Corporate Welfare

For Equality; Against Privilege

Reclaiming a lost ideal


Everybody wants equality for other people.

The freedom philosophy can be boiled down to two phrases: for equality, against privilege.

Intuitively, this should sound uncontroversial. Thomas Jefferson's elegant statement of the freedom philosophy proclaims: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. But since then the idea of equality has acquired many meanings that either work against the freedom philosophy or give it weak support. So how can it be a pillar of liberty?

As Auburn University philosopher Roderick T. Long wrote in The Freeman ("Liberty: The Other Equality"), notions such as equality under the law and equality of freedom fall short as libertarian ideals. After all, we could be equal under unlibertarian law (everyone gets drafted) or we could all have an equally small area of freedom (everyone may do whatever he wants between noon and three on alternate Wednesdays). That would be equality of a sort but not liberty.

Economic Equality

The objections to economic equality are well known. Since in the free market unequal incomes are to be expected as a result of variations in talent, ambition, energy, health, luck, perception of consumer preferences, and so on, economic equality could be attempted (but not achieved) only through monstrous and continuing aggression by government officers. Something approaching equal poverty might be achieved (the political elite would no doubt be more equal than others), but equality at a decent level of prosperity is beyond the State's ability, as Cuba and North Korea illustrate.

This would seem to leave little content for Jefferson's ringing phrase. But Long shows that this is not the case. There is a significant sense of equality that gets short shrift in political philosophy, most likely because it is the libertarian sense. We do our cause an injustice by neglecting it.

The best-known formulation of this sense is from John Locke, Jefferson's inspiration for the Declaration. Long writes:

Locke defines a state . . . of equality as one wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection. . . . [Emphasis added.]

In short, by the equality of men Locke and Jefferson meant not that all men are or ought to be equal in material advantages, but that all men (today it would be all persons, regardless of gender) are equal in authority. To subject an unconsenting person to one's own will is to treat that person as one's subordinate — illegitimately so, if we are all naturally equal.

Locke reinforced his thought thus:

[B]eing all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions. . . . And, being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorise us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours.

Long goes on to say that this Lockean equality (it can also be found in earlier writers, such as the Levellers, a group of English laissez-faire radicals) provides a powerful underpinning for the freedom philosophy:

The upshot of libertarian equality, equality in authority, is that government can possess no rights that its subjects lack–unless they freely surrender such rights by "deputation, commission, and free consent." Since I have no right over anyone else's person or property, I cannot delegate to government a right over anyone else's person or property. . . . Libertarian equality . . . involves not merely equality before those who administer the law, but equality with them. Government must be restrained within the moral bounds applicable to private citizens. If I may not take your property without your consent, neither may the state.

Frederic Bastiat made the same argument in his great work The Law.


Opposition to privilege is simply the corollary of libertarian equality. If all are equal in authority, then no one may live at the expense of others without their consent. The word privilege is often used equivocally, but it has its roots in the idea of legal favoritism. It is composed of privus, meaning single, and lex or lege, meaning law. Thus a privilege is a government act that (forcibly) bestows favors on one person, or the few.

Historically, government's primary function has been to exploit the industrious—anyone who works and trades in the market—for the sake of the political class, which prefers collecting subsidies to earning wages or profits. (This original class analysis was formulated by the laissez-faire theorists Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer, students of the economist J. B. Say, in the first half of the nineteenth century). The privileges take the form of tariffs, licenses, monopolies, land grants, [patents], and other subsidies. These enable favored interests to increase their incomes beyond what the market would provide, either by forcibly extracting wealth from producers or by barring them from competitively serving consumers. The name for this privilege-based system is mercantilism, and in many ways it lives on today even in market-oriented economies, which is why they are often called mixed economies.

The privilege part of the mix is a rank injustice against all honest industrious people and a violation of the principle of equal authority that animated so many early Americans.

Champions of liberty have a constant challenge in finding fresh and compelling ways to teach their philosophy to people with different perspectives. I have a hunch there is an audience looking for a philosophy that embraces equality of authority and opposes privilege.

Sheldon Richman is editor of The Freeman, where this article originally appeared.

