Labour: equality of result or freedom of opportunity?

Written by Barnard on January 27th, 2009

Andrew Barnard-

The value of labour as the “real price of everything” has led to two divergent theories:  Marxism or free market capitalism.  The difference between the two comes from the desired ends of each philosophy.  The debate is over which is more favorable, equality of result or freedom of opportunity.  I see the laissez-faire capitalism espoused by Smith as a natural evolution or application of Locke, who, of course, suggested this labour value of property prior to Smith.  Karl Marx on the other hand took the concept in a new, original direction. Smith however, predicted in the last sentence of Book I, Chapter X, that any such revolution will not last for any considerable amount of time. (I paraphrased, obviously)

While recent history has proven the seeming impossibility of orthodox Communism, this debate over equality of result and freedom of opportunity is still being played out across the developed nations of the world.  Western Europe has evolved into both an acknowledged and de facto socialist society.  They have chosen to strive for an economy with the end result of relative equality.  This has had a number of consequences; consequences following nearly exactly the predictions of Adam Smith.

I would like to use Germany as a sort of case study.  I am quite familiar with the country and feel able to engage in a decent discussion of socialism as it is present there.  Against the explicit warnings of Smith as found in Chapter X of Book I, the Germans have embraced the concept of Unions with open arms.  One of their major holidays is Tag der Arbeit celebrating the Haymarket Square Riot; an American historical event of which few Americans are even aware.  Labor Unions are the norm in Germany, perpetrating nearly every aspect of their national economy.  Perhaps most interesting and relevent to our discussion however, is what the consequences of this have been.  True to the wise warnings of Adam Smith, the mass unionization of Germany has resulted in the institutionalization of “long apprenticeships”.  To engange in any sort of industry in Germany you must first complete an apprenticeship and obtain a certain certificate. This has indeed lead to the “break down of the natural equality… of the free circulation of labor.”  They have in short sacrificed the liberty of opportunity for a more relative equal distribution of wealth. This has had major societal reprecussions, most notably in public education.  This apprenticeship system has become such a requirement of employment that students, after the fourth grade, who appear to be unable to suceed in the liberal arts (acadamia), are put in different high schools- the objective of which is to end their formal education after the 10th grade; thus putting the student into the apprentince system sooner.  I consider this the most shameful aspect of German culture.  The government has effectualy and legaly taken the perogative of deciding who will have the opportunity to prove themselves worthy of a college education.  Surely this constitutes an infringement on personal liberties.

Adam Smith took the labour value of property and understood it for its egalitarian nature which Locke was implying.  Even though it must necessarily rid itself of many regulations which try to ensure an equality of result, the egalitarian freedom of opportunity which labour provides is, in my opinion, irreplaceable and should not be sacraficed for any percieved “forced equality.”  To do so would be to rob me of my personal capacity for “industry and ingenuity.”

Of course reality is never as simple as presented in theory and concessions must be made providing for exceptional circumstances.  Those for whom the capacity for labour is involuntarily impossible- owing to such handicaps as age, physical abnormalities, or mental complications- it seems must be provided for in a just and humane society.  Such particulars however should be dealt with as exceptions, not as the theoratical principle.

In summary, labour confronts us with a decision: equality of result, or freedom of opportunity.  A real good balance of the two has, to my knowledge, yet to be realized on the this earth.  I would submit however that my personal autonomy, liberty, and freedom must be given higher consideration than the natural inequalities of human existance.


You must be logged in to post a comment.