Decentralisation and Liberty

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In some recent essays concerning the UK’s referendum in June to determine its membership of the European Union, and the virtues of small states as opposed to larger states, we elaborated some themes regarding how decentralisation and decentralising processes are a boon for individual liberty and a step towards harmony and economic progress. This essay will gather these thoughts together with an emphasis on how small or, rather, optimally sized institutional units pave the way towards two things that not only libertarians, but also everyone else, will claim to want to achieve – economic prosperity on the one hand, and minimal war and conflict on the other.

The mantra of statist and, indeed, mainstream political thinking is that unity, centralisation and the consolidation of states and state institutions is the way forward for peace and prosperity. Not only does this mean larger state institutions with more power but also the fusion of individual states into larger territories under a single jurisdiction. In some ways this seems plausible, even to the libertarian. Wouldn’t unified laws will aid certainty? Wouldn’t we be better off if there were no borders or tariffs to impede the trade goods and workers? And surely the possibility of war will be diminished if we all join together under one, unified banner?

The main problem with this view, however, is that it places the state, state institutions and what these institutions wish to achieve at the centre of society. All of the millions of individual people and thousands of non-state, voluntary institutions that are motivated by their own desires, values and choices are ignored or at least subsumed by the grander edifice. Most lay people who hold the centralising view probably do so naively, but it is the primary preoccupation of statists and intellectual elites that society is something to be managed, controlled or directed by them and those like them while all of the lesser beings should be made to obey quietly with the confidence that their highly educated masters are doing what is best for them. Indeed, rather than seeing any value in individual, voluntary and non-state institutions, the centralising view treats the human race as one, giant, amorphous blob, like a lump of play dough that can be shaped in any way and manner that can be chosen at will – and that the easier it is for the dough to be shaped then the better society will be. Hence, the holders of this view are likely to look favourably upon institutional centralisation and consolidation which conveniently places more power in the hands of people such as themselves to achieve their shaping of society according to their visions. This attitude was rife, at least implicitly, among the so-called “Remainers” in the UK’s “Brexit” vote on June 23rd. Not only, is it believed, that all good things flow from the top down like manna from heaven, but that anyone who was in favour of leaving the EU was, in some way, stupid, backward or a kind of provincial, country hillbilly. For instance, shortly after the referendum, Professor A C Grayling called on Parliament to block Britain’s exit from the EU on the grounds that it is Parliament’s job to determine what is best for the electorate, the latter of which lack “the expertise, patience and time” to make decisions via a direct vote. The implication of this is that the people do not know what is best for them and they have blindingly walked down the path of sheer folly by voting to leave the EU, and they should instead have placed their trust in those better educated than themselves. However, he has completely missed the lesson that should have been learned from this result. The establishment wheeled out all of the big guns in order to persuade the electorate to vote for “Remain” – including the current and the three former living Prime Ministers, most of Parliament and the Cabinet, the Bank of England’s chief and other big bank bosses, the IMF, directors from at least fifty-one FTSE 100 companies, and many heads of foreign governments including the President of the United States – and yet “Leave” still won the vote. When the advice of all of these heavyweights is rejected by the British public then, instead of stooping into a sulk over the supposed stupidity of the great unwashed and demanding that they defer to the “expertise” of their so-called representatives, Grayling and his ilk should realise that such a rejection indicates that everyone is just a bit fed up of being told what is good for them and having decisions made for them by political elites. Such decisions and endless promises of peace and prosperity have brought us, in the last twenty years, two burst financial bubbles, massive money printing that has made the rich richer while failing to provide productive jobs and increasing incomes for everyone else, and at least half a dozen disastrous wars and interventions that are producing deadly blowback in the form of terrorism. What the elitist attitude ignores is that society is not something that is there to be engineered and moulded like a lump of metal in a blacksmith’s forge. Rather, it is made up of individual people who shape it according to their individual thoughts, feelings and desires, motivated by what they believe is best for themselves and for their families. An economy is not some giant machine into which goes “input” to be processed by “jobs” into some kind of “output”, nor is it necessarily true that the higher the numbers of “input”, “jobs” and “output” the better everything is. Rather, a prosperous economy is the product of individual people trading resources voluntarily in directions that they see fit so that they can satisfy ends that they wish to see fulfilled. “Society” is not a collective that demands broad brush categories such as “food” or “houses” or “better railways” etc. Rather, it is me wanting, say, a ham sandwich at 1pm on Tuesday, or you wanting a small apartment in the Hampstead area of London to rent for three years, a business wanting to invest in a small car factory that will be completed in the five years, and everyone else wanting a myriad of highly specific ends in highly specific places at highly specific times that are the product of our own choosing. The economy is not something to be directed by central banks who squash the rate of interest down to its lowest possible point through so-called “monetary policy” or “quantitative easing” in order to “stimulate” some kind of beast into life. Rather, the rate of interest reflects the strength of everybody’s individual preferences for consumption ahead of investment so that the correct amount of resources can be sustainably channelled into roundabout methods of production. Each of us co-operates, through the division of labour, to accomplish things that we each want with the resources available in varying timescales that we are each prepared to bear. It is this co-operation of individuals to achieve their own ends through the nexus of production, trade and exchange that creates a society and not any management and direction from giant, all-encompassing institutions that achieve their ends through force.

