Hayek in The Foundations of Liberty: On Merit, Equality, and Social Justice

With the students at the Austrian School of Economics, UBA, we see Hayek on merit and social justice in The Foundations of Freedom. In that great book one of the chapters deals with the issues of equality, value, and merit. So it begins:

Los carpinteros construyen nuevas casas adosadas en mayo de 2021 en Tampa. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

“It has been the great objective of the struggle for freedom to achieve the implementation of the equality of all human beings before the law. This equality before the legal norms that state coercion enforces can be completed with a similar equality of the rules that men voluntarily abide by in their relationships with their fellow men. The extension of the principle of equality to the rules of social and moral conduct is the main expression of what we commonly call the democratic spirit, and, probably, this spirit is what makes the inequalities that freedom inevitably provokes more harmless.

The equality of general legal precepts and norms of social behavior is the only kind of equality that leads to freedom and that can be established without destroying freedom itself. Freedom not only has nothing to do with any kind of equality, but even produces inequalities in many respects. It is a necessary result that is part of the justification of individual freedom.

If the result of individual freedom did not show that certain ways of living are more successful than others, many of the reasons for such freedom would vanish. The reasons in favor of freedom do not require that the ruler treat everyone equally, because men are presumed to be equal in fact, nor because it is intended to make them equal. The dialectic for freedom not only proclaims that individuals are very different, but largely rests on this assumption; reiterates, moreover, that the differences between humans cannot serve as a justification when the ruler attempts to coercively discriminate between the ruled, and hinders the implementation of that differential treatment to which the authority would have to resort if it wished to guarantee equal positions in the life of individuals who in fact present notable differences between them.

Those who modernly advocate a more far-reaching material equality constantly deny that their claim assumes that all mortals are, in fact, equal. Nevertheless, broad sectors still believe that this is the main justification for such aspirations. But nothing does more harm to the claim of equal treatment than to base it on a presumption as obviously false as that of the de facto equality of all men. To base arguments for the equal treatment of national or racial minorities on the assertion that they do not differ from other men is to implicitly admit that inequality in fact would justify unequal treatment and proof that some differences exist would soon become apparent. It is essential to affirm that equal treatment is aspired to despite the fact that men are different.”

This piece was originally published in Spanish by the University of Francisco Marroquin

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