Burke, “Thoughts and Details on Scarcity,” 1795)

When political candidates advocate trade barriers and news headlines scream about the gap between rich and poor, it is good to be reminded that ill-advised policy proposals are not a feature unique to contemporary society.

While usually regarded as the intellectual founder of modern conservatism, the economic thought of Edmund Burke closely parallels the views of his contemporary Adam Smith, commonly viewed as a father of classical liberalism. Though Burke was firmly of the view that “charity to the poor is a direct and obligatory duty upon all Christians,” he was equally vehement that government intervention in the market place amounts to defying “the laws of commerce, which are the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God … ”

That certain forms of inequality exist in commercial society is a given. Though it is indisputable that the standard of living for everyone, including the poorest, continues to rise in commercial society, some people will always possess more wealth than others. Gaps in wealth between different income segments of the population often increase in commercial society, even though very few people become poorer.

Despite the overall increase in almost everyone’s living standards, the economic inequalities that exist in commercial society are a source of considerable anxiety for many. This concern is not misplaced: Western civilization has been profoundly influenced by the Jewish and Christian teaching that everyone has an obligation to help their neighbor in need. Contemporary policy debates tend to be oriented around questions concerning the best way to help those in genuine need.

In the view of the great French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, the intensity of these discussions in commercial society is heightened by democracy’s emergence. The equalizing tendencies of democracy were not something that Tocqueville regarded with unequivocal appreciation, especially in terms of its impact upon liberty:

“Democratic peoples always like equality, but there are times when their passion for it turns to delirium. . . . It is no use pointing out that freedom is slipping from their grasp while they look the other way; they are blind, or rather they can see but one thing to covet in the whole world.”

Though Tocqueville held that democracy’s emergence was underpinned by the effects of the Judeo-Christian belief in the equality of all people in God’s sight, he perceived a type of communal angst in democratic majorities that drove them to attempt to equalize all things, even if this meant behaving despotically.

None of this is to intimate that the concept of equality has no place in commercial society. Not only are various forms of equality—such as the equality in dignity (understood as the equal and inherent worth of each human being)—compatible with commercial society, but some of commercial society’s foundations depend on particular understandings of equality for their rational consistency.

One obvious such equity is equality before the law: Laws are applied to people according to the specifics of the statute without any particular regard for the person or persons involved. The legal scholar Lloyd Weinreb explains that this idea is grounded in the principle that “no person is altogether above the law and exempt from its requirements, or beneath it and deprived of its protection.”

This principle reflects the very nature of rules, a point underlined by Sir Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay on equality: “All rules, by definition, entail a measure of equality. Insofar as rules are general instructions to act or refrain from acting in certain ways, in specified circumstances, enjoined upon persons of a specified kind, they enjoin uniform behavior in identical cases…. This type of equality derives from the conception of rules as such—namely, that they allow of no exceptions.”

Such assumptions of equality are integral to the importance attached by commercial society to the very concept of rule of law as well as the equal protection accorded by the law to parties to a contract.

The kind of equality genuinely conducive to a prosperous and humane society is thus not the same “equality” touted by those wishing to capitalize on Burke’s “popular prejudices” for political gain. Equality before the law reflects commercial society’s animus against arbitrary use of state power and the legal privileging of particular groups. Only when equality is rightly understood will we be able to build and sustain societies that are both prosperous and freedom loving.

This article was excerpted from Samuel Gregg’s The Commercial Society – Foundations and Challenges in a Global Age, published by Lexington Books. The Commercial Society is available for purchase through the Acton Book Shoppe (www.acton.org/bookshoppe)