The second problem with the centralising view is that the achievement of peace and prosperity in fact demands the very opposite of state and institutional centralisation and consolidation. As counter-intuitive as it might sound, harmony is achieved by division, not unity, while the growth and strength of the human race as a whole is accomplished by the weakness, relative to each other, of its component parts. Economic prosperity, for instance, is characterised by a growing complexity of the economic system – an increasing division of labour with more and more different people specialising in more and more different tasks to produce more and more different products for more and more different people. In other words, its natural tendency is to spread outwards from the centre with more diffused, decentralised knowledge and specialisation. Growth and centralisation of the institutions that support this prosperity under the banner of unity are therefore likely to stifle rather than aid its progress. Indeed the very concept of “unity” requires the same, repeated rules for everyone and the same approaches towards everything regardless of their individual, specialist needs. Hence you get the proliferation, in large, consolidated states, of “one size fits all solutions” that attempt to force everyone through a single, “unified” channel, as though all of us with all of our differences characteristics and requirements are being squeezed through a sausage maker to create a bland, blended puree. (Curiously, those who champion centralisation and state uniformity are also the ones who squeal for “diversity” and celebrating “difference” – at least when those diverse differences are demonstrated or practised by favoured minority groups). Indeed, it is usually, if not always, the case in nature that as something becomes bigger and more complex it is characterised by greater division and decentralisation, not by increased unity and consolidation. A human being is not simply a larger version of a single cell organism. Rather, he is made up of a countless number of individual cells that coalesce into different organs and tissues, each of which specialises in different life sustaining activities. We do not have one, single “unified” organ that pumps the blood, inhales and exhales air, rids the body of toxins, acts as a nervous system and also as a skeleton. In other words as nature achieved a complex human being by decentralising and delegating various functions to different organs that act independently of, but symbiotically with each other, so too will humans only achieve a complex and prosperous society by increasing the division of labour and the degree of specialisation in more and more decentralised institutions.

Division rather than unity is also necessary for creating and preserving the conditions that economic prosperity requires – strong private property rights, minimal taxation and minimal regulation. The benefits of a large number of divided states as opposed to large, unified states, is that if one tiny state of a size equivalent to Luxembourg implements, say, an onerous tax then only that state is affected and the disruption to everyone else in the world will be relatively minimal. If that state introduces ridiculously high border tariffs then only the small proportion of global trade into that territory will be burdened while freer trade will remain for everybody else. Similarly if that state introduces burdensome laws and regulations that infringe upon people’s lives only those people will be affected. The hampering effects of state action upon economic prosperity will, therefore, be localised and minimalised in a world of deconsolidated, small states. In a world of much larger states and state institutions, however, the introduction of a tax will affect everyone; the introduction of a new regulation will affect everyone, everywhere at all times regardless of their own needs and preferences; and the introduction of a border tariff will affect the trade of everybody who wishes to trade across the lines of the large, unified state. Hence the hampering effects of state taxes and regulations and infringements upon private property are magnified as the state becomes larger. This is not all, however, for the incentives to tax, regulate and otherwise infringe private property rights are much greater in a large, unified state than in smaller states. Smaller states are, by their nature, economically weaker than larger states and are more reliant upon maintaining the free flow of goods and services from abroad which simply cannot be produced with the resources at home. Each state will therefore compete with all other states to attract foreign investment and the unhindered import and export of goods and services by minimising taxes, regulation and border tariffs. Because the jurisdiction of a small state covers only a small area, if its rates of taxation, regulation and border tariffs are relatively high then investment will simply flee to a more competitive jurisdiction which may be only tens of miles away and the standard of living in the small state will plummet. A large state, however, whose jurisdiction covers a larger territory and possesses access to a larger number of domestic resources has no such incentive to keep its tax and regulatory burdens to the minimum. With more domestic wealth and resources available and with the threat of capital fleeing for foreign shores thousands of miles away minimised, large states are free to increase their tax and regulatory predations to a much higher degree than smaller states. One of the supposed benefits of the EU is the so-called common market – the notion that goods and workers may move freely under a single tax and regulatory code. Yet any benefits achieved by having to deal with a single code are likely to be outweighed by its gargantuan size whereas a myriad of small and trifling tax and regulatory codes in a world of greater state division is likely to be a better condition for promoting trade and prosperity. Indeed, former UKIP/Independent MEP Godfrey Bloom has referred to the EU as a “customs union” rather than a market union – in other words, a single bureaucracy rather than a single market, a chance for the state to stamp out the irritating competition between states which forces them to keep their tax and regulatory rates low (as demonstrated recently in the EU’s disagreement over the rate of tax Apple had agreed to pay to the Irish government) and replace it instead with a giant socialistic paradise of government control. Instead of emphasising the “unionisation” of tax rules and regulations, those who wish to encourage economic prosperity should instead concentrate on reducing them – and the only way to do this is to make the state entities which impose them smaller and weaker, not bigger and stronger.

