“To prize as an economic advantage the arrangements which produce them is not realism, but romance. It is to wear [a mill‐​stone as a talisman].”

Editor’s Note

Grant Babcock

Associate Editor

Occasionally, Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org publishes content that is not so much libertarian per se as it is of interest to libertarians. This series of selections from R. H Tawney’s Equality is an example of the latter type. Tawney, a Christian socialist who won renown as an economic historian and social critic, examines questions of distributive justice in a manner that is plausible, sober, and fundamentally illiberal.

Tawney thought economic inequality was questionable in itself, but also that it begat political inequality. More than eighty years after it was first published, the arguments in Equality retain much of their currency. You might hear Tawney’s words, or something like them, in the mouths of a modern day social democrat: equating economic and political power, conflating the liberty to take some action with the power to do it, bemoaning that the state doesn’t do more to spread the wealth.

There is evidence, also, in these passages, of the common heiritage shared by modern liberalism and libertarianism. Tawney lashes out at the hereditary privileges perpetuated under the ancien regime and holds the moral equality of all humans as the foundation of his ethical system. Libertarians typically translate this belief in equal moral worth to a belief in equal natural rights to life, liberty, and property, and to the related concept of equality before the law. For Tawney, and for many modern leftists, this moral equality implies a social duty–one to be discharged through the state–to help people develop their capacities regardless of the circumstances of their births.

By R. H. Tawney. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1952 (Originally Published: 1931), 9–16.


Preface to the 1951 Edition

Over twenty years have elapsed since the delivery of the lectures on which Equality is based, and twelve since the appearance of its third edition. The author is informed that the work, which has long been out of print, remains in demand; and its publishers have been good enough to express the wish that it should again be made available. The present volume is the result.

Its first six chapters are re‐​printed, with a few minor corrections, from the last revised edition of 1938. The readers will realise that the England depicted in them is that, not of 1951, but of the years which the locust devoured between the great depression and the tragic farce of Munich. The last decade has seen a change in the distribution of pecuniary income; an increase and steeper graduation of taxation; and a considerable expansion of collective provision for common needs. A new concluding chapter has, therefore, been added, which, without attempting a detailed examination of these developments, touches briefly on those aspects of them which are specially relevant to the subject of this book. The figures presented in it are neither original nor up‐​to‐​date, but they may appropriately be compared with those contained in chapters II and IV. The tendencies revealed by them have not escaped the reproach that liberty and culture are the fruits of inequality, and must wither with its decline. Culture, like the Kingdom of Heaven, “cometh not by observation”; and the writer, though conscious of the inadequacy of his references to that subject, has resisted the temptation to amplify them. He has permitted himself, however, a few additional words on the less rarified topic of the relations between equality and freedom.

A discourse on social policy is not the mere irrelevance which, in the present international climate, it might, at first sight, appear. Like earlier wars of religion, the creedal conflicts of our day will find varying issues in different regions; but, if Europe survives, societies convinced that liberty and justice are equally indispensable to civilization will survive as part of her. The experience of a people which regards these great abstractions, not as antagonists, but as allies, and which has endeavored, during six not too easy years, to serve the cause of both, is not barren of lessons which may profitably be pondered.

“If,” wrote The Times on July 1, 1940, “we speak of democracy, we do not mean a democracy which maintains the right to vote, but forgets the right to live and work. If we speak of freedom, we do not mean a rugged individualism which excludes social organization and economic planning. If we speak of equality, we do not mean a political equality nullified by social and economic privilege. If we speak of economic reconstruction, we think less of maximum production (though that too will be required) than of equitable distribution.” The crisis which for a moment set Saul also among the prophets has passed; but the truths revealed by it have no ceased to be true. The mentality which turns from the common inconveniences and shared deprivations of the post‐​war world to sigh for the exclusive felicities and securely guarded flesh‐​pots of the days before the deluge still, at times, emits nostalgic flickers. Neither old regimes nor new are without their disadvantages. A dispassionate verdict on their respective merits is most likely to be reached if the second are seen against the background of the first, and the consequences of both are considered together.

Preface to the 1938 Edition

An author who complies with a request to re‐​publish an old work after the lapse of eight years is fortunate if he does not wish to re‐​write it from beginning to end. I have not re‐​written Equality; nevertheless, the present edition differs substantially from its predecessors. The introductory chapter, and certain other passages, have been omitted as no longer relevant. A new final chapter on problems which, when the book was composed, were still in the future, has been substituted for the brief concluding paragraphs of the preceding editions. Some pages have been added on other aspects of the subject which experience or reflection has set in a new light. Figures, when necessary, have been brought up to date.