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  1. For Equality; Against Privilege
    Reclaiming a lost ideal
    Tim Cavanaugh | May 13, 2012

    Today the part of Sheldon Richman will be played by Tim Cavanaugh.

    The government controls too much of our lives, and the privileged control too much of the government. I don’t see a reversal anytime soon.

  2. In Hit & Run, it says this article is by Sheldon Richmond (“Sheldon Richman on Freedom and Equality), but here in the article itself it says Tim Cavanaugh at the top. So which is it?

    1. Since they can’t figure it out, I’m gonna claim that I wrote it as well.

    2. If you can’t tell the difference between Richmond and Cavanaugh’s articles just by reading them, you don’t deserve to know.

  3. 3 Simple Rules for a Civil Society

    Rule 1
    No person may initiate force, threats of force, or fraud against any other person’s self or property.

    Rule 2
    Force may be used in defense against those who violate Rule 1.

    Rule 3
    No exceptions shall exist for Rules 1 and 2.

    1. 3 Simple Rules for a Civil Society

      Rule 1: You do not talk about a Civil Society.

      Rule 2: You do not talk about a Civil Society.

      Rule 3: If an interest group says stop or goes limp, taps out, the civility is over.

    2. “No person may initiate force, threats of force, or fraud against any other person’s self or property.”

      I think one of the reasons I am not as strong a warrior for freedom as I could be is that I simply have no real understanding of the people who do that sort of thing. That mentality completely escapes my understanding. Consequently when I see someone behaving in that way I just revert to “fuck it, shoot em.”

    3. what constitutes property, and who gets to define it? Must be nice to be that guy.

      1. Who gets to define it? Blackstone, just like he does for all legal terms.

        1. I actually meant the literal, in practice definition, as in boundaries, etc. Does my land property right include the airspace above my house? How far does it extend? Does the imaginary line propagate all through the known universe? Will Tau Ceti be my property for the 5 seconds it’s zenithing over my house?

          1. That would be cool, yonemoto.

            I claim Ferenganar.

            1. bad idea. There’s no private property in that universe.

              1. Ferengi are ultra-capitalist, dude. Know your Trek.

          2. Rothbard, later explained and expanded on by Hans Hoppe, Walter Block, et al has excellent theory of original appropriation based on homesteading–exactly the kind of continuum issues you cite of unappropriated/unclaimed property to handle this.

            In fact this was used as a way to handle disputes and resolve property issues of radio frequencies and broadcast area before the FCC came along, so we do have very real, relatively recent, workable example for the same kind of ethereal continuum problems.

    4. If not paying me means that I go hungry and die, you are initiating force against me, because you are forcing me to die. So we can use force to defend me against your violation of Rule 1.

      1. If we have a contract and I don’t pay you, you can sue me. If you starve to death in the meantime that’s just your own stupidity and I have nothing to do with it.

        1. Who said anything about a contract. If you don’t pay me, I’ll go hungry.

          Even with contracts – what’s so goddamn holy about a contract. If I break my contract, I’m not initiating force against anyone. Why should you have the positive “right” to enjoin me to do anything. Fuck off slaver.

          1. Who said anything about a contract. If you don’t pay me, I’ll go hungry.

            Is this some kind of a joke? In your scenario neither he nor anyone else was forcing you to starve to death, you chose to because apparently you were too goddamn lazy to earn money so that you don’t need someone else to “pay” you for you not to starve. You not starving is not a service that any of us particularly care about enough to buy, and as such, will not compete in the marketplace. You’re welcome to keep trying to sell that service if you like, but don’t cry to us when your business predictably goes under and you are creatively destroyed.

            Not our fault you chose to invest your health as capital in an enterprise that we all told you had no chance for success.

            1. if you can’t see why an OWSer will not find your argument sympathetic, then you are part of the reason why libertarianism isn’t popular.

              1. *unsympathetic

              2. *unsympathetic

              3. by which I mean “unsympathetic”

                1. arg, I constructed my sentence too difficultly to understandable.

              4. Ah, rereading it, I see you were playing devil’s advocate to demonstrate typical ows mentality, and yes, of course I see why an entitled owser would be averse to that argument. I missed the devil’s advocate tone, and thought you were actually making that argument. Feel free to correct me if I’ve missed your intent.

