Equality under law is a core principle of every free society. It means the law does not discriminate among persons based on irrelevant characteristics. It sets the ground rules for competition but does not seek to advantage one person or group at the expense of others.
Equality under law is not an arbitrary preference but the logical implication of a more fundamental, natural equality rooted in the unity of the human species. The Declaration of Independence, which proclaims the equality of all human beings in respect to certain unalienable rights, is the locus classicus of this philosophy. Thomas Jefferson concisely explained the natural basis for equality under law when he stated that, “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.”
Societies that reject (or do not recognize) the Declaration philosophy include not only those based on explicitly anti-egalitarian ideologies (Hitler’s master race, the feudal hierarchy of noble and serf), but also those based on the false equality of Marx and Lenin, who asserted that the human race is fundamentally bifurcated into two unequal classes — bourgeois and proletariat. Unsurprisingly, in Marxist-Leninist regimes all power ends up in the hands of a corrupt self-selected elite (nomenklatura) posing as the ‘vanguard of the proletariat.’
I’ve been thinking about this lately, because ‘progressive,’ activist government continually seeks to rig energy markets to favor some industries (those deemed green) at the expense of others (those deemed dirty). Moreover, interest groups continually lobby for special privileges, usually based on some public-interest pretext (‘What’s good for General Motors is good for the country’).
In his treatise The Law, 19th century French economist Frédéric Bastiat, discusses how to tell when law is perverted into a system of legal plunder:
But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.
Then abolish this law without delay, for it is not only an evil itself, but also it is a fertile source for further evils because it invites reprisals. If such a law — which may be an isolated case — is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system.
The person who profits from this law will complain bitterly, defending his acquired rights. He will claim that the state is obligated to protect and encourage his particular industry; that this procedure enriches the state because the protected industry is thus able to spend more and to pay higher wages to the poor workingmen.
Do not listen to this sophistry by vested interests. The acceptance of these arguments will build legal plunder into a whole system. In fact, this has already occurred. The present-day delusion is an attempt to enrich everyone at the expense of everyone else; to make plunder universal under the pretense of organizing it.
Imagine if we had a government today that lived by Bastiat’s maxims! Bye-bye bridges to nowhere, the wind production tax credit, the ethanol mandate, green jobs programs, and Obamacare.
To Bastiat’s simple test for identifying legal plunder, I would add another — presumably with his approval were he alive today: The law aims to pick market winners and losers by imposing unequal burdens and/or conferring unequal benefits on different industries or firms.
The ethanol mandate clearly falls into the legal plunder category, and so does the campaign to restrict natural gas exports for the benefit of the chemical industry. I discuss those policies as equality-of-law-violating plunder schemes in recent comments on National Journal’s Energy Insiders blog. My comments (lightly edited) appear below. [click to continue…]