Libertarianism vs. Equalitarianism
By Alec Rawls © 1997/1998 (2700 words) Published in The Stanford Review, 10/14/97

To understand the entire fundamental structure of non-ideal moral theory (which studies the consequences of violating the requirements of moral reason in various ways) one only needs to understand the contrast between libertarianism and equalitarianism. Both make the same formal mistake: they both treat a means as an end in itself. But in the case of libertarianism this mistake is benign, while in the case of equalitarianism it induces a whole cascade of error that poisons the mind and makes it confuse evil for good. Put on your seatbelts.


Non-Ideal Theory

There are three basic ways that people can violate the requirements of moral reason. They can fail to think straight about ends. They can fail to think straight about means. And they can fail to think straight about the relation between ends and means.

Thinking straight about ends entails abiding by the requirements of reason for following and marshalling evidence of value, which allows one to make progress in discovering what there is to value in the world. It gives rise to what one might call the fundamental "moral sense." Learning to think straight about ends means learning to account all value and to husband one's information about where value lies. It teaches people to be alert to and responsive to value in all its forms, just as a properly functioning ear hears all noises.

Thinking straight about means is the subject of economics. Given an evaluation of available ends, what course of action will maximize the attainment of valuable ends? Errors here are matters of efficiency. They involve morality, because ends are matters of value, but the moral content of economics is derivative.

Both of these subjects are demanding and can give rise to many kinds of error, but the biggest troublemaker is failure to keep the relation between ends and means straight. There are two basic ways to confuse the relation between ends and means. One is to treat ends as means -- that is, to pursue ends directly, as with palliative solutions. The chosen means is to attack symptoms (the end one is trying to affect) rather than causes. We might call this at times "sentimentalism", at times "conspicuous benevolence" or "wearing one's heart on one's sleeve". In contrast to the admonition to have a soft heart and a hard head, treating ends as means is at best, in the case of sentimentalism, to have a soft heart and a soft head. At worst, in the case of conspicuous benevolence, where the real concern is to flag one's benevolent intentions, however ineffectively those proclaimed intentions are served, treating ends as means is to have a soft head and a dubious heart.

The other way to short circuit the logic of ends and means is by treating means as ends. This is the mistake that equalitarianism and libertarianism both make. Liberty and equality are principles of right action, which are a class of means. (Progress in discovering what there is to value will lead to certain priorities, the conservation of which requires both that a broad area of liberty be protected and that people be treated equally in certain ways.) Equalitarianism and libertarianism make the mistake of viewing equality and liberty respectively not as means but as ends in themselves, and even as the summum bonum, or ultimate criterion of value.

There is, however, a crucial difference between the mistakes that these moral viewpoints make. Liberty, while it is primarily valuable for what we can do with it, is innocuous and even tenable as an end in itself. It is possible to value freedom simply as a feeling or state of being. Equality, on the other hand, is tenable only as a means -- as a principle of procedural justice that applies in certain limited circumstances in certain limited ways. As an end in itself, equality is equivalent to envy. It rejects a full accounting of value in favor of discounting the interests of those who have more. It is the clearest example of what Mill called "a lower end" -- an end that will be renounced as one makes progress in discovering what there is to value in the world.



Because equality is actually perverse as an end, the equalitarian instance of treating a means as an end requires complimentary errors in the other categories of moral reason. Most obviously, the equalitarian error is sustainable only if one fails to think straight about ends. Equalitarianism accounts only some discoveries of value and discounts others, if acting for them would lead away from equality. But the moral sense comes from adhearing to the requirements of reason for how to follow and marshall evidence of value. The first requirement here is that all discoveries of what there is to value must always be fully accounted, wherever they are at stake. To start discounting some discoveries of value is to unplug, or blind, the moral sense in the same degree.

