What Liberal Equality Looks Like and Why We Need it More Than Ever

I’m not sure what you’d call the people who oppose “black sites.” For those unfamiliar, the Central Intelligence Agency has operated secret bunkers in major cities on US soil. Operatives disappear people who haven’t been charged with any crime to these sites. These detainees don’t get a phone call so their families can know where they are, a lawyer, or due process. They are sometimes tortured.

I’m not sure what you’d call people who oppose arresting journalists for reporting on a protest and then charging them with felonies. And I am not sure what you’d call people who oppose bans on immigration based on nationality.

I’m not sure what you’d call people who oppose starting a trade war that will hurt every American who buys things, along with the 80% of US workers in the service sector to protect the 10% who work in manufacturing whose jobs will be done by robots within ten years either way.

You might have, at one time, called these people libertarians. Unfortunately, that label has become less accurate as many libertarians have openly supported these policies and the candidate who pushed them.

The word I now use to describe the people who reject authoritarianism, whether nationalistic, socialistic, or both, is “liberal.”

Deirdre McCloskey is emerita professor of economics, history, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She recently wrote for Reason, “Adam Smith defined liberalism in 1776 as the shocking idea of ‘allowing every man [or woman, dear] to pursue his own interest in his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice.’”

Liberty and justice might seem like more pressing issues today. But I believe the liberal vision for “equality,” often slandered or ignored by libertarians, is foundational to the liberal plan.

On equality, economist Friedrich Hayek wrote in the Constitution of Liberty:

From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time.

Hayek preferred equality before the law to material equality. Libertarians have shortened the goal to “Equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes.” The purpose of this pitch is to delegitimize state efforts to rectify inequality.

The problem is that libertarians have traditionally de-prioritized the “equality before the law” portion of Hayek’s quote. Whether it’s voting or marriage rights, or sodomy laws, many self-described libertarians support the continuation of unequal treatment before the law for certain groups of citizens.

The Federal Housing Administration was created to give white Americans home loans at below-market rates for the purpose of excluding Black Americans from home ownership. Owning a home is the biggest contributor to household wealth for the middle class.

Which libertarians railed against the FHA for denying Black Americans both equal treatment under the law and equal opportunity to build wealth?

Visions and interests compete. Smart, well-meaning people disagree about how to live. Poverty and Welfare Policy Analyst Sam Hammond lays out a future for liberalism by taking on the “facile” libertarian view that freedom of expression is a “negative right” while voting or marriage rights are “privileges” conferred by the state. Liberalism means consistently applying the rules about who can vote, marry, and speak to everyone regardless of who they are or what they plan to do.

Liberalism does not engage in identity politics to perpetrate tribal warfare via the state. Liberalism advocates equality before the law and equality of opportunity. It rejects bigotry as a legitimate basis for lawmaking.

Another important difference between liberalism and libertarianism is that liberalism rejects bigotry, full-stop. True equality of opportunity for all races, genders, religions, and so on requires more than equal treatment under the law. It requires equal treatment in the private sphere as well. The opportunities I want extend very far beyond the (too broad) scope of the state. I want the same opportunities to live and work and buy and sell regardless of my identity.

Liberalism says government should apply its rules consistently to everyone regardless of who they are or what they believe. Liberalism goes further than that, though. Everyone has a floor for how poorly they are willing treat the people who look, sound, act, and believe like them. Liberalism asks people to apply that floor equally.

There’s a reason white people haven’t spoken up much about discriminatory FHA home lending. There’s a reason native-born, white, Christian people aren’t up-in-arms about CIA “black sites” or country-based immigration bans or trade wars. There’s a reason the US turned away Jewish refugees fleeing certain death. Because we too often see the world as “us” versus “them.”

These lines are important to some people. Liberalism does not advocate fighting bigotry with authoritarianism. Liberalism recognizes that forcing a bakery to serve a gay couple is lowkey sectarian violence.

But liberalism seeks to get everyone cooperating in the market economy regardless of their tribal affiliations by de-emphasizing division and advocating the prosperity that results when people go along to get along.

Decreased sectarian violence and increased cooperation across ideological, religious, racial lines resulted in a Great Enrichment. Defined by McCloskey, it is “A rise in Europe and the Anglosphere of real, inflation-corrected incomes per head, from 1800 to the present, by a factor, conservatively measured, of about 30. That is, class, about 3,000 percent.”

Economists estimate that the cost of rejecting TPP to the US is $131 billion annually in real incomes. And this is just the beginning. In addition to trade, this administration has free speech, the right to protest, and due process in its crosshairs. As long as we continue to consider Americans who don’t look, sound, or seem like us as deserving less protection and opportunity than those who fit in our tribes the gains we’ve made from liberalism will continue to erode.


What to do? Revive liberalism, as the astonishing successes of China and India have. Take back the word from our friends on the American left. They can keep progressive, if they don’t mind being associated with the Progressive movement of the early 20th century, and its eugenic enthusiasms for forced sterilization and for using the minimum wage to drive immigrants, blacks, and women out of the labor force. And we should persuade our friends on the right to stop using the l word to attack people who do not belong to the country club.

Today, more than ever, we must decrease division so we can enjoy the freedom and prosperity that cooperation can bring. Before the state and in our private affairs, we need liberal equality.

One Comment

  1. “Another important difference between liberalism and libertarianism is that liberalism rejects bigotry, full-stop. True equality of opportunity for all races, genders, religions, and so on requires more than equal treatment under the law. It requires equal treatment in the private sphere as well.”

    I disagree, because that makes no sense. (Though you floor limits the nonsense — and your style is impressive.)

    Is a preference for feminine women (as opposed to masculine women and feminine men) “wrong” and/or “unequal”? Is a preference for a certain kind of beauty “wrong”? What about a preference for a certain kind of humor, or music (and, consequently, humorists, musicians — individuals)?

    It’s possible to make laws “equal” by making them about true public goods, by limiting them to things that benefit all (Pareto-efficiency), while dealing with free-riders. This appears less possible in private matters. You could try it with beauty. Seeing a beautiful women can make a day considerable better — is she adequately compensated for it, or do people free-ride on her*?. Then again, this is a problem when she’s moving on public property, because she then can’t – as easily – exclude others from enjoying her looks. In the private sphere, on private property, she pretty much can. What it means to treat a beautiful woman and any man “equally” is as incomprehensible a question as determining “comparable worth”. (In these things, there’s some deceptive manipulation by setting the “tertium comparationis”, which is done arbitrarily.) You run into the problem of incommensurability. It takes no poet to figure out that (some) beauty is incomparable.

    The classically liberal floor (welfare) is a kind of Rawlsian/social contract thing, the result of hypothetical consent. There’s probably widespread agreement that one should prevent others’ deaths by moderate financial transfer. There’s no such consensus about “equalities” in the private sphere. (That Rawlsian floor isn’t even about equality, it’s an absolut command, defending an absolute value: life. Axiomatic.) Please try to answer.

    As for the strange things “libertarians” may endorse, that would have to deal with Spencer’s (not that he is its originator) distinction of ideal and imperfect morality (Ethics; I seriously doubt these are his exact terms). Under bad conditions, it’s likely impossible to determine what’s “classically liberal”, and one may have to pursue the lesser evil, in consequentialist manner.


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