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September 27th 2009 print

John Dawson

Left Forum: On Left equality

The equality that must be defended is equality before the law - the equal right of every individual to advance his or her life and pursue happiness in liberty, including the liberty to earn or produce property, and to keep it.

The Left: more equal than thou? 

In his article "Eternal quest for equality" (The Australian 22/9), Dennis Glover argued that the Left’s “moral superiority” lies in its “radical egalitarian political tradition”. He challenged social democrats to “appeal to this moral and political impulse on an emotional as well as rational basis”, in pursuit of a "fairer, less selfish, more uplifting, better future.” This, he declared, is the Left’s eternal “dream, a light on the hill, a set of better angels”. But what does he mean by “egalitarian”?  

Is Glover’s egalitarian ideal universal equality? If so, it is indeed a dream. There can be no equality between me and Gary Ablett, between my newsagent and Rupert Murdoch, between David Hicks and John Howard, between Kath and Nicole, or between Kath and Kim for that matter. The human beings who inhabit this planet are not equal; not physically, mentally, morally, or in any other respect – and vive la différence. A world of equality, if it were possible, would be more nightmare than dream, since the only way to achieve it would be to tear down the best to the level of the worst – the only way to achieve equality between me and Gary Ablett would be to cripple him. We must trust that this is not what Glover has in mind.  

Does he mean, then, that every member of society should be equal in material wellbeing? If so he can do no other than advocate that all wealth be redistributed: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. If this is his ideal I’ve got good news for him. It has been tried, and one of the experiments "progresses" still: North Korea. 

Or would Glover reject the North Korean model as extremist? If so, what criteria would he apply to determine when the “moral urge to equality” had “redistributed” enough? He acknowledges that “the hopeless squalor of working-class life in the early industrial revolution, which motivated Marx, Engels, the Chartists and others to invent modern social democratic politics” is no longer a problem. He disingenuously attributes the workers’ improved lot to his socialist heroes and then surmises “that if they were to step out of a time tunnel into present-day Manchester and see how the proletariat lives, they might think their revolutions had succeeded.” (He doesn’t seem to notice that the workers’ lot improved in Manchester generations before it improved to anywhere near the same standard in those countries that implemented Marx and Engels’ policies.) “But”, he continues, “I suspect that before long they’d be agitating for more change… the impulse towards social equality and progress through political action will likely never disappear.” Which begs for an answer to the question: is the Left’s “egalitarian impulse” motivated by a desire to elevate the workers, or the desire to bring down the capitalists, whose free enterprises were the source of the unprecedented improvements in everyone’s material wellbeing?  

By advocating “redesigned markets to harness economic efficiency to social ends”, Glover tacitly recognizes that free workers and businesses trading on free markets create wealth efficiently, whereas workers and businesses marching to the drum of central planners don’t. But how does he expect to “redesign” and “harness” freedom? To what extent are his centrally planned “social ends” going to control the workers and businesses, and how much freedom will survive to produce the wealth he wants to “redistribute”? And in what way will the harnessing of those who produce wealth to the needs and whims of those who don’t, make a society “better”? And what is “fair” about such a society? 

When Australians take pride in calling themselves egalitarian, what sort of equality do they have in mind? From the beginning, Australians invoked egalitarianism to distance themselves from that remnant of feudalism that was the British class system. The concept of inherited social status enshrined in law is an anathema to the Australian psyche. We would have no Lords of the Manor here, and if we were to doff our hat it would be to recognize achievement rather than aristocratic lineage. In this sense we are a classless rather than an egalitarian society. What are the political implications? 

The equality that must be defended is equality before the law – the equal right of every individual to advance his or her life and pursue happiness in liberty, including the liberty to earn or produce property, and to keep it. But contrary to Mr Glover’s view, this sort of equality would prohibit one class of Australians being “harnessed” to provide a free ride for another. 

John Dawson is the author of Washout: On the AcademicResponse to the Fabrication of Aboriginal History