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Your country and mine always rank low in equality. The leftist economists such as Thomas Piketty or Mariana Mazzucato think of Brazil and the US as the bad boys. They want our governments to fix it. The nasty rightist sneers: “Who cares? Inequality pays for my tennis club downtown in Rio, so that I can play under the lights.” Neither side is just or sensible or scientific. Economists have become obsessed with equality. But they do not think philosophically or economically, about what equality we should value ethically, or about what we can achieve prudently.

One kind of equality is of income. It makes sense in a little family. Everyone in your family should get about the same food and housing out of your income. The left then extrapolates family life to a nation of 213 million. But if the surgeon and the sweeper get the same outcome, there will be too many sweepers and not enough surgeons. In God’s eyes the two are of equal value. But to yield the Great Enrichment for the poorest that in fact has happened, 1800 to the present, human incentives matter. By paying more, the economy says, “More surgeons, please. More innovations like cell phones and Uber.”

Another kind of equality is of opportunity. Again, it would be nice. If everyone had Pelé’s gifts, football would be even better. If everyone had exactly the same genes, luck, height, beauty, parents, intelligence,

nationality, generation, then equality of opportunity would reign. Bunt no subsidies can come close to achieving it. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote a short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” imagining a future in which, say,

Pelé had to carry weights like a race horse, for exact equality of opportunity. Crazy. And it throws away the Great Enrichment. Financing of schools, yes. Weights on Pelé, no.

So don’t I care about equality? Yes, I do, passionately. We liberals since Adam Smith want equality of permission. Let Pelé invent his turn. Let women be airline pilots. Let Rocinha people own the land. Let everyone, as the sporting British say, “have a go.” 

Equality of permission in fact yielded quite a lot of equality of income and of opportunity. Sure, have little of the other equalities by subsidy.

But mainly permission.

The piece was originally published in the Brazilian Newspaper Folha de S. Paulo and permisson from the author has been obtained to republish the piece on Bastiat Scrolls.


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