The argument for the “unity” and the consolidation of states becomes even more absurd when we consider the desire to preserve peace and prevent war. Murders are committed by murderers; rapes are committed by rapists; thefts are committed by thieves. If we want to minimise the effects of murders, rapes and thefts then it is obvious that the last thing we want is for all of the murderers, rapists and thieves to join together under the banner of “unity” so they are free to combine their powers to murder, rape and steal to a greater degree with increasing ingenuity. Similarly, wars are started by states and are fought between states. Therefore, if we wish to minimise wars and their effects then it follows that we need to make states smaller and weaker; it makes no sense whatsoever to make them bigger and stronger. The argument that unifying states is likely to prevent wars seems to rest on the assumption that government is the glue that holds society together and it is in fact all of the people whom they govern who are the cause of endless conflict. Thus a bigger and powerful government is able to “unite” all of these people and stop them from fighting each other. Nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from the fact that, as libertarians, we know that the state’s dependence upon force and violence for its wellbeing renders it an institution that is bound to inflict rather than prevent conflict, bigger and more powerful states are the enablers of bigger and more destructive conflicts rather than our salvagers from them. Private actors and institutions are necessarily splintered, decentralised and reliant upon voluntary trade for their sustenance. Tiny states have equally tiny tax bases from which they can command a very limited number of resources. The ability of such persons and institutions to start and sustain wars is extremely limited. Large states, on the other hand, are vast concentrations of wealth and power which not only have enormous tax bases from which to draw the means to fund eminently more destructive firepower but the advent of central banking – another creature of centralisation and “unity” – has allowed large states to fund their conflicts through monetary inflation rather than through demanding their citizens to cough up directly. So does anyone sensibly argue that private actors and small states would achieve the level of carnage and destruction that the large and powerful belligerents managed to reach in the two world wars? Does anyone believe that a decentralised world of small states and private institutions would have had the ability to force us to endure a generation and a half of potential nuclear terror during the cold war as the vast territories of the US and the Soviet Union managed to do? The most spectacular terrorist atrocity (i.e. an attack by non-state actors) of the past generation – the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 – killed just fewer than 3000 people, a figure which, while undoubtedly tragic, stands in the shadow of the more than 1 million Iraqis who have died as a result of the US invasion of their country. There would, of course, be fewer states left to fight each other in a world of consolidated, centralised states. However, this completely ignores the fact that the states that remain are armed with a destructive ability far superior to any minor state or territory – and especially compared to any private criminal. Any conflicts in a decentralised world would be localised to small pinpoints on the world map, affecting, at most, a few thousand people and, with the participants lacking the resources to continue fighting and disrupting trade for too long, would probably be over in weeks if not days. Contrast this to the situation in which we languish today where the ridiculous cult of interventionism and “collective security” – another banner of “unity” – forces all such local conflicts to be escalated into drawn out, global catastrophes, as the forays into Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria have demonstrated. It is clear that if we wish to preserve peace and prevent war then we need to prevent the institutions that start and fight wars – states – from becoming too big and powerful.

On a related note, there is a distinct air of utopianism in the minds of the centralisers and consolidators when it comes to the issue of preserving peace. War and conflict are doubtless terrible things and we would have a much better world if they did not exist. However, it is also true that, for as long as humans have walked the earth, individuals and institutions have run into conflicts with each other and that these conflicts have been escalated into violence. This is just human nature. Unwittingly, in trying to prevent all war everywhere and at any time by “unifying us” under the yoke of bigger and larger states, the advocates of such an approach have, instead, served to escalate the size and duration of wars and vastly magnify their destructive capabilities. The more sensible approach, we would suggest, is to acknowledge that war and conflict will always exist and to recognise that a superior social system will never eliminate these aspects of humanity entirely, just as in the same way libertarians do not expect a free market in private defence and security to ever completely eradicate murder, rape and theft. Our task instead is to find ways to reduce the frequency, duration and potency of these awful things as much as possible. When it comes to war only cutting the potential belligerents down to size and reducing their ability to wage destructive wars in the first place is likely to achieve this.