This overriding of the moral sense is facilitated by the nature of envy (or equality as an end in itself): that it is already a form of hatred, manifesting contempt for the concerns of those who are claimed to have more. Just because envy is a lower end -- one that people who properly follow evidence of value will reject -- does not mean it cannot be operative. Many people do not husband all evidence of value, and hatred is very powerful, capable of obliterating other concerns. This makes for a sticky snare. Equalitarianism is not just incompatible with the moral sense, but comes equipped to defeat it.

Since the equalitarian error is incompatible with honest following of evidence of value, we would expect to find that equalitarian movements are characterized by systematic dismissal and misinterpretation of evidence, and this is in fact exactly what we see. The archetypical equalitarians are those that base their moral and world views on relative welfare, or "victim status". It is no coincidence that the modus operandi of these groups is intentional misunderstanding, where anything that can possibly be misinterpreted as "racist" or "sexist" or "homo-phobic" is intentionally misinterpreted. That is where the much ridiculed "P.C. speak" comes from. The P.C. obsession with qualifying every statement that could possibly be misinterpreted is a response to a culture in which everything that can possibly be misinterpreted is intentionally misinterpreted.

The conviction of being owed leads these claimants of victim status to grant themselves freedom from the strictures of honest reason. Two books that have thoroughly documented the systematic nature of feminist dishonesty are Who Stole Feminism? by Christina Hoff Sommers, and The Myth of Male Power, by Warren Farrell. Other victim movements are similar. On the theoretical side, pseudo-intellectual Marxist derivatives like deconstructionism pretend that they can parlay the problematic possibility of complete objectivity, certainty or truth into a denial that these things exist in any meaningful degree. Everything, in the equalitarian world-view, reduces to self-interested posturing, and so they justify in their own behavior the perfidy that they falsely accuse others of. This is exactly what theory predicts should result from the equalitarian error, with its grounding in lower ends and its obliviousness to reason and evidence.

Bernard Shaw liked to opine that reason is necessarily biased or "partial" -- that it always "cuts the sleeve to fit the arm", rationalizing selfish behavior or otherwise searching out the best case for pre-determined conclusions (such as claims to victim status). As usual, his engaging cynicism went too far. Reason is perfectly capable of being fully rational and honestly following evidence. Still, Shaw was right to emphasize how reason is subject to the pitfall of biased reason. We make errors of reasoning all the time but when we make this one -- when we make an error in assigning the task of reason -- then we are trapped. Reason cannot help us because we have already given it the task of affirming our errors, and this is the predicament that engulfs equalitarianism.


Unreflective equilibrium

The next equalitarian error that cascades into place is the treating of ends as means. Once intentional misunderstanding is the norm, it is inevitable that equalitarianism will develop a culture of "conspicuous benevolence". Any unclear intentions, such as those that are obscured by the circuitousness of effective means, are subject to attack. The main concern, in this culture where people are not trying to follow sense but are trying to find ways to claim oppression and demand redress, is to take those positions that are the most defensible, not in the face of honest reason, but against attacks of intentional misunderstanding. Thus the direct pursuit of ends via palliative solutions is favored because it directly flags one's intentions as benevolent. In this way the original equalitarian error of treating a means as an end brings about, through a domino effect of unreason, the companion error of treating ends as means.

This nexus is exampled by the experience of James S. Coleman, recent President of the American Sociological Association. Coleman coined the term "conspicuous benevolence" to account for the confusion of ends and means that prevailed in sociology when he was bitterly attacked for uncovering politically incorrect evidence in the sixties and seventies. At the 1976 ASA convention, then president of the ASA Alfred Lee, tried to have Coleman censured for discovering that forced school bussing was undermining public schools by causing extensive white flight from public schools in those cities where it was used as a desegregation tool. Because the intent of bussing was to help poor blacks, it was assumed that any criticism of school bussing was an attack on blacks. No distinction between ends and means was acknowledged, and a dark night of official and unofficial tyranny held sway over sociology for many years. Its hold has now been broken at the top, but as with many humanities departments, sociology is still struggling with large numbers of morally incompetent equalitarians. (For an account by Coleman's of his ordeal, see The National Review, 3/18/91.)

