Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Common Thread: Anti-Egalitarianism in Objectivism, Conservatism, and Libertarianism

A 2004 Essay From Rebirth of Reason


Matthew Humphreys, in an interesting article, draws attention to the fact that many Objectivists and libertarians feel a greater affinity to the contemporary Right than the Left. Mr. Humphreys notes that there are various “currents of thought” found in the Right with which Objectivists and libertarians can make common cause.
One current of thought (which Mr. Humphreys doesn’t discuss) between these three traditions is their opposition to egalitarianism. Although not an easy concept to define, I take egalitarianism to mean the belief that all people are (or can be) equal in intelligence and worth and that society should attempt to promote equality (particularly of income) among people. On a cultural level, egalitarians often assert that all societies and cultures are of equal value.
I will discuss the opposition to egalitarianism focusing on the works of three American authors who each represent one tradition: Russell Kirk, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard. In spite of their differences on many issues of fundamental importance, there is a common thread of anti-egalitarianism running throughout their writings.

Conservatism: Russell Kirk

The twentieth century’s leading American conservative author was Russell Kirk (1918-1994). Although Kirk was a frequent critic of Rand and Rothbard, his critique of egalitarianism was similar. In one of his later essays, Kirk rejects the concept of “equality of condition” by which he means the “equality of incomes and other awards.” (Kirk does not reject the idea that people should be equal before the law.) [Kirk, Redeeming the Time, p. 217.] He states:

In short, I have been arguing that it is profoundly unjust to endeavor to transform society into a table land of equality. It would be unjust to the energetic, reduced to equality with the clack and indolent; it would be unjust to the thrift, compelled to make up losses of the profligate; it would be unjust to those take the long view, forced to submit to the domination of a majority interested chiefly in short-run results. [Id., p. 225.]

According to Kirk, the drive for equality has resulted in high taxation, a decline in educational standards, and multiculturalism.

Objectivism: Ayn Rand

Needles to say, Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was not an egalitarian. Her novels depict a world divided between the good and the evil, the intelligent and the stupid, and the strong and the cowardly. Although she was skeptical of genetic and racial differences in character and intelligence, she was clear that human beings and cultures differ in many respects and equality was neither possible nor desirable.
Perhaps Rand’s fullest exposition of her anti-egalitarianism is found in her 1971 essay “The Age of Envy.” Her criticism of egalitarianism is somewhat similar to Kirk’s and she sees similar consequences, including multiculturalism (although she didn’t use the term) and a decline in educational standards. [Rand, Return of the Primitive, pp. 140-49.]
In “Galt Speaks,” Rand advances what Objectivists call the “pyramid of ability principle,” namely that those less capable benefit when the more capable are allowed to advance to the limit of their abilities. [Rand, For the New Intellectual, pp. 185-86.] This concept is not unique to Rand, and Kirk quotes the British conservative W. H. Mallock to the same effect in his 1894 book Labour and the Popular Welfare: “Equality benefits no one. It frustrates men of talent; and it reduces the poor to a poverty still more abject. . . . For inequality produces the wealth of civilized communities: it provides the motive which induces men of superior benefit to exert themselves for the general benefit.”

Libertarianism: Murray Rothbard

Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), the last century’s most important libertarian thinker, was likewise a staunch opponent of egalitarianism, who attributed to egalitarianism many of the same ills as Kirk and Rand. Indeed, two of Rothbard’s most important essays were “Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature” and “Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor.” Rothbard sees similar results flowing from the egalitarian agenda:

Equality of condition would reduce humanity to an anthill existence. Fortunately, the individuated nature of man . . . makes the ideal of total equality unattainable. But an enormous amount of damage – the crippling of individuality, as well as economic and social destruction – could be generated in the attempt.

[Rothbard, Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, and Other Essays, p. 279.]
Throughout Rothbard’s vast cultural criticism, he exposed the egalitarian fallacies behind “Women’s Liberation,” multiculturalism, and “progressive education.” In particular, his attack on progressive education mirrors Rand’s critique, focusing on the political, cultural, and “epistemological” aspects of this movement. [Rothbard, Education: Free and Compulsory, pp. 53-55.]


How this common opposition to egalitarianism “plays out” in contemporary politics is beyond the scope of this brief article.[1] Yet, anti-egalitarianism constitutes a common thread among the Objectivist, libertarian, and conservative traditions.

[1] Likewise, there is not space to discuss the common influences on these thinkers. Kirk, Rothbard, and Rand each read (and approved) of Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses. They also read Schoeck's Envy (although Rand didn't appear to approve of it, judging from the Marginalia).

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