As we have seen, the liberating effects of decentralisation owe themselves to the relative weakness of deconsolidated and splintered states and state institutions. However, these liberating effects do not arise out of the smallness of the states and state institutions per se. Rather it is because the individual person becomes stronger relative to an institution the more decentralised and localised that institution is. Within his own immediate family, which may consist of only half a dozen people, an individual person’s needs and views are likely to be highly influential upon the other members of the family. They will attempt to provide for and accommodate these views and needs as an active part of their lives simply because the individual is close to them both physically and emotionally. An individual will have a little less influence in his immediate community or on a civil or parish council, where there are more people involved and few of them will be as familiar with him as his immediate family. However he would clearly have more influence in such a circle than in an entire town or city. And once, of course, we get to the level of an entire country such as Great Britain, a diverse nation of various economic, social and ethnic backgrounds, a single person’s lonely vote in, say, a general election becomes a drop in the ocean along with all of the other c. 45 million votes that are eligible to be cast. And if a country such as Britain was to be absorbed into a superstate such as the EU an individual may be drowned out by a chorus of 500 million other voices. The larger an institution becomes then the more its ability to focus on the “micro” issues that really affect people’s lives is progressively diminished and is replaced by a concentration on “macro” or global issues, the successful tackling of which is determined not by the wellbeing of individual people but, rather, by the measurement of aggregated statistics. So whereas, say, a family will care about whether Dad has a job that he enjoys and pays enough to feed and house the family or whether Grandma can get her hip operation in a hospital local enough for her to travel to, large state governments will instead care about GDP and the size of hospital waiting lists. Whereas a local council might focus on whether there is a sufficient bus service to a small community or whether a particular street is clear of litter, large governments, instead, have transport and environmental policies. Who in the bureaucracy is likely to care whether these policies might overlook the specific needs of one community or street some hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the capital? More local institutions are also likely to be populated more homogenously, with each person experiencing relatively similar priorities and holding a relatively similar worldview. Thus the ability to induce empathy between those who lead and those who are led is much more likely and, indeed, may produce more of a situation of symbiosis, or a sense of “working together” to further common goals as opposed to the “command and follow” routine of large states. In other words, even though a particular institution may still function officially through the methods of power and force, the smaller and more localised it is then the more likely such an institution will approach the individual and his needs in a voluntary and peaceful manner – or at least relatively so compared to much larger, faceless state institutions. Even the socialisation of property – considered to be the antithesis of libertarians, or at least right-leaning libertarians – is less likely to be a problem in, say, a small, voluntary commune where all of the commune’s members can air their views as to how their collective resources should be put to use and where all the members are likely to share a common motivation and purpose. Yet a similar exercise on a nationwide scale has always proven to be a disaster – not to mention, of course, that is easier for someone to leave a small commune than it was to leave, say, the Soviet Union.

It is important to realise that decentralisation is not necessarily about breaking every institution down into its smallest possible parts just for the sake of it. There is nothing wrong with large entities or institutions if such sizes generate advantages that could not otherwise be attained. Rather, the primary purpose of decentralisation is to devolve decision making authority (or what might be called “sovereignty”) to its the lowest possible level and that the closer this is to the individual then the more liberating the decentralising effect will be. So there is nothing wrong with lots of individuals or small institutions deciding to form a large institution to achieve a common purpose. This is precisely what individuals do when they form companies and joint enterprises. Whatever criticism we might hurl at the inadequacy of corporate governance and executive dominance, it is still basically the case that the individual shareholder of such an entity can liquidate his position if he wishes to disassociate himself from the institution. Thus the ultimate fate of the institution is dependent upon the willingness of individuals to continue its existence rather than upon its own volition. When, however, such an institution, which may originally have been organised voluntarily, becomes the ultimate decision making authority – like the modern state has become – and is able to prevent its component parts from exercising any significant autonomous power that would seal its fate, then the anti-liberating effects of consolidation and centralisation will be felt. This has been the case with the United States which, having started off as an association of small, independent, sovereign states has become, at least since the American Civil War, a compulsory union with the power concentrated in Washington DC rather than in the state capitals.

Decentralisation cannot depend solely upon formal, constitutional arrangements or treaties and it is naïve to argue that such set ups are adequate. What matters is where the de facto ability to enforce decision making power lies. An individual shareholder has de facto power over a company, for instance, because a court will enforce the sale of his shares and whatever other rights he may have. Technically, the individual member states of the EU remain wholly sovereign nations and, indeed, are so at this present time – the perceived loss of sovereignty of which its citizens complain has come in part from the fact that the politicians of the individual state governments have been happy to haemorrhage more and more powers to Brussels that override the individual, local needs of each country. However, if all of the military, policing and judicial might of the combined EU member states was to be consolidated in Brussels – which is, of course, the eventual aim of the super-statists – then it would be the case that no individual member state would retain the ability to enforce its sovereignty over the larger entity. Hence, it was a good thing for the UK to vote to leave the EU before such a consolidation occurred. What matters for the process of decentralisation and its liberating effects, therefore, is that any legal or enforcement system must be able to give effect to the decision making authority of smaller and smaller institutions. Therefore, large, standing armies, and consolidated police forces and judicial systems run from vast buildings in the capitals of large states, such as the Pentagon in Washington DC, are the biggest fears for those of us who wish to achieve a world of liberty – and with it, a world of peace and prosperity.

