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Thomas Sowell's Critique of Egalitarianism: A Deep Dive into Freedom and Equality

Thomas Sowell's Critique of Egalitarianism: A Deep Dive into Freedom and Equality

Mar 27, 2024

Thomas Sowell's Critique of Egalitarianism: A Deep Dive into Freedom and Equality

Intellectual heavyweights, Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman, and Frances Fox Piven dissect the intricate relationship between freedom and equality in a clip from the 1980 Free To Choose TV series. This post aims to unravel the arguments presented, offering a detailed exploration of the points made by the speakers.

At the heart of the discussion is a dichotomy between the results we hope for—a reduction in inequality—and the processes we set in motion to achieve these results. Sowell suggests that any attempt to engineer societal outcomes, such as reducing inequality, may inadvertently impede individual freedom. It is argued that focusing solely on the end state of absolute equality is a straw man tactic used to undermine the broader point—that the processes aimed at achieving equality can lead to a decrease in freedom.

The discussion delves into the concept of ascribed status, highlighting the inherent dangers of any system that seeks to assign roles or statuses to individuals or groups by government fiat. Sowell contends that any government attempt to impose an ascribed status will necessarily conflict with the diversity found within humanity. Such impositions would lead to a reduction in people's freedom to choose their paths, as the government's vision will not align with the individual aspirations and actions of its citizens.

Further complicating matters is the historical context of inequality, particularly among African Americans in the United States. Piven reminds us that the push for equality of results was closely linked to the quest for equality of opportunity. Without basic necessities such as food, security, and access to education, the notion of equal opportunity becomes a sham. It is in this light that the civil rights movement is referenced, emphasizing the extraordinary participation of black Americans in protests from the late 1950s onwards, seeking not just formal equality but tangible improvements in their quality of life.

However, the discussion also explores the idea that what leaders or intellectuals ascribe to a certain group, such as the black community, may not reflect the actual desires or actions of the group. When examining the support for policies like affirmative action, for example, Sowell points out that the majority opinion within the black community, as shown through polls, may not align with the policies that activists or academics advocate on their behalf.

They touch upon the notion that if equality of results emerges within a free framework, it is indeed a desirable outcome. Nevertheless, it is argued that greater equality in actual results is more likely to be achieved in a system that allows individuals the freedom to achieve unequal results. This counterintuitive assertion posits that for the impoverished, freedom from arbitrary barriers offers the most effective means of social advancement, rather than government programs that predetermine their societal position or distribute goods and services.

The discussion highlights the irony that governmental interventions, often aimed at reducing inequality, can give rise to new forms of inequality through the establishment of special privileges. In countries like Britain, for instance, it is suggested that government actions have created new opportunities for certain classes, making wealth accumulation more about securing government permits and less about individual enterprise.

In conclusion, the discussion presents a compelling discourse on the delicate balancing act between the pursuit of equality and the preservation of freedom. Sowell's arguments suggest that while the intention to reduce inequality is noble, the methods by which it is pursued can have unintended consequences that may undermine the very freedoms that enable societal progress.


  • "The real question, the political question, is, shall we set in motion certain processes because we hope for that? And do those processes enhance or reduce freedom?"
  • "To maintain any system of ascribed status from the top is going to mean reducing people's freedom across the spectrum."
  • "People recognized that unless there was a degree of equality, in a degree, enough food, enough security, access to education, unless these things were available to all children, then equality of opportunity was merely a mockery."
  • "I argue in the film, I've argued here that, in point of fact, you get greater equality of actual results by a system under which people are free to achieve unequal results."
  • "I would say that in this world, the greatest source of inequality has been special privileges granted by government."


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