Liberalism and Inequality

To the extent that liberalism explains inequality by appealing to biological differences between individuals this ideology aligns with social Darwinism. (Liberalism also includes many virtues, such as free thought and expression and the demand for an open society, but in capitalist society it serves the purpose of rationalizing inequality by promoting the rightfulness of private ownership and minority control of the means of production.) However, the claim that biological differences explain inequality goes beyond rationalization of inequalities born of class relations. Given that the differences associated with inequality may be portrayed as grouped differences, the explanation also becomes a racist one. Put another way, if one explains inequality based on the constitutional differences between racially-grouped individuals, then the evidence will reify the fiction of race. 

Why? Blacks as a group trail whites in every significant category of life changes, which is to say that, as a group, whites achieve more than blacks in nearly every area of social and economic life—educationally, occupationally, and so on. The problem with social Darwinism is of course generalizing from individuals preordered by racist ideology. The social Darwinist doesn’t analyze the racist structures that produce group differences along racial lines. Nor does he discard the racist system of defining and ordering categories by race. Rather he uses these categories to disguise the source of the problem (and, tragically, so do progressives with their leftwing identitarian-style politics—more on that later). The social Darwinist appears to make an error in causal thinking. But the error is not a mistake. He means to misdirect his audience.

US rightwing libertarianism—to be distinguished from civil libertarianism (those of us who defend the Bill of Rights) and continental libertarianism (which is associated with anarchism)—is the more obvious expression of the racism inhering in the neoclassical liberal explanation of inequality. See, for example, F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. There Hayek makes the argument that inequality is the purpose of liberty and that the source of inequality is first and foremost the result of constitutional differences between individuals (while cleverly avoiding explicit racial categorization). But this extreme view doesn’t mean that the classist and racist attitudes are unrelated to the larger worldview supported by liberal ideology. Liberalism was social Darwinistic before the neoclassical innovation that underpins contemporary US libertarianism. Moreover, because an explanation rooting inequality in biological difference reinforces a naturalistic sense of hierarchical social ordering, social Darwinism promotes authoritarian political and legal structures designed to sustain these hierarchies, as well advances a victim-blaming ideology that functions to legitimate and rationalize human suffering. In other words, rightwing libertarianism uses the rhetoric of liberty to dissimulate the authoritarian structuring of social relations, and it derives this attitude from classical liberalism.

Social Darwinism relies on authoritarian political and legal structures because, if we view the world through the lens of science, inequality is in fact not caused natural differences among individuals, but by a class-based political-economic system that appropriates the value produced by human labor through exclusive control over the forces of production—command of land, resources, technology, and human capital. Grouped differences are not the result of a natural ordering of individuals by racial categories, but rather result from a ideological system that sorts human being into artificial categories for political and economic purposes.

Liberal ideology in bourgeois societies promote a mythology that obscures the real character of exploitative capitalist relations by elevating oppression to a virtue through the fetishism of individual liberty and thereby rationalizing its negative effects. Capitalism converts its failure to provide for everybody into the justification for its preservation. This is why most Americans, while not believing the United States should be as unequal as it is (albeit not knowing how unequal it really is), still believe it should be unequal on the grounds that inequality is the normal state of affairs in human societies. Centuries of bourgeois ideology have projected social Darwinistic logic into our cultural DNA, so to speak. This is also the reason why people will remind you that we do not live in a democracy. “It’s a republic!” they say. Yes, but it’s a democratic republic. At least it’s supposed to be. At least it should be!

Those who reject the ideology of social Darwinism, or are at least uncomfortable with it, often call themselves liberals, unaware that it is liberalism that is the ideology rationalizing these injustices. In my conversations with self-described liberals I discover that a lot of them are closeted socialists; they’re against inequalities based on class but are afraid to embrace the socialist label, a fear that results from a decades-long effective smear campaign against socialist politics and humanist desire. However, for many, the problem is not as simple as courage in changing labels. To the extent that their self-identification has led them to identify with organizations, parties, and causes that are liberal, their political and moral consciousness is fragmented and contradictory. They are falsely conscious of their class position and do not possess the attitudes that would align consciousness with their class position, an actual material position that comes with objectively grouped interests. Part of the reason why their consciousness is fractured is because they, too, believe the inequality lies along lines of race and not along lines of class. They don’t see that ending material inequality by abolishing exploitative economic relations at once ends inequality identifiable by the imposition of the fiction of race.

Update: I have created a podcast based on this text.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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