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It is widely believed in mainstream circles that equality between human beings, in one form or another, is some kind of virtue to which society ought to aspire and that rank inequality is a measure of severe injustice that needs to be corrected by state action. Equality between individuals has also been used as a primary weapon against those who favour capitalism and free exchange. Even though the worst excesses of inequality – such as the rising value of assets owned by the rich as a result of worldwide money printing – are in fact, products of a state corporatist system, it is true that proponents of the free market favour a system in which some people will be wealthier by virtue of their ownership of a greater number of resources than other people.

Our critique of equality here will be somewhat different from the usual free market or libertarian approaches towards tackling this issue, which normally explain the virtues of the free market and the ethics of private property and how these are better than striving for some kind of equality. Although we will certainly champion these arguments, our approach will be two-pronged. First of all, we will conclude that the aspiration towards some kind of perfect or immediate equality – i.e. the forced attempt to render all people absolutely equal now with today’s stock of wealth and resources – is undesirable, impractical and far from being a moral virtue. However, more importantly, we will go on to argue that, if someone desires a more approximate or gradual achievement of equality – such as the so-called “equality of opportunity” – statism, socialism and any kind of redistributionism must be abandoned and that those who seek to create such equality must instead embrace a social order that maximises the production of wealth. That social order is, of course, free market capitalism.

Perfect Equality

Our starting point in examining the advocacy for some kind of perfect or immediate equality is to acknowledge that nature places a formidable number of obstacles in the way of achieving such equality. One of these barriers is the fact of human action itself – the ability of each individual human to think, desire and consciously choose to devote the resources at his disposal in ways that he deems fit. In other words individual humans make decisions to act independently of one another. Some of these decisions will be good or better decisions while others will be bad or worse. Some people will make a greater number of bad or worse decisions than good or better decisions while others will make a greater number of good or better decisions than they do bad or worse decisions. The varying results of these decisions serve to place people in a state of inequality, with those that make good or better decisions ending up in a better condition than those who make bad or worse decisions. Any attempt to subvert these outcomes and to create, instead, a greater degree of equality between humans would subordinate all individually motivated behaviour to the directions of the state, lest anyone was to act in such a way as to put himself in a position better than that of his fellow human. Although this would be undeniably totalitarian and despotic the more crucial point is that any such drive towards equality would require a complete annihilation of the preeminent quality of human nature – that of rational action. It would render us all as nothing better than automated robots, unable to act upon our own feelings and desires while under the control of our political lords and masters. Hence, unless anybody is happy to become an unthinking cog in a society that represents mere machinery then we must conclude that equality is an inherently undesirable goal.

This formidable obstacle placed in the way of equality by nature – the fact that we think, choose, desire as individuals – renders perfect equality not only undesirable but also impractical. Let us say that even if we were able to stifle all individual human action and create a perfect material equality between every human being. It would still be the case, however, that individual people would value these possessions differently. A white stick, for instance, is likely to be very valuable to a blind man yet next to useless to a sighted man. If you give both of these men a white stick it is clear that, even though their physical, material possessions are identical, one has gained value more than another. Thus, if we have to strive for perfect equality it is useless to attempt to distribute resources equally, lest someone ends up more happy and content with the same possessions than somebody else and thus rendering them in unequal conditions. Perhaps such a problem could be resolved by simply giving them an equal amount of money? Wouldn’t everyone then be able to spend their equal amount of money on different things that are valuable to them? Unfortunately this would not work either because one person may need to spend more money to gain the same amount of satisfaction as another person. People who are more satisfied with spiritual and non-material needs may be content with spending very little of the money allocated to them whereas those who are materialistic and seek value in possessions may require a lot more for them to feel as happy as the non-materialistic folk. What the budding egalitarian would have to do, therefore, is to attempt to provide for each person’s needs regardless of the precise quantity of goods required for those needs. So in other words one person may receive a lot whereas another person would receive very little if they are both made equally satisfied by what they receive. This, however, turns the whole of economics on its head. Economising behaviour regulates needs to the goods available. Needs are insatiable whereas goods are scarce and we must choose which of our needs we value the most in order to allocate the goods available to them. There is not a fixed number of needs or a fixed quantity of happiness shared between all people which can be satisfied by an abundant stock of goods. Needs are also intangible entities, existing in only the mind. They cannot be measured with any yardstick and any attempt to do so would simply subordinate the real value of the needs as perceived by individual people to their value as perceived by some bureaucrat – and, of course, this bureaucrat will have his own motivations for determining who gets what. One’s own value of one’s needs is subordinated to the value of those needs as perceived by the state. Anyone who has needs deemed unworthy by the state, perhaps because they are “unpatriotic” or somehow not in keeping with the spirit of the “the people”, will be left far worse off than those who toe the state’s line, which is how redistributionist policy always works in practice.