The metastasized state of equalitarian error might be termed an "unreflective equilibrium." Neither the values embraced nor the logical structure stand up to scrutiny or reflection, yet there is an equilibrium in that the different errors all lead to and reinforce each other, and they all reinforce the disinterest in truth that allows a state of unreflectiveness to be an equilibrium. Equalitarianism provides a theoretical grounds for righteous feeling (a priority for equality), and it taps into a powerful source of passion (envy and hatred) that together with the assumption of righteousness feels like a worthy hatred of injustice. At the same time the rational faculties are co-opted to follow equality, not truth, so long as one remains an equalitarian. It is a very devious trap.

This is before even accounting equalitarianism's most devious aspect: that the whole cascade of error is baited in the first place by an uncanny superficial similarity between equality and the genuine key to higher ends, which is mutuality: the accounting of all value, regardless of relative welfare. The pull of our moral sense, telling us to account all value, is easily fooled into an embrace with equality, because accounting all value sounds like treating people equally in a way. Indeed it is, in a procedural way -- that is, as a means. Unless one is attuned to the importance of distinguishing equality as an end from equality as a means, the trap is very hard to spot and devilishly hard to get out of, or so it seems, from the large portions of our so called "intelligentsia" that have failed to extricate themselves. There is an almost evil genius to the equalitarian pitfall.

The only way out for the equalitarians is to start from scratch and rebuild their analysis of value on the proper principles from the ground up. It is not hard. The proper principles are simple as can be. Think straight about ends. Think straight about means. And keep ends and means straight. The hard part is admitting to a moral error that one has let into the core of one's being.



A revealing contrast is to libertarianism. Giving liberty priority as an end in itself, even though its primary value is as a means, does not cause any grevious conflict with the moral sense, because liberty is innocuous and even tenable as an end. To embrace liberty as an end does not require one to reject what else one has learned about where value lies. Luckily, the moral sense has a robustness to it. So long as it is not unplugged, it registers and accounts all value. So long as it is standing, it will stand straight. Thus valuing liberty as an end blends seamlessly into valuing the things that liberty is a means to, allowing evidence of value to be followed without bias, which enables progress in the discovery of higher ends. In the end, liberty simply ends up taking its place in the constellation of ends and loses its status as the summum bonum, so long as one does not dogmatically fixate on the original error, and this is indeed what we see. Mainstream libertarianism does not treat liberty as a summum bonum. Rather, its genius lies in understanding the instrumentalities of liberty (the effectiveness of liberty as a means) and always has. Thus libertarianism falls within the basin of "reflective equilibrium" (my father's concept) where honest reflection on all sides (from moral sense to theoretical structure; from thinking straight about ends to thinking straight about means) progressively refines out error.

The marginalization of libertarianism in moral philosophy is the greatest stain on modern liberal moral science. Libertarianism has been shunned for making a formal mistake that turns out, in its case, to be benign (because the means that it treats as an end is benign). On the other hand, equalitarianism, whose same formal mistake turns out to be malignant in the highest conceivable degree (because the means that it treats as an end is perverse as an end, inducing a cascade of error), has been much more tolerated and even welcomed by philosophy departments.

Some of this bias due to honest error. Until one gets moral science right, it is a very difficult subject. But much of the equalitarian bias is culpable, to be charged first to the zealous partisans of equalitarian error and second to those who submit to the culture of equalitarian error by following strategies of "conspicuous benevolence." Blameworthy or honest, until equalitarian error is expunged, the future of liberal moral theory is very much in peril, which puts all of us in peril.

Equalitarian error is moral philosophy's jurisdiction. Moral science and only moral science can rule with authority on this menace that is abroad in society and academia, yet instead of slaying the dragon, our philosophy departments are busy falling on their swords.


Next article in the Non-ideal Theory volume of Moral Science: Religion Within the Limits of Reason

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