7.11.2007

Equal is Not the Same

This gives you an indication of my social life: my pleasure reading right now consists of economist Milton Friedman's seminal book, "Free to Choose."  And it is actually a pleasure to read!

I just finished a chapter about liberty and equality, a not irrelevant topic with the Fourth having just past.  Friedman says some insightful things about the creep in our country from equality before God to equality of opportunity to equality of outcome. 

He made a lot of good points here, but I want to emphasize one, which I'm paraphrasing as: equal is not the same.  Equality before God does not, after all, mean that we are completely identical in every way.  In fact, equality before God is profound precisely because we are all different - and yet we have equal standing before God.

Nor is equality of opportunity meant to be the same opportunities for all.  Those born with a gift to sing or run have the opportunity to do that for a living; should we then make sure that others not similarly gifted are given sufficient training so they have the identical opportunity?  In fact, equality of opportunity is profound precisely because we are all different - and yet we ought to turn away any prejudicial or capricious structures that keep some out while others are in.

It all seems so simple, and yet it truly is profound.  Far from squelching liberty in the name of making people equal, we are most able to enjoy equality in its deepest sense when we are most liberated to be ourselves, whoever we are.  Jefferson called it a God-endowed right to pursue happiness; Adam Smith called it "the invisible hand" that ensured the most efficient outcome for all of society as a result of the logical choices of every individual; and the rest of us economists would call it rational self-interest. 

As Friedman describes, regimes that have subscribed to the notion that equal is the same have quickly devolved into cruelly totalitarian and grossly unequal societies.  Pursue equality as sameness and you will soon have neither liberty nor true equality; pursue the defense of liberty and you will likely have both it and true equality. 

For equal does not mean the same - far from it.  Would that we all work towards defending the liberties that allow us to be not the same, and yet equal in the deepest meanings of the word.
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