Saturday, July 31, 2004

Classical Liberalism: Liberty, Equality, and Property:

In a previous post I argued that (past and/or present) discrimination and mistreatment do not adequately explain group differences. It’s true that the majority, throughout this nation's history, has subjected various minority “social groups” (as well as women, who constitute a statistical majority) to horrible mistreatment. And it’s also true that some of those social groups are present day underachievers in various aspects of life that we all ought to regard as important (educational success, crime, income, wealth, etc.).

However, mistreatment and discrimination don't adequately explain group disparities because, in this capitalistic meritocracy, discriminated against groups are every bit as likely to overachieve as underachieve. On the one hand blacks and Hispanics do not have “group parity” in those aforementioned important aspects of living. And these groups, no doubt, have been mistreated. But Asians, Jews, and homosexuals have also been mistreated and discriminated against; but they overachieve—in many respects they overachieve by a long shot.

No doubt blacks have gotten it the worst and it can be argued, “Asians, Jews, homosexuals,” can’t compare what they’ve been through with what blacks have been through. But neither can women or Hispanics. And when the left advocates affirmative action for such groups, they argue, “women & Latinos have been treated bad like the blacks!”

The problem underlying all of this is the premise of “group parity.” Classical equality means equality of opportunity for individuals. And such equality leads to inequality of results for individuals and for “groups of individuals” as well. For instance, everyone takes the same SAT, or the same LSAT, GMAT, etc. That’s what “equality of opportunity” means. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, black or white, you take the same test. Under the “old system,” the children of the rich would get an easier exam or wouldn’t have to take the test at all and would get the goodies simply for being who they are. Now, everyone takes the same test. Fair is fair.

But does everyone receive the same results? Of course not. And those different test scores vitally matter in terms of outcomes, such as wealth, income, educational level, etc. Thus, it’s these differing outcomes that strike many as self-evidently unfair. I’ve heard stories of smart rich kids really messing their lives up with drugs and alcohol in high school, but then taking the SAT, doing tremendously well on the test and being given opportunities denied to others who perhaps worked a lot harder, but aren’t quite so intellectually gifted.

(In my own case, although it had nothing to do with drugs and alcohol, I performed extremely lackluster in high-school and didn’t even crack a 1000 on my SATs. And my first year of college was at a community college—one in which I now teach. But I started to turn my life around in college. Did well in community college as well as in my Alma Matter that didn’t give a rat’s ass about SAT scores. And when it came time to take the LSAT, I did a lot better, correspondingly on that test, than I did on the SATs—161, which was the 86th percentile [meaning I did better than 86% of the test takers, all of whom had 4 year degrees]. I was able to get into a good 2nd tier law school, and many of the students there had undergraduate degrees from Ivy League schools).

Thus, I am led to believe that differing interests, talents, skills, abilities, levels of educational preparedness, average age levels, geographic residencies, and most importantly life choices, not external discrimination, are the real culprits behind “social group” disparities.

So the next question is, whatever the causes, are such disparities tolerable in this society? Well according to classical, i.e., Enlightenment notions of equality—which is equality of opportunity, not of condition—Yes; those group disparities shouldn’t raise an ire of suspicion of impropriety, as long as they result from a neutral set of rules. Everyone who runs the 600 meter race proceeds from the same starting line, runs the same 600 meters; but not everyone finishes with the same score.

This is what Madison believed. From Walter Berns’s, Taking the Constitution Seriously,

Securing the property right meant protecting the right to acquire property, and along with the right, the various faculties to exercise it effectively. These faculties are possessed unequally, but no matter. Americans at that time (before compassion came to be seen as the first of the cardinal virtues) were not hostile to the idea of private property and the right to acquire it. Madison was apparently so confident of this that he could write—and in a very public place, a newspaper—that the first object of government is “the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring proper.” From the protection of these differing and unequal faculties would come (and as we know, did come) not only different kinds of property but “different degrees” of property. It is almost as if Madison—in this most celebrated of the Federalist Papers (number 10)—were arguing that the first object of government is to promote an unequal distribution of wealth.

p. 174.


But modern leftist liberals don’t like hearing that. Allan Bloom, like the other East Coast Straussians and Robert Bork, argues that leftist liberals are really just a transmogrification of classical liberals—operating in the tradition of “liberty” and “equality,” but that modern liberals have “revised” their view of equality—from equality of “opportunity” to that of “condition.” And this has drastic implications for “property.” Bloom writes:

More serious for us are the arguments of the revolutionaries who accepted our principles of freedom and equality. Many believed that we had not thought through these cherished ideals. Can equality really only mean equal opportunity for unequal talents to acquire property. Should shrewdness at acquisition be better rewarded than moral goodness? Can private property and equality sit so easily together when even Plato required communism among equals?

The Closing of the American Mind, p. 161.


I think Bloom et al. would agree that History has shown that “equality” without “property” has led to horrific slaughter in the name of “egalitarian leveling.” Thus, despite the protestations of Marxist leftist liberals, the classical notion of equality is the one that must dominate.

In order to distinguish between modern leftist liberals, with their tendency towards Marxism, and classical liberals such as myself, we classicals should argue that “liberalism” is not merely “the twin thrusts of liberty and equality” (as Robert Bork puts it), but rather the triple thrusts of “liberty, equality, and property.”

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