Sanford Ikeda’s concise and insightful lists of 14 common fallacies about the free market (available in two installments from The Freeman here and here) motivate careful thought about the commonly used and misused term “privilege” and the conflations in which it can result. In discussing the second fallacy regarding the free market, that it is identical to a system where the government grants special privileges to businesses, Dr. Ikeda writes that “People sometimes define ‘privilege’ as any advantage a person or group may have over others. Certainly such advantages exist today and would exist in a free market—you may be born into a wealthy family or have superior drive and resourcefulness—but these advantages are consistent with the absence of privilege in the libertarian sense, as long as you acquired such advantages without fraud or the initiation of physical violence against the person or property of others.”
Indeed, the increasingly common usage of the term “privilege” to mean any advantage whatsoever eviscerates it of any genuine meaning it once had. This problem in today’s discourse spreads far beyond discussions of connections between businesses and governments.
Certainly, the very fact that one individual is different from another – with a different set of experiences, different physique, different knowledge, and even different standing room at any particular time – provides that individual with opportunities that the other lacks, while rendering him or her limited in ways that the other is not. Unfortunately, this trivial fact is increasingly being misconstrued in some circles to suggest vile inequities arising out of innocuous human differences. People who have not aggressed against, or even demeaned or ridiculed, anyone are increasingly being identified as “privileged” simply for belonging to broadly and crudely defined groups – be it all people of European descent, all males, or even all non-overweight people (witness the pseudo-concept of “thin privilege”) or people who are not disabled. (“Ableism” is apparently an emerging sin in the vocabulary of the increasingly militant and vitriolic collectivistic “social justice” movement – which is about neither true individual-oriented justice nor the preservation of a civilized and tolerant society.) Such a vacuously expansive view of privilege is a tremendous insult to the true victims of coercive privilege throughout history – from slaves in all eras, to women who in prior eras were denied suffrage and property rights, to the freethinkers and forbears of liberty and reason, whose voices were too often snuffed out by the arbitrary power of absolute monarchs and theocrats in the pre-Enlightenment world.
Thomas Jefferson, an opponent of privilege in its meaningful sense, put it best when he expressed in his 1826 letter to Roger C. Weightman “the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride legitimately, by the grace of god.” Jefferson was a staunch opponent of the coercive privilege that enabled some to gain artificial advantages by restricting others from pursuing life-improving courses of action. Accidents of birth, or special lobbying skills, should not, in a just system, enable a person to acquire prerogatives which could not be earned through the free, peaceful exercise of that person’s abilities. Jefferson saw the future and strength of the American republic in the hoped-for emergence of a “natural aristocracy of talent and virtue” – people who, when allowed the liberty to flourish through honest work and competition, would become role models for others solely through their examples. This natural aristocracy would not need force to maintain its prominence, because the traits of the most knowledgeable, most industrious, and most virtuous people will be emulated by any who earnestly seek to improve their own lives and who have the freedom to acquire knowledge and make their own decisions.
Yet Jefferson’s natural aristocracy would be denounced as an example of horrid “privilege” by the “social justice” types – simply due to the necessarily unequal distribution of outcomes on a free market of open and honest production, competition, and cooperation. After all, not everyone can originate the same ideas at the same time. Not everyone can take advantage of the same opportunity for entrepreneurial profit, whose attainment, as economist Israel Kirzner demonstrated in Competition and Entrepreneurship, arises out of alertness to opportunities that others have missed. Kirzner writes that “Because the participants in [a] market are less than omniscient, there are likely to exist, at any given time, a multitude of opportunities that have not yet been taken advantage of. Sellers may have sold for prices lower than the prices which were in fact obtainable… Buyers may have bought for prices higher than the lowest prices needed to secure what they are buying…” (43). Would it be an example of unacceptable “privilege” for an alert entrepreneur to remedy such an arbitrage opportunity and thereby bring otherwise-unrealized value to consumers?
Yes, the free exercise of human abilities will produce outcomes where some people will have some advantages over some others (while, of course, leaving fully open the possibility that those very others will have their own distinct advantages, obtained through hard work, knowledge, or sheer luck). But, as long as coercion is not involved in securing and maintaining those advantages, the people endowed with them are not “booted and spurred” to ride the rest of us. As Dr. Ikeda points out, the differences among people are a source of strength harnessed by the free market: “The free market gives you an incentive to profit from associating with and learning from others who might be very different from you, who operate outside your normal social networks.” By incentivizing and facilitating these interactions, the free market encourages greater tolerance, understanding, and visible societal heterogeneity of the sort that constitutes the best safeguard against truly heinous oppressions based on collectivistic stereotypes. Instead of condemning others as being too “privileged” simply on account of innocuous differences, it is far more productive to think about how those differences can help one achieve one’s own values through honest, peaceful, and productive interaction, cooperation, and exchange.