                1. I am however, serious about the contract thing. I don’t see why you should be legally bound to do anything. On the part of the contractor, it is merely using the state as a crutch to extract labor out of someone, typically using a gotcha. On the part of the contracted, it is merely using the state as leverage to advertise, “hey, man, I’m really serious about this so you should trust me”.

                  1. …of course I am free to not participate in contracts, but why should I pay taxes for the state to subsidize liars and cheats to have an imprimatur that says, hey I’m not really a liar and cheat. Contracts, for the most part merely subsidize people to be assholes to each other.

                    1. I can see your argument with contracts, but I’m not sure I can buy it… what happens when a person or business sustains damages – physical or monetary – directly because of another party’s failure to adhere to an agreement? For example, let’s say an investment firm is going under, and the managers decide that, with nothing to lose, they may as well raid some or all of their customers’ 401s, contra the original agreement? And, how do you define fraud without enforceable contracts?

                    2. The issue with contracts is very simple. Sure there’s nothing “sacred” about it. It’s just an agreement — BUT one that is predicated on some exchange.

                      It can’t simply be a promise, even if written, otherwise we can just punish people for breaking promises. There has to be some exchange.

                      That is the enforcement mechanism and the disincentive for breaking contracts. I have a contract with you to provide me some service. I already paid you. You didn’t provide me that service, I get my money back. Or me home is incomplete when you bailed out on the job. You either finish it, or return the money *and* restore the previous state of the house (otherwise that constitutes force against property) — and undoing/reversion of state of being.

                      You don’t pay your mortgage, the bank owns your house, kicks you out and your credit rating is hurt. You still have the right to your person and other (owned) property.

            2. who said anything about lazy. It’s entirely possible that the hypothetical “I” was an innocent bystander in a drive-by shooting, for example, who is left a quadruplegic and completely incapable or doing most forms of valuable labor. There are people like this in the world you know, who you can’t just say “go get a job”. That said, there is a libertarian solution to this, but with your asshole-individualism-business/service-oriented rhetoric, you have lost the very person you are trying to convince. Game over.

              1. Re the genuinely disabled person: I am more than happy to be generous and help him/her out via private charity, though I do not feel I have a legal obligation to. I’m not agitating against government help for those people, though I think the private sector would do a better job at that as well. Government involvement generally discourages charity.

                And I agree, if the goal’s to persuade an owser rather than rebut a partisan comment (as I had originally thought) I would go about it with more tact.

                I was one of the ones urging persuasion and focusing on shared animosity toward bank bailouts and the like when ows first started taking place. If I get around to it, I’ll post a link to that opinion of mine here later.

                1. I think his point is that there are times where breaking a contract is the economically efficient thing to do — like when someone is paralyzed.

          2. In this world, if you need to be paid to feed yourself, we are better off without you. Show some goddamned initiative.

            Now, if the Gub’ment has tied up all the low cost opportunities with licensing and cr*p, that’s something else.

            If I won’t pay you, and absent an agreement between us I won’t unless under threat, find somebody who will.

            1. I am a living thing first, a human being second, and a member of society at a distant third.

              Any set of rules that results in cutting me out of survival means war. It doesn’t matter how “fair” or “just” or “right those rules are ex ante. Right or wrong, I make war on anything I perceive as a threat.

              Theory is nice, but at the end of the day, I will eat something or die trying.

              Plan accordingly. Because you know I will.

        2. I meant to point out that your definition of “force” needs to be very carefully spelled out, and it’s not simple at all.

          1. yonemoto|5.13.12 @ 7:17PM|#
            “I meant to point out that your definition of “force” needs to be very carefully spelled out, and it’s not simple at all.”

            You failed. Yes, it is simple.

            1. It’s a simple as all magic asterisks. It means anything and nothing at the same time.

          2. It is very simple. In fact, it should be the same and very analogous to physical force, determined in the same way: F = m*a

            As in a blackbox, if a mass accelerates (changes inertia) then we know there is a force acting on it, without needing to know the nature or origin of that force. Likewise, if there something tangible that effects someone’s person or property, without his volition, that is the initiation of force.

            In metaphysical or epistemological terms we can think of it as an involuntary change of state.