Apart from these changes, the general argument of the book, like the realities with which it deals, remains unaltered. In its analysis of the ravages of the disease of inequality, and its account of the remedies by which–would the patient consent to take them–his malady could be cured, it errs throughout on the side of under‐​statement. Truth, however presented, does not always persuade; but her persuasiveness suffers less from sobriety than from exaggeration. One point, however, may legitimately be underlined. It is still sometimes suggested that what Professor Pigou, in his latest work, calls “the glaring inequalities of fortune and opportunity which deface our present civilization” are beneficial, irremediable, or both together. Innocent laymen are disposed to believe that these monstrosities, though morally repulsive, are economically advantageous, and that, even were they not, the practical difficulties of abolishing them are too great to be overcome. Both opinions, it may be said with some confidence, are mere superstitions, for which no shadow of convincing evidence has as yet been adduced. If the time ever existed when absurdities of the kind could invoke on their side the conclusions of economic science, that time is now over. The burden of proof rests to‐​day, not on the critics of the economic and social inequalities examined in the following pages, but on their defenders.

Institutions which enable a tiny class, amounting to less than two per cent of the population of Great Britain, to take year by year nearly one quarter of the nation’s annual output of wealth may appeal to the emotions of wonder, reverence and awe. One cannot argue with the choice of a soul; and, if men like that kind of dog, then that is the kind of dog they like. But, whatever the sentimental reactions such phenomena evoke, one fact about them is not open to dispute. It is that, so far from being an economic asset, they are an economic liability of alarming dimensions. They involve, in the first place, a perpetual misdirection of limited resources to the production or upkeep of costly futilities, when what the nation requires for its welfare is more and better food, more and better houses, more and better schools. They mean, in the second place, that, for lack of these simple necessities, the human energies which are the source of all wealth are, in the case of the majority off the population, systematically under‐​developed from birth to maturity. They result, in the third place, in the creation of a jungle of vested interests, which stubbornly resist all attempts to reconstruct on juster and more rational lines the economic system inherited from the age before 1914, in the belief that reconstruction will diminish their profits. They produce, in the fourth place, a perpetual class‐​struggle, which, though not always obtrusive, is always active below the surface, and which is fatal to the mobilization of co‐​operative effort. Whatever the ends which these features of our society may serve, economic efficiency is certainly not among them. To prize as an economic advantage the arrangements which produce them is not realism, but romance. It is to wear as a talisman a mill‐​stone round one’s neck.

The attitude which, while admitting that capricious inequalities are a grave national disaster, shudders in tremulous apprehension at the insuperable obstacles impeding the path of humanity and commonsense is equally remote from practical realities. The truth is that, as far as the mere technique of the matter is concerned, the course to be steered is pretty well charted. In the ages when property was widely distributed, and when the greater part of it consisted of land, equipment and tools employed by their owners for the purposes of production, the transmission of wealth by inheritance was a useful institution. It ensured that the next generation stepped into the assets of the last, and that the work of the world was carried on without interruption. To‐​day, when three‐​quarters or more of the nation leave less than £100 at death, and nearly two‐​thirds of the aggregate wealth is owned by about one per cent of it, inheritance is on the way to become little more than a device by which a small minority of rich men bequeath to their heirs a right to free quarters at the expense of their fellow‐​countrymen. The limitations imposed on that right during the past half‐​century were greeted, when first introduced, with the usual cries of alarm; and the alarm, as is not less usual, has been proved by experience to be mere hysteria. It is perfectly practicable, by extending those limitations and accelerating their application, to reduce the influence of inheritance–at present a strong poison–to negligible dimensions.

No one seriously supposes, again, that the steps already taken to make health and education somewhat less of a class monopoly than till recently they were have been anything but wholly beneficial. In the light of the incidence of disease between different classes, and of the crushing educational disabilities of the great majority of children, no one ought to suppose that our task in those matters has been more than begun. There is no question, in this field, of good intentions being paralysed by uncertainty as to the nature of the measures required. Experts may differ on points of detail; but there is sufficient agreement on the major issues of policy to keep administrators busy, were their hands untied, for the next fifteen years. With the knowledge now at our command, we can ensure, if we please, that the whole of the rising generation, irrespective of income or social position, grows up in an environment equally conducive to health, enjoys equal opportunities of developing its powers by education, has equal access, according to ability, to all careers, and is equally secure against being crushed by the contingencies of life. What prevents effective action is, in the main, neither ignorance nor lack of resources. It is the temper which found its classical expression in the golden sentence of Sir George May and his colleagues, to the effect that, “since the standard of education, elementary and secondary, that is being given to a child of poor parents, is already in very many cases superior to that which the middle‐​class parent is providing for his own child, we feel that it is time to pause in this policy of expansion.” That naïve idealization of social class as the final and infallible criterion of public expediency is not confined to the particular topic of which those words refer. As long as that attitude persists–as long as powerful classes, instead of welcoming the extension to all their fellow‐​countrymen of necessaries and amenities long enjoyed by themselves, fume and splutter at the mere thought that their advantages may be shared–civilisation in England must be regarded as skin‐​deep.

