Equality Before the Law

About fifteen years ago, during a dinner conversation with Nobel Laureate economist/philosopher Friedrich A. Hayek, I asked him if he was allowed to enact one law that would promote and preserve liberty in our country, what would that law be? Hayek answered that the law he'd enact would read: Congress shall enact no law that does not apply equally to all Americans. Hayek conceded that he'd allow for a couple of exceptions like allowances for minors and the feeble-minded.

Hayek's suggestion for full equality before the law was both simple and profound and would do untold wonders in producing the liberties envisioned by our Founders. But I'm betting that most Americans, despite our pretenses, would greet Hayek's suggestion with contempt after we realized what such a law would mean. Full equality before the law would mean Congress wouldn't be able play favorites with different Americans in exchange for our votes and campaign contributions. "Williams," you say, "you've just insulted every American; we all treasure equality before the law." Let's see if you do.

During the 1980s, many savings and loans banks made huge losses because of chicanery, stupidity and unwise investments. Congress bailed them out. In 1987, when the stock market crashed, I incurred large losses because of my unwise, perhaps stupid investment decisions. Equal treatment before the law would require that if Congress bails out one American who makes unwise or stupid investments, it should bail any American who makes unwise or stupid investments.

Congress makes payments to farmers who don't grow wheat or raise pigs. Most Americans don't grow wheat or raise pigs. Under an equal treatment regime, we'd all receive payments for not growing corn and raising pigs. Through the IRS Congress takes my money and gives it to other people. An equal treatment law would require Congress to take other people's money and give it to me. Congress takes young people's money and gives it to old people in the forms of Social Security and Medicare. Equality before the law would require Congress to take old people's money and give it to young people. Congress grants the post office a monopoly in first-class mail delivery. It should grant me a monopoly in teaching economics.

Under an equal treatment regime, we'd have to scrap the Internal Revenue Code. After all what justification is there for treating one American differently because he has children, or is buying a home or receives his income from capital gains instead of wages? Equal treatment would require Congress to figure out the cost of the constitutionally authorized functions of the federal government, divide it by adult population, and send us each a bill for our share. You say, "What about the ability-to-pay principle of taxation?" That's just a politics of envy concept that would be revealed as utter nonsense if applied to anything else. Would you apply the ability-to-pay principle to, say, gasoline or food prices where different prices are charged to different people depending on their income?

Most of our national problems, both large and small, would disappear if there was equality before the law. Congressmen wouldn't be able to play favorites. Most federal programs would not exist. That would mean instead of a federal 1999 budget of $1.7 trillion, it would be more along the order of $400 billion. There wouldn't be runaway government. The problem with Hayek's suggestion is that any congressman who suggested that all Americans be treated equally would be run out of town on a rail because being treated equally by government is principle that most Americans hold in contempt.

Walter E. Williams


March 1, 1999

Return to Articles Page