Rothbard begins by debunking the modern idea of equality.
For 'equality' means 'sameness' — two entities are 'equal' if and only if they are the same thing. X = y only if they are either identical, or they are two entities that are the same in some attribute. If x, y, and z are 'equal in length', it means that each one of them is identical in length, say 3 feet. People, then, can only be 'equal' to the extent that they are identical in some attribute: thus, if Smith, Jones and Robinson are each 5 feet, 11 inches in height, then they are 'equal' in height. But except for these special cases, people are heterogeneous, and diverse, that is, they are 'unequal'. Diversity, and hence 'inequality', is therefore a fundamental fact of the human race.Like "freedom", "equality" between two subjects only has meaning in relation to some other quality, e.g. length, wealth, prestige, etc. Claiming to support equality without qualification has no more ethical content than an unspecified support for "stuff".
The current veneration of equality is, indeed, a very recent notion in the history of human thought. Among philosophers or prominent thinkers the idea scarcely existed before the mid-eighteenth century; if mentioned, it was only as the object of horror or ridicule...The profoundly anti-human and violently coercive nature of egalitarianism was made clear in the influential classical myth of Procrustes, who 'forced passing travelers to lie down on a bed, and if they were too long for the bed he lopped off those parts of their bodies which protruded, while racking out the legs of the ones who were too short. This was why he was given the name of Procrustes [The Racker].'I'd always wondered where the term "Procrustean" came from. Thanks to Murray, now I know!
Next, Rothbard lays bare the inherent impossibility of any quest for equality.
And even if, for the sake of argument, we can assume general equality of income and wealth, other inequalities will not only remain, but, in a world of equal incomes, they will become still more glaring and more important in weighing people. Differences of position, differences of occupation, and inequalities in the job hierarchy and therefore in status and prestige will become even more important, since income and wealth will no longer be a gauge for judging or rating people. Differences in prestige between physicians and carpenters, or between top executives and laborers, will become still more accentuated. Of course, job prestige can be equalized by eliminating hierarchy altogether, abolishing all organizations, corporations, volunteer groups, etc. Everyone will then be equal in rank and decisionmaking power. Differences in prestige could only be eliminated by entering the Marxian heaven and abolishing all specialization and division of labor among occupations, so that everyone would do everything. But in that sort of economy, the human race would die out with remarkable speed.Of course, egalitarianism's most glaring contradiction is the inescapable need for a powerful elite to implement it.
When we confront the egalitarian movement, we begin to find the first practical, if not logical, contradiction within the program itself: that its outstanding advocates are not in any sense in the ranks of the poor and oppressed, but are Harvard, Yale, and Oxford professors, as well as other leaders of the privileged social and power elite. What kind of 'egalitarianism' is this? If this phenomenon is supposed to embody a massive assumption of liberal guilt, then it is curious that we see very few of this breast-beating elite actually divesting themselves of their worldly goods, prestige, and status, and go live humbly and anonymously among the poor and destitute. Quite the contrary, they seem not to stumble a step on their climb to wealth, fame, and power. Instead, they invariably bask in the congratulations of themselves and their like-minded colleagues of the high-minded morality in which they have all cloaked themselves.The Iron Law of Oligarchy dictates that hierarchies will inevitably arise within the decision making organs of any human association, due to inherent differences of ability, commitment, etc. Therefore, any organization seeking to promote equality can never rid its own ranks of elitism.
Again, much like Liberalism, egalitarianism is progressively totalitarian by nature and necessity.
...the egalitarian impulse, once granted legitimacy, cannot be appeased. If monetary or real incomes become equalized, or even if decisionmaking power should be equalized, otherdifferences among persons become magnified and irritating to the egalitarian: inequalities in looks, intelligence, and so onAnd yet, it's interesting how the wealthy, powerful egalitarian elite always manage to exempt themselves from the leveling of wealth and power that they advocate.
Rothbard invokes the German sociologist Helmut Schoeck, who...
...has pointed out that modern egalitarianism is essentially an institutionalization of envy. In contrast to successful or functional societies, where envy is always considered a shameful emotion, egalitarianism sets up a pervasive attitude that the exciting of envy by manifesting some form of superiority is considered the greatest evil. Or, as Schoeck put it, 'the highest value is envy-avoidance.' ...Indeed, communist anarchists explicitly aim to stamp out private property because they believe that property gives rise to inequality, and therefore to feelings of envy, and hence 'causes' crimes of violence against those with more property. But as Schoeck points out, economic egalitarianism would then not be sufficient: and compulsory uniformity of looks, intelligence, etc. would have to follow.
I seem to recall someone else warning us that "Leftism is politicized envy."
Back to Rothbard, who points out that the original application of egalitarianism, which was limited to equality of incomes, has mutated and proliferated like a virus into every aspect of human life.
As we all know, the new egalitarians search for 'oppressed' groups who are lower in income, status, or prestigious jobs than others, who become the designated 'oppressors.' In classic leftism or Marxism, there was only one alleged 'oppressed group', the proletariat. Then the floodgates were opened, and the ranks of the designated oppressed, or 'accredited victims', have proliferated seemingly without end. It began with the oppressed blacks, and then in rapid succession, there were woman, Hispanics, American Indians, immigrants, 'the disabled', the young, the old, the short, the very tall, the fat, the deaf, and so on ad infinitum. The point is that the proliferation is, in fact, endless. Every individual 'belongs' to an almost infinite variety of groups or classes.How does the egalitarian elite convince members of "oppressor groups" to participate in their own fleecing? The same way the old egalitarians convinced successful people to part with their wealth--by inducing guilt for their "unfair" advantages.
Rothbard's closing argument perfectly aligns with the gist of my post on Liberal tyranny when he identifies the common factor that enabled both Liberalism and egalitarianism to triumph in the West.
Quoting economist and sociologist Joseph Schumpeter:
Capitalist rationality does not do away with sub- or super-rational impulses. It merely makes them get out of hand by removing the restraint of sacred or semi-sacred tradition. In a civilization that lacks the means and even the will to guide them, they will revolt. …
...capitalism creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority of so many other institutions, in the end turns against its own; the bourgeois finds to his amazement that the rationalist attitude does not stop at the credentials of kings and popes but goes on to attack private property and the whole scheme of bourgeois values.
...there was very little hostility [to free-market capitalism] on principle as long as the bourgeois position was safe, although there was then much more reason for it; it [the hostility] spread pari passu with the crumbling of the protective walls.No civilization can survive the erosion of its founding values for long. Hostile parasites within and without sense its weakness and descend like vultures.
In his sparkling essay, 'Equality as a Political Weapon', Samuel Francis gently chides conservative opponents of egalitarianism for expending a large amount of energy in philosophical, historical, and anthropological critiques of the concept and the doctrine of equality. This entire 'formal critique', however rewarding and illuminating, declares Francis, is really wide of the mark...
How so? The doctrine of equality is 'unimportant', Francis explains, 'because no one, save perhaps Pol Pot or Ben Wattenberg, really believes in it, and no one, least of all those who profess it most loudly, is seriously motivated by it.'
In a way, egalitarianism is even more insidious than Liberalism. Unlike liberty, which has legitimacy in its proper context, equality is an impossible self-contradiction invoked as a cynical justification for granting the elitists who promote it ever more power.