Reflections on the Idea of Equality

III. The Parable of the Egalitarian King

In the second of my series of articles on the idea of equality, I explained that there are some forms of inequality about which we cannot do anything. Just as we cannot, for example, ensure that everybody is of the same height and weight, we cannot make sure that every citizen has the same amount of money or other material possessions, for any reasonable length of time. In continuation of our reflections on equality, let me narrate the Parable of the Egalitarian King. This benevolent and well-meaning King believed strongly that everybody in his kingdom should be equal and he wanted to devote his immense material resources towards achieving that objective. To begin with, he carried out an assessment of the financial and other assets of all his subjects and having ascertained the amount owned by his wealthiest subject, this very powerful King commandeered everything from everybody. In return, he decided to give each person an amount which was a little bit more than the total wealth of the richest of his subjects. By so doing, he ensured that nobody would complain that he/she had been dispossessed, not even members of the richest segment of his kingdom. Everybody in the kingdom became a multi-millionaire.

The King realized that equality of cash income was not enough. He took the additional step of redistributing all the land in his kingdom equally among his subjects. He built new cities of identical houses and furnishings and moved everybody to the new sites and into their new and equal housing units. Furthermore, he felt that if everyone was left to himself or herself, some would quickly squander the cash they had received and a state of inequality would be re-established. Therefore, the King promulgated many rules and regulations which he considered necessary to ensure that the new status quo of equality was maintained. He had to approve every major purchase by anybody and nobody was allowed to sell land. His subjects fully intended to obey, both out of traditional loyalty to the king and as a show of gratitude for the land, the large sum of money, and the housing that they had been given. Thus, there was initial unanimous support for the royal scheme of a kingdom of equally wealthy citizens.

Understandably and without meaning any offence to the King, all the citizens wanted to live like the rich people they had all become. One of the first items on their shopping lists was a good car. Some had been checking out the specifications of different makes and models of cars. But the King ordered that everybody would have to use public transportation. He felt that even if everybody bought brand new cars of the same make, model, and year, the values of the cars would soon differ substantially. People would not take equal care of their vehicles; some may crash theirs; some may forget to put engine oil and get the engine knocked, etc. “Certainly, possession of cars is a sure way to creating inequality”, the King reasoned. And so it came to pass that in a kingdom of millionaires nobody owned a car!

Some citizens wanted to buy lawn mowers to ensure that the lawns around their houses were well maintained. “Good idea”, the King thought. But he found that many didn’t care about lawns, and the most they would voluntarily do was to buy the simplest and cheapest garden tools. Those who bought the best lawn mowers would have less money left although their houses would become more attractive. Should he compel everyone to buy lawn mowers? Yes, he decided; the lawns must be well maintained to make the kingdom more beautiful. However, he decreed that everybody must acquire new lawn mowers of the same make and model. But it happened that some people could not correctly use or maintain their mowers, and their gardens gradually became less attractive than those of their neighbors. Because of poor handling, some people were spending considerable sums of money to repair their mowers. There was a new problem; the distributors of garden equipment and those who repaired mowers were getting richer because of the increased volume of business. Thus, lawn maintenance was becoming a source of wealth inequality. The King took action: he banned all distributorships and the businesses engaged in maintaining equipment. The King made himself the sole and exclusive distributor not only for lawn mowers but for everything else. And as he was determined to see that nobody was allowed an opportunity to become richer than others, he decided that nobody must own businesses; all businesses had to belong to the King.

And then some people planted their favorite flowers around their homes. The King noticed and quickly ordered everybody to plant flowers to keep the values of the houses the same. It turned out that some people’s favorite flowers did not look as attractive as the flowers others had chosen. Some people could simply not develop beautiful gardens, because in this kingdom, as elsewhere, not everybody had “green fingers”.