If we look more broadly at the entirety of the natural state of human beings, things do not get much better for the budding egalitarian. Indeed so inherent is the natural state of inequality between human beings that we could even suggest that Mother Nature intended it to be so and that she willed such a state to be permanent. Individual people are born with different qualities – different heights, different weights, different physical and mental capabilities, and so on. So too are the environments into which they are born different. Not only will their parents and those around them also have varying characteristics and varying abilities at raising their offspring, but the precise climate, geography and availability of natural resources will differ from place to place. Hence, the Earth itself gifts different people differently and presents them with different degrees of challenge for them to live their lives. Some of these environmental differences are likely to have had a cumulative genetic impact as a result of natural selection that exacerbates further inequalities. A society which has developed in an area where resources are plentiful and where little work needs to be done to ensure survival will have had its physical and mental capabilities tested to a much lower degree than a society that has developed in a barren area where resources are scarce and what little the earth has to offer must be obtained through ingenuity and backbreaking physical work. Only the most intelligent and strongest will have survived and prospered in the latter society whereas practically anyone could have lived in the former society. After generations of reproduction, therefore, those who are born today in the latter society – the “difficult” one – are likely to have superior mental and physical attributes that are not enjoyed by those in the “easy” society. Ironically, therefore, those who descended from a society which originally had “less” are those who are likely to command greater wealth and income, by virtue of their superior strength and intellect, in today’s society characterised by global trade and the division of labour. Indeed, given that we have mentioned trade and the division of labour, we might as well point out that any drive towards an immediate and perfect equality would require the complete eradication of these elements for they are clearly founded on a rank inequality. The division of labour cannot exist unless people utilise different skills and different abilities to undertake different tasks. If two people wish to trade it is because they each start off with different things and each wish to obtain different things through the trade. In other words each partner to the exchange desires to be different and views himself as having gained something more than what he parted with.

The fact of all these inequalities alone does not, of course, prevent equality from being a virtue. Simply because something is does not been that it ought to be. However, the manifold extent of inequality that has been presented to us by nature indicates that, in order to reverse such a natural state, a considerable and extensive power of man over nature will be required. It is here where the notion of equality as an argument for some kind of socialism or redistributionism collapses. Creating a condition of equality will not require, as is typically supposed, a redistribution of existing wealth – that is, man’s existing power over nature – but, rather, the generation of more wealth in order to overcome the formidable barriers to equality that nature has put in our path. Those who desire equality should, in fact, not be dreaming up ways in which to rob the rich to give to the poor but, rather, should be finding the best possible way to ensure wealth creation. As we shall explore now it is in fact a society of private property and free exchange – i.e. of capitalism – which, by virtue of its superior productive ability, accomplishes this and which makes a tendency towards greater equality more likely.