If, finally, in the days when the great industry was getting onto its feet, the dictatorship of the capitalist was an unavoidable evil, it is clearly to‐​day an unnecessary as it is mischievous. The conduct of great undertakings requires, no doubt, capacities of an unusual order, which is one reason why those who direct them ought not to be recruited, as they often are at present, by nepotism and personal influence. It is not, however, an unfathomable mystery, which no one but the Titans at any moment engaged in it can hope to master. The British nation is not without experience in matters of government and administration. To suggest that it is unable to mobilise the intelligence to conduct in the general interest services necessary to its welfare, and to make a better job of them than bankers, mine‐​owners and mill‐​owners have made since 1918, is to bring against it a charge of imbecility which its history, whatever the shadows upon it, does little justify. Given, in short, the will to make an end of economic inequality and industrial autocracy, the technical and administrative difficulties involved present no insoluble problem. We may not succeed in establishing a parity of pecuniary incomes, nor is it important to do so. We can certainly, if we please, wind up for good and all the whole odious business of class advantages and class disabilities, which are the characteristic and ruinous vices of our existing social system.

We can do so, given the will. But that, of course, is the crux of the matter. When this book first appeared, a reviewer remarked that its subject, though possibly of speculative interest, was without practical importance. Cultured sophists said the same in the Rome of the Gracchi, when the republic was on the eve of the half‐​century of civil wars which finally destroyed it. Seen in historical perspective, the attempt to combine the equality of civil and political rights, which is of the essence of democracy, with the inequality of economic and social opportunities, which is of the essence of capitalism, is still in its first youth. There is sufficient experience, however, to suggest that the result represents, at best, a transitional arrangement. As the mass of the population becomes conscious of the powers which democracy confers, they naturally use them to press their demands. In proportion as they use them, democracy itself wears a different, and less innocuous, guise in the eyes of classes who formerly regarded it with indifference. The fatalism which foresees in Great Britain the inevitable clash of irreconcilable opponents, which has destroyed political civilization in Germany and Italy, is clearly out of place. So also, however, is the light‐​hearted optimism which assumes that, because so precarious an equipoise has maintained itself for half a century, it can be relied on with confidence to maintain itself for ever. It may well be the case that democracy and capitalism, which at moments in their youth were allies, cannot live together, once both have come of age. When that contingency arises, it is necessary to choose between them.

The issue depends, not on the impersonal forces beloved by sciolists, but on the convictions of common men and their courage in acting on them. Whatever conclusions may be drawn from the history of the last decade, one, at least, is indisputable. It is that democracy is unstable as a political system, as long as it remains a political system and nothing more, instead of being, as it should be, not only a form of government, but a type of society, and a manner of life which is in harmony with that type. To make it a type of society requires an advance along two lines. It involves, in the first place, the resolute elimination of all forms of special privilege, which favour some groups and depress others, whether their source be differences of environment, of education, or of pecuniary income. It involves, in the second place, the conversion of economic power, now often an irresponsible tyrant, into the servant of society, working within clearly defined limits, and accountable for its action to a public authority.

Since to take these next steps is within our own power, we have less to fear from shocks from without than from nervelessness within. If, in this country, democracy falls, it will fall, not through any fortuitous combination of unfriendly circumstances, but from the insincerity of some of its professed defenders, and the timidity of the remainder. It will fall because, when there was still time to make it unassailable, public spirit was too weak, and class egotism too strong, for the opportunity to be seized. If it stands, it will stand, not because it has hitherto stood, but because ordinary men and women were determined that it should, and threw themselves with energy into broadening its foundations. To broaden its foundations means, in the conditions of to‐​day, to destroy plutocracy and to set in its place an equalitarian society. It is in the hope that this book may make some small contribution to that cause that it is now republished.