The King was greatly surprised at the large number of decisions about the affairs of his people and their daily lives that he had to make. What was more disturbing to him was the fact that decisions on mundane issues were increasing exponentially with time. He realized that he no longer found time to perform his traditional roles. He had built new cities and made everybody very rich and equal, but there was not the great joy and appreciation he expected. He was harassed from overwork and even then he still realized that he could not control everything. He found that he needed more and more people to enforce his rules and regulations, which were increasing by the day. The enforcers of his rules were becoming more influential than other citizens. And besides, he had other frustrations: he knew that he could not control how much each family spent on food; he could not determine what dresses they wore (the thought of uniforms for all citizens crossed his mind but he saw many problems in the idea); he could not control whether or not they should buy books and magazines, and many other seemingly minor items of expenditure. But he knew that these minor items would, over time, add up to considerable sums and cause disparity in individual wealth.

After a few years, the King decided to conduct a survey of his people’s incomes and net worth to assess how his efforts to ensure egalitarianism were working. The results shocked him. The houses had become vastly different. Some houses had smelly kitchens, dirty walls and broken window panes. The amounts of money in the possession of his subjects had become significantly unequal. It turned out that since people could not buy some of the things they really wanted, they spent a lot more on their individual idiosyncrasies. Some of his subjects had remained frugal and still had their cash virtually intact. A few had surreptitiously engaged in trading and had increased their cash resources substantially. Illegal trading became necessary because the King’s monopoly of the distribution of goods had resulted in unbearably long queues for virtually every item. The plots of land that had been distributed equally among the people were no longer equal in value. A number of them had fenced their plots and planted economic trees. Some had not even visited their allocated plots.

But the greatest shock to the King was his discovery that many of his subjects no longer loved him. Many were thoroughly unhappy because they couldn’t even spend their own money. They were resentful of the King’s monopoly of all businesses; something that became necessary only for fear that traders would become richer than other people. They complained that there were too many rules and regulations and that opportunities to use one’s initiative and talents had practically vanished. In fact, many had left his Kingdom and did not plan to return; they did not wish to remain what they termed “rich robots”. They wanted to be able to decide what to do with whatever they had, however little. And so the King discovered to his chagrin that he had given away a great deal of his own personal wealth, and all he got in return was discontent and a dwindling kingdom. He realized that his goal of economic equality was not only costly, but it was unworkable, unattainable, and most demoralizing.

As we know, the egalitarian philosophy is promoted by some who are rightly concerned about poverty. They understandably feel outraged by pervasive poverty in the midst of affluence and conspicuous consumption. They wrongly imagine that to eradicate poverty, inequality must be eradicated. The Parable of the Egalitarian King tells us that attempts at achieving equality of wealth necessarily entail denial of personal freedom and autocratic and unjust control by government. And even then such efforts are always bound to fail.

That poverty is not the same as inequality is a point that one cannot overemphasize. Unfortunately, too many people use the terms as if they were interchangeable. Poverty is concerned with the absolute standard of living; whereas, inequality refers to relative living standards across the whole society. In a society of minimum inequality (where all are equal), there could be maximum poverty (where all are poor). On the other hand, there could be considerable inequality of wealth in a society where there is no poverty. In such a society, persons with the lowest incomes have more than enough to live well. The goal which honorable human beings should strive for is zero poverty; it should not be economic equality. A world free of poverty would not be a world of equal incomes. The reality is that as long as people exercise their God-given Free Will, they will make different choices and wind up being unequal. In this regard, I strongly recommend reading the work “In the Light of Truth, The Grail Message”, which explains the concept of “Free Will” in its various aspects as well as its effects and consequences.

The starting point for poverty eradication is the guarantee of the freedom of all persons to utilize their different talents for their own benefits and for the benefit of society as a whole and in accordance with their Free Will. A fundamental duty of government is to make sure that everybody can exercise his/her Free Will and that in doing so, he/she does not in any way interfere with the rights of others to exercise their own Free Will. This can be achieved only within a framework in which everybody is equal before the law, and the rule of law prevails. Whenever governments fail in this duty, both material and spiritual poverty prevails, crimes escalate, and security of lives and properties vanishes.

Stephen Lampe