The Equalising Tendencies of Capitalism

While we examine the equalising tendencies of capitalism, we must admit, lest w be accused of creating a straw man, that equality is not usually advocated in any perfect or absolute sense in the manner that we just subjected to criticism. Egalitarians do not typically strive for the complete eradication of all differences and idiosyncrasies between humans, even if social systems founded upon equality have tried to decimate all independent and unapproved opinions, culture, tastes, and personal habits. The staunchest of such egalitarians will still admit that the division of labour – upon which human prosperity depends – requires some people to be garbage collectors and others to be brain surgeons, for example, and that it would be a travesty for everybody to be garbage collectors or for everybody to practise brain surgery. Rather, the egalitarian strives for some kind of approximate equality. After all, approximate equality could be achieved so long as everybody is doing the job that he most enjoys and/or is best at, and surely people having some kind of access to roughly the same amount of wealth would be better than nothing at all? To implement such a programme through a socialist society would, however, produce the very opposite of equality. In a society governed by private property and free exchange, the ownership of all of the material wealth in existence is scattered between all of the private individuals who inhabit the Earth. As all persons are free to make their own decisions as to how best to deploy their wealth it is true that some people will have accumulated more while others will have accumulated less. However, those who accumulate more do so because they serve the needs of consumers better than anyone else – consumers entrust these resources to these particular people because the latter have, so far, proven themselves better at directing them to the most urgent wants of the consumers than anyone else. The wealthy in a capitalist society cannot abuse their position as their fortunes would soon begin to haemorrhage. Rather, they must continue to serve the needs of consumers better than anyone else, or consumers will drop them and their products in a flash while the productive assets that form their wealth will be transferred to other people. There also seems to be something of a limit on how much of societal wealth any individual can command in such a society. As of 2016 the wealthiest man in the world, Bill Gates, has a total fortune of $81.7 billion – a drop in the ocean compared to the $3.7 trillion budget of the federal government last year, and peanuts compared to the sums that central bankers like to print from thin air. Warren Buffett, widely regarded as the most successful investor in history, has admitted that achieving a significant annual return for his firm Berkshire Hathaway is now much more difficult than it used to be on account of the size that the firm has now achieved. It is typically believed that capitalism has a tendency towards monopoly, with more and more wealth being sucked into the clutches of a few powerful oligarchs. The opposite is in fact the case – one individual entrepreneur or investor can only direct his attention to so much before his talents are spread too thinly, or he has to delegate to lesser individuals. Hence, inefficiencies begin to creep in which provide an advantage to smaller, more nimble competitors and thus checking the growth of any established player. In a socialist society, however, matters are completely different. If you deprive all of the individual citizens of their ability to direct their labour and their resources to the employments that they feel are best then these decisions have to be made by somebody else. There must be someone who has de facto ownership and control over resources in order for these resources to be directed. These people are, of course, those who form the state and its planning bureaucracy. Clearly this amounts to an enormous concentration of wealth in the hands of a very small, political elite, a concentration which by far exceeds that of the wealthiest individual in a capitalist society. These elites will direct resources according to what they value rather than what is valuable for everyone else. Not only will you get parades of missiles accompanied by goose stepping troops, and the construction of vanity projects such as the unfinished 105 storey hotel in Pyongyang, but even if the direction of resources is for the benefit of other people this light will be refracted through the prism of the elites’ own preoccupations. If the minister of a particular socialist state or department thinks single mothers are hard done by then single mothers will get more; if he is an ex-railway worker then he is likely to account for the condition of railway workers more than someone who has no such background; if a relative of his died from cancer then he is likely to want to devote more resources to cancer research than someone who has had no such exposure, while those suffering from other illnesses and conditions must put up with lesser treatment. And, of course, he will have every incentive to direct wealth to personal favourites and political supporters that serve to keep him in his powerful position. No longer is his status and privilege determined by serving consumers who can choke off his supply of funds at any point they desire. Rather, he now depends upon currying favour with his political contemporaries. Furthermore, if he is able to maintain such favour he can simply resort, when directing resources to where he wants, to the use of force rather than the use of persuasion through offering a valuable service. Socialism does not eliminate any unequal, societal statuses; it simply changes the game of who rises to the top – and when you are at the top you are more unequal from the rest of society than in a capitalist economy. Moreover, socialism cements these statuses from a revolving membership determined by who best can serve consumers into semi-permanent and impenetrable political castes. All of this can be illustrated today in some of the so-called democratic socialist countries such as Venezuela, where the daughter of the late, former President Hugo Chavez enjoys a personal fortune of approximately $4.2 billion, while the country’s socialist policies have made basic necessities so scarce that the black market price for a dozen eggs have reportedly reached $150. According to The Daily Mail, at the Caracas Country Club the nation’s super rich socialists “enjoy lavish parties and gourmet cuisine, while middle-class people are forced to scavenge for food” at a membership cost of 458 times the average Venezuelan salary. The attitude of the elites is almost literally the modern day equivalent of Nero fiddling – “Should we stop enjoying ourselves just because the country is burning?” one is quoted as saying. Far from being a creator of any kind of approximate equality, socialism widens the gulf between rich and poor immeasurably, and to the extent that people are equal at all they languish in equal destitution.

Of course, after the twentieth century failures of communism and socialism, the aims of the equalisers and egalitarians have been watered down further into vaguer nuances such as the so-called “equality of opportunity” – i.e. that everyone may become richer and may become better off than other people as a result of their own talents and hard work so long as they all start off from the same supposed springboard. The idea is, in other words, that if an individual is born to wealthy parents resulting in a high quality of education and a comfortable upbringing he has a “head start” against someone from a poorer background who does not have these benefits, and that it is this kind of inequality that should be eradicated through redistribution. In the first place, any kind of birth into wealth and affluence does not by itself guarantee that the individual will have any talent or affinity for hard work. Indeed, the opposite is likely to be the case if he knows that, in order with stave off any hardship he encounters, Daddy will simply whip out his cheque book. Somebody who is less privileged, however, who has no alternative but to use his natural abilities and dedication to get ahead is more likely to do so. It is for this reason that most of the significant entrepreneurs and inventors were drop outs and rebels against the formal system of education and progression. The traditional path through school and elite university really only prepares one for a career in the establishment professions such as law, banking and the civil service – occupations which make you well off largely because the state ensures that your wealth is perpetuated. However, if we accept the premise that equality of opportunity through providing equal resources to the young will benefit the latter then it would not follow that the best manner to achieve this would be through redistribution. Rather, it would be better to follow a path of wealth creation so that the poorest in society are able to afford a high quality education – and an education of higher quality than the rich may have enjoyed in the recent past – sooner. The reason for this is that it is not the relative difference between rich and poor that is the significant factor – rather, it is whether the poor have enough to put them in a position in which they can compete effectively. While it is true that, in a capitalist society, the rich will get richer as the poor get richer and thus the rich will always be able to afford “more” than the poor, there is only a finite amount that they can spend productively on, say, educating themselves highly and sharpening their talents for entrepreneurship before any additional resources in this direction will produce diminishing returns. For example, a person can only read so many books in a day; if a rich person spends more on books he will not become more educated than a poorer person if he never has time to read those books. So if wealth creation results in the poor being able to afford as many books as the rich can read then both rich and poor will be equally well read. The rich may be able to afford more tutors than the poor, but they can only absorb so much information from so many tutors before all these mentors will drown themselves out in a cacophony of confusion. Therefore, if wealth creation permits the poor to afford as many tutors as the rich can absorb information from then both rich and poor will be equally well tutored. It is still true, of course, that the rich will spend more on educating themselves than the poor and it is also true that the rich will be the first to benefit from any innovations. However, as the poor get wealthier, this additional money spent by the rich tends to go towards additional pleasantries and luxuries rather than the substantial necessities of learning – for example, the classrooms may be nicer, the chairs comfier, the writing paper of a higher quality. But none of these things really matter a great deal when it comes to absorbing knowledge – or rather they matter far less than the poor being unable to afford any education at all. It is for this reason that wealth creation, through free market capitalism, rather than wealth distribution, produces a tendency towards equality and more adequately and permanently closes the gap between rich and poor, both in a very real sense but also in the sense of providing an “equality of opportunity”.

