The dangers of 'equality'

Thomas Sowell
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Posted: Mar 02, 2001 12:00 AM

Any smell more subtle than ammonia or a sewage treatment plant is usually hard for me to detect. However, I happen to be able to smell gas escaping better than most people. On more than one occasion I have walked by someone's home, smelled gas and left a note on the door. While later passing that house again, I have seen the gas company out digging up the ground, and -- after that -- no more smell of gas.

A sense of smell is just one of innumerable things that can differ greatly from one person to the next. Moreover, many of these differences are essential to the survival and progress of the human race.

People have different vulnerabilities and resistances to a variety of diseases. That is why one disease is unlikely to wipe out the human species, even in one place. An epidemic that sweeps through an area may leave some people dying like flies while others remain as healthy as horses.

There are children who are years late in beginning to talk and yet who end up scoring over the 90th percentile on math tests. Then there are other children whose speech is so precocious that they sound like little geniuses when you hear them talk -- and yet they have trouble subtracting two from four or tying their own shoelaces -- and always will.

Individuals differ radically from one another in all sorts of skills, interests and talents. What all this means is that the capabilities of the human race vastly exceed the capabilities of even the brightest and the best individuals.

When the brightest and the best take over making decisions for other people, usually through the power of government, those decisions are likely to be based on less knowledge, experience and understanding than when ordinary people make their own individual decisions for themselves. The anointed may know more than the average person, but far less than all the ordinary people put together.

Scientists who study the brain say that some abilities develop greatly at the expense of other abilities. Socially as well, some talents are developed by neglecting others. Concert pianists seldom have a college education, because the demands of the two things are just too great. Therefore, for both biological and social reasons, the only way for everyone to be equal would be for them to be equal at a lower level of ability than what some people are capable of in some things and other people are in other things.

In other words, if everyone were equal in their many capabilities, the whole species would be no more capable or insightful or resistant to diseases than one individual. Our chances of surviving or progressing would be a lot less than they are now. Even the enjoyment we get from watching Tiger Woods play golf or Pavarotti sing would be lost, for we would all be mediocrities in golf and singing and a thousand other things.

A recent book on the publishing industry showed that 63 out of 100 best-sellers had been written by just six authors. It is not uncommon in baseball for just two players to hit more than half the home runs hit by the whole team.

Ironically, the fact that nearly two-thirds of the best-sellers were written by the likes of Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel was revealed by a man who was one of the founders of the left-wing New York Review of Books. Yet one of the key assumptions of the left is that statistical disparities are suspicious, if not sinister, especially if these are differences in income and wealth.

But if people differ radically in performance, why is it surprising that they also differ radically in the rewards they receive? And if we are determined to equalize, can we equalize upward or only downward? Can you make a mediocre golfer another Tiger Woods or only penalize Tiger Woods for being better?

Where the desire for equality turns from a quixotic hope to a dangerous gamble is in politics. To create even the semblance of equality requires a concentration of power in the hands of political leaders. And, as the history of the 20th century has shown repeatedly and tragically, in countries around the world, once concentrated power is put into the hands of political leaders, they can use it for whatever purpose they have in mind -- regardless of what others had in mind when they granted them that power.

Becoming the pawns of politicians is a high price to pay for letting demagogues stir up our envy and beguile us with promises to equalize.