Libertarian political philosophy is often criticized for not taking equality seriously as an important political value. Is this charge legitimate? Do libertarians reject the idea of equality as such? Do they reject the idea that “everyone is equal”?
To understand the controversies regarding equality, one must first understand the nature of equality as a political ideal. An important and fundamental distinction to understand (made by Ronald Dworkin) is between “treating an individual equally” and “treating an individual as an equal.” Treating someone equally means acting in such a way that affects their position along a particular dimension equally (e.g., to the same distribution of goods or opportunities). Treating someone as an equal requires treating them with “equal concern and respect.” Treating someone with “concern” is to treat them “as human beings who are capable of suffering and frustration.” Treating someone with “respect” is to treat them “as human beings who are capable of forming and acting on intelligent conceptions of how their lives should be lived.”
Treating individuals “as equals” is a higher-order principle than treating them “equally.” This is because treating equally requires equal treatment along some dimension. But treatment can always be compared along multiple dimensions. One need only to look to the familiar political slogans regarding economic distribution to see how this is so: (1) ‘To each according to his needs’; (2) ‘To each according to his efforts’; or (3) ‘To each according to his contribution.’ Thus, need, effort, and contribution all act as possible dimensions along which one can be “treated equally” vis-à-vis economic distribution. In the typical case, these principles cannot be satisfied at the same time. Thus, there is a need for a higher-order principle, a principle to decide which first-order distributive principle is to govern economic distribution. This is where treating someone “as an equal” comes in, it selects which first-order principle is to carry the day.
The problem of equality is to be found when one attempts to apply the second-order principle of treatment “as equals” (equal concern and respect) to competing first-order distributive principles (e.g., “to each according to his need” vs. “to each according to his contribution”) in order to select which is the morally correct first-order principle. In order to decide specific and controversial issues, the “treatment as equals” needs interpretation. But in order to do this, mid-level or “mediating” principles are required, and the more specific the issues are, the more controversial the mediating principles will be.
Thus, there is a problem of interpretation of treatment “as equals” (let’s call this second-order principle the “equal consideration principle”). Thomas Nagel offers an illuminating way to understand the situation. Interpretation of the equal consideration principle can be understood in the following way: equal consideration provides individuals with a “veto.” If a policy or procedure fails to treat him with equal consideration, he is justified in rejecting it, and his non-acceptance is a reason for doubting its legitimacy. The issue, the problem of equality, is where to place the veto, and different mediating principles differ in where they claim the veto properly belongs.
For example, a utilitarian mediating principle places the veto at the input stage. There is a moral requirement to maximize the good overall, and the egalitarian aspect requires that every individual’s interests be taken into account, everyone is given equal weight (my interests are given the same weight as Michael Jordan’s interests, his interests do not count more just because he is Michael Jordan). Notice that equality is not taken into account at the output stage: an output of the decision-procedure is legitimate, no matter how unequal the distribution, so long as everyone’s interests were taken into account and given equal weight, and as long as the decision maximizes the good overall.
This finally brings us back to the questions regarding libertarianism. As now should be clear, libertarians do in fact take equality seriously. Treating someone with “equal concern and respect” is a central feature of libertarian thought. The differences between libertarianism and other egalitarian conceptions of equality are caused by the differing mediating principles and where they claim the veto should be placed. Most libertarians believe in a strong conception of individual rights (Robert Nozick famously opens Anarchy, State, and Utopia by declaring that “[i]ndividuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)”). Thus, libertarians believe that every individual has a veto against an invasion of their rights. One is not treated with “equal concern and respect” if a procedure or policy violates that person’s rights (without acquiring consent). As Nagel describes the position, “[t]he moral equality of persons . . . is their equal claim against each other not to be interfered with in specified ways. Each person must be treated equally in certain definite respects by each other person.” As a result, it is incorrect to charge libertarians with failing to consider equality. It is, of course, entirely legitimate to disagree with the mediating principles and the resultant placement of the veto, but in order to avoid begging the question, one must first acknowledge equality as a genuine concern in libertarian thought.