What’s Fair About Equal Outcomes?

If you’ve been using the MPI website for any length of time you’ve probably come across the phrase “Equal people are not free and free people are not equal.” The point of that saying is that no society can guarantee equal outcomes for its members, and trying comes at the cost of freedom.

The reason is that people bring different attributes, talents, aspirations and even luck to the table. Equalizing those things means artificially holding some of them back and propping some of them up; in other words, taking away their freedom to succeed or fail or even to dream.

Enforced equality of outcomes would mean forcing beautiful people to wear masks, holding down stronger people with weights, depriving athletes or actors of the ability to use their talents and more. I think we can all agree that wouldn’t be fair, so why is it fair to deprive risk-takers, hard workers, and innovators of what they produce to make them equal with those who have worked less, taken fewer risks, or just aren’t blessed with the same skills and talents? Clearly it isn’t.

Attempts to equalize outcomes are the inevitable results of envy or of seeing the world as zero-sum. The envy argument speaks for itself. If you believe your failures are the fault of others, it’s not much of a leap to wish  punishment on them. That’s hardly a fair or moral argument.

But those who believe in a zero-sum world think that winners must equal losers, and so the losers must be made whole. That’s not the way our world works. Nobody is worse off because Bill Gates is a billionaire. In fact, millions of people’s lives are much better because he had the incentive to bring PCs to the masses; and those who followed him and got rich building apps and hardware and businesses made even more people better off. They didn’t take slices of the pie away from others, they created their own slices and grew the pie for everyone else in the process. We should encourage that, not punish it.

There’s a myth out there that so-called progressives are more compassionate than free marketers and care more for those who can’t or won’t take care of themselves. It’s a myth because free markets are what raise everybody’s standard of living. Rather than trying to equalize outcomes by bringing down the rich, those who believe in the power of free enterprise want to raise up the poor. That includes the freedom to succeed, but also taking responsibility for failure. A reasonably regulated free market with a safety net befitting a civil, prosperous society has proven again and again to bring about the best outcomes for the most people. That’s the moral high ground.

Freedom and free markets bring prosperity, which makes civil society and safety nets possible. Poor people and poor countries don’t take care of those who can’t afford to take care of themselves. They don’t take care of the environment. And they don’t respect the rights of their citizens. They can’t. They’re trying to feed and shelter themselves and their families. Civility and charity require prosperity, and the most prosperous nations in the world embrace free enterprise. That’s why free markets are not just effective, they’re moral and fair.

If you want to read up on these and other arguments favoring freedom and free enterprise with both moral and economic arguments, here are a few places to go, all of them free and at websites you should explore at any rate:

  • For the basics from the greats, Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law” is still the classic. You can read it in an evening.
  • To learn why central planning doesn’t work and politics turns basic economics on its head read Friedrich Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom. It’s a slog, though, so a nice weekend book that covers it all would be Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson.
  • Again a bit of a slog, but John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is one of the best treatments around of the tradeoffs required in a republican or democratic (notice the small ‘r’ and ‘d’ there) society to maintain freedom while exercising the responsibilities of citizenship. I don’t agree with everything he came up with, but he makes his points well and takes a realistic look at at an idealistic concept.

And finally, Arthur Brookes The Battle and Stephen Moore’s Who’s the Fairest of Them All are concise contemporary reads with both arguments and lots of data to support their basic points that freedom to succeed is both fair and moral. They’re not free, but I’ll loan you a copy if you want.

Happy reading!