We can illustrate this further through examples in the wider economy. As Mises points out, when the automobile was first invented and only the rich could afford to purchase one, the gap between rich and poor was very wide. The rich had personal, motorised transportation while the poor had to go barefoot, put up with animal powered transport, or use the railway. Once, however, society became wealthy enough to mass produce cars that were affordable by the poor, both rich and poor now had access to motorised transportation. It is true that the rich spend more of their money on their cars than the poor do – and often a lot more. However, most of this additional money is spent on luxury additions such as higher quality paint and body work, sleeker aesthetics, leather upholstery and the fineness of the engine; the basic purpose of the car, to transport a person from A to B, is available to everybody and no amount of additional spending by the rich on their own cars can change this. This was not so before the poor could afford any car at all. Thus the gap between rich and poor has been narrowed through wealth creation. Similarly, the difference between a two bedroom terraced house and an enormous mansion is less than the difference between a house and no house at all; the difference between a gold plated toilet and a ceramic toilet is less than the difference between a toilet and no toilet. If a “poor” individual possesses a genuine talent his inability to afford champagne and caviar rather than bread and cheese is unlikely to prejudice his efforts to capitalise on this talent; but clearly he would be very disadvantaged if he could not afford food at all. What the rich spend on themselves goes towards luxuries and comforts which, while delightful, do not provide any significant material advantage to insulate themselves from a poorer person who can still afford the basics – and of course, the process of wealth creation soon places these luxuries in the hands of the poor anyway. Indeed, the rich, although they consume more goods and services than the poor, consume a lower percentage of their income than the latter do simply because more of their most urgent wants have been satisfied and additional consumption brings fewer and fewer benefits. The remainder of their resources therefore goes into investment or philanthropy – indeed, a wealthy society is awash with charitable giving simply because people have so much more to give. It is true, of course, that a poorer individual may have to demonstrate his talent if he is to persuade other people to fund him in his ventures, whereas a richer person could easily self-fund from his fortune. This, however, is arguably not a disadvantage. When you are risking other people’s money you have to rise to their standards and ensure that the decisions you are making are absolutely the right ones, decisions in which they will take a keen interest. Thus the talents and efforts of a poorer person are enhanced and focussed when he has to use other people’s money. Devoid of third party scrutiny, however, a rich individual, if he does not merely pursue his own flights of fancy without any check upon the hubris of his deluded conviction, is likely at the very least to be more slovenly and less disciplined in his approach. And in any case, if a poorer individual is genuinely talented then what is wrong with expecting him to establish this fact before others?

What we can see therefore is that any drive towards “approximate” equality or some kind of “equality of opportunity” is delivered not by a system of wealth redistribution but by a system of wealth creation. The only system that produces wealth creation, or at least produces it to its strongest possible degree, is a system of free market capitalism.

We might as well conclude with a final observation which is that people seem to be highly selective when it comes to advocating equality through wealth distribution. Apart from the occasional grumble it seems to be perfectly OK for elite sportsmen and women and movie starts to earn large amounts of money. Football enthusiasts in the UK are happy to wax lyrical about how many millions such-and-such a player is being “bought” for by a particular club, or how much one of them earns in a week, fully accepting the essence of the market and voluntary exchange in this arena. When it comes to the CEOs of multinational companies worth billions of dollars, however, it is always a different story – they are greedy fat cats, profiting off the work done by their underlings in the factories and production lines. This is so even though the multinational company may provide “essential” benefits to people such as food to eat and homes to live in, whereas the achievements of even the greatest athlete basically boil down to providing entertainment. The reason for this, of course, is that sporting and acting achievements are readily perceived by the individual, whereas the benefits of entrepreneurship and the stewardship of productive assets are not. If the cries for equality are to be consistent this should not really matter, of course – it should permeate all areas of human endeavour. However, if the ready perception of a wealthy person’s achievement is enough to justify it in the eyes of everybody else then clearly libertarians and free market enthusiasts should continue to extol the benefits of entrepreneurship and attempt elevate, to the level of sportsmanship and acting in front of a camera, the status of businessmen, investors and capitalists who provide goods and services which people want to buy at prices they can afford. This may be the surest way to purge mindless egalitarianism from mainstream social thought.

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