Bill Vallicella quotes J. R. Lucas "Against Equality"
My friend Bill Vallicella, who blogs at his site Maverick Philosopher and does his ontological thinking at such abstract altitudes that I get intellectual nosebleed, also posts on other topics where the air is not so thin. A couple of weeks ago, he quoted a passage from John R. Lucas that I found particularly insightful, and I've been intending to return to it and post it here, and I know that Bill won't mind, especially if I alert others to his fine website. Bill's post was titled "Money, Power, and Equality" and quoted Lucas, to wit:
Since men value power and prestige as much as the possession of wealth -- indeed, these three 'goods' cannot be completely separated -- it is foolish to seek to establish an equality of wealth on egalitarian grounds. It is foolish first because it will not result in what egalitarians really want. It is foolish also because if we do not let men compete for money, they will compete all the more for power; and whereas the possession of wealth by another man does not hurt me, unless I am made vulnerable by envy, the possession of power by another is Inherently dangerous; and furthermore if we are to maintain a strict equality of wealth we need a much greater apparatus of state to secure it and therefore a much greater inequality of power. Better have bloated plutocrats than omnipotent bureaucrats. (J. R. Lucas, "Against Equality," in Philosophy, 40, 1965, p. 305)Bill calls this "a penetrating passage from a penetrating essay," and I agree. Bill offers his own commentary:
If the egalitarian wants to equalize wealth, perhaps via a scheme of income redistribution, then he will need to make use of state power to do it: the wealthy will not voluntarily disembarrass themselves of their wealth. But state power is of necessity concentrated in the hands of a few, those who run the government, whose power is vastly greater than, and hence unequal to, the power of the governed.But Bill also notes an objection:
"Wealth is convertible into power since the wealthy can buy their way to political influence, whether legally or illegally."And deals with it:
True, but the seriousness of this problem is a function of how intrusive and overreaching the government is. A government stripped down to essential functions offers fewer opportunities for the power-hungry. Note also that the wealthy may feel it necessary to buy influence just to protect themselves from regulatory zeal.This is the problem with a powerful government. Since, as Lucas points out, "men value power and prestige as much as the possession of wealth," then the inequality of power attracts men and lends itself naturally to abuse, for the feeling of power is experienced not so much in its legitimate use as in its illegitimate use. Who has power? The man who can abuse it with impunity.
But what size is a "government stripped down to essential functions"? I don't know. It must be large enough to protect its citizens from those who seek power over them, whether the enemy be foreign or domestic. It therefore needs a military and a police force. But these set up a differential of power. Those powers of government must therefore be subject to the rule of law. Law must be consistent with a basic constitution. The constitution must establish the equal rights of citizens under law. The government so constituted must be run by elected officials responsive to the people, and thus be democratic. And so on . . .
One will therefore notice that while government is necessary, even this best of governments sets up differentials of power, and since "men value power and prestige as much as the possession of wealth," then the wealthy will attempt to use their wealth to gain power through government. But the wealthy would attempt that even without government. Corruption is endemic to human society, and the best we can do to protect our liberty is to maintain vigilance, or as John Philpot Curran put it in 1790:
"The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance."Let us therefore remain alert.