            1. In fact, in order to determine the presence of (*involuntary*) force, filtering out the origins and nature of that force is the most optimal.

              e.g. I have a garden. Next day, I detect pesticide in it that I did not put. (initiation of) force detected.

              Only then should we use investigation into the nature and origins of that force in order to determine those responsible.

  4. The “trickle down” economists, like the authors of the Bush tax cuts, missed the point. Rather than provide any tax break because of cirrent tax rates, let us adopt a policy of exemptions for those things which contribute to productivity, Mortgage interest is not one of those things. I would suggest education, health care (broadly defined) and savings/investment to help develope a well trained, healthy and well-equipped workforce. Specifics at

    1. I am intirestede, and would like to sebscribe to your newsletter.

  5. How can all men be created equal when some have more stuff than others?

    when you begin from a dishonest premise, like the one that is the basis for this question, substantive debate is rendered impossible. What people end up with is not indicate of their freedom, but of their initiative, their choices, and perhaps some good timing. Equality of result is only possible in utopian society and, even then, means results are artificially kept down for some.

    1. That’s Sheldon’s argument. He’s just asking rhetorically, intentionally conflating equality of opportunity (or more generally rights) with equality of outcomes, to view it from the perspective of the left.

      1. The only way true equality could ever happen, would be for no one to ever have more stuff than anyone else… which is impossible, but you can’t tell liberals that.

    2. And every utopian society I have ever seen or heard described either depended on some fairly obvious magical thinking, or struck me as about as attractive as hell with the fires out.

  6. The implication here seems to be that we can sway the Occutards to our side by taking up the argumentative/rhetorical posture of equality and anti-privilege. The only problem is that they have a completely different understanding of those terms that is mutually exclusive with ours, and if you explained your position to them in these terms they’d probably come camp on your lawn and shit on your car. You’re the problem as far as they’re concerned. You’re not going to ensnare them into libertarianism by co-opted their terminology.

    1. it’s a good implication, but it will never work if our only screeds are as tl;dr as sheldon’s. We really need better soundbytes and “why do you hate the poor” gotchas.

      1. “probably” camp out and shit on your car?

    2. If they camped out on my lawn, they might find it difficult to shit on my car while they are soaking up #4 buck.

        1. Eventually, it will be illegal to put your arms in front of your face while you’re being beaten with fists.

  7. Dude is like totally rocking it now, Wow.

  8. People always give me a shocked look when I tell them I am against eliminating poverty. I suggest to them that since poverty is defined as a relative term, the only way to eliminate poverty is to selectively help the lower 50% or selectively hurt the upper 50% (usually both are pushed simultaneously). Despite that fact that there is probably no perfectly fair system, I find equality of opportunity (to the greatest extent practical) much more attractive than equality of results.

  9. I’m all for having a definition of poverty where it is possible to have none of it.

    If you can afford enough calories to eat to remain healthy, and are protected from the weather with a roof over your head, you’re not really poor.

  10. Sort of OT: Reading McCullough’s biography of Truman.
    Then-VP Wallace claims as a goal of government ‘equal pay for equal work’.
    Uh, OK, so a secretary gets 1/20th of what a ditch-digger earns?
    And refilling the ditch should *really* make money!

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    1. The Bots are becoming multi-lingual. Google Translate looms large.

  13. Let’s say a Black family is driving through a rural part of the country and run out of gas. No one will sell them gas or food because the whole town is racist and hates Blacks. They appeal to the sheriff but he says the townsfolk aren’t required to do business unless they want to. They are free to discriminate in any way they wish. Who’s wrong, who’s right?

    1. Black family is wrong for assuming the gas station would sell them gas. They should have done a racial attitudes survey on their perspective route before they set out on their trip. This is the only answer compatible with liberty.

    2. Oh, of COURSE the “black family” runs out of gas because…why? They’re inferior and stupid? Is that what you’re implying.

      Therefore: RAAAAAAAAAAAAAACISTT!11!!11one!!

      What were you axing again?

    3. So, they’re racist and hate blacks so much that they … want to make sure they can’t ever leave?

  14. OT, but Chris Mathews was on Jeopardy tonight. As one would expect, he finished last, and made a fool of himself.

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