F. Hayek, Equal distribution of wealth would have hindered our progress

The problems of equality are difficult to discuss dispassionately when members of our own community are affected. They stand out more clearly when we consider them in their wider aspect, namely, the relation between rich and poor countries. We are then less apt to be misled by the conception that each member of any community has some natural right to a definite share of the income of his group. Although today most of the people of the world benefit from one another’s efforts, we certainly have no reason to consider the product of the world as the result of a unified effort of collective humanity.

Although the fact that the people of the West are today so far ahead of the others in wealth is in part the consequence of a greater accumulation of capital, it is mainly the result of their more effective utilization of knowledge.

There can be little doubt that the prospect of the poorer, “undeveloped” countries reaching the present level of the West is very much better than it would have been, had the West not pulled so far ahead. Furthermore, it is better than it would have been, had some world authority, in the course of the rise of modern civilization, seen to it that no part pulled too far ahead of the rest and made sure at each step that the material benefits were distributed evenly throughout the world.

If today some nations can in a few decades acquire a level of material comfort that took the West hundreds or thousands of years to achieve, is it not evident that their path has been made easier by the fact that the West was not forced to share its material achievements with the rest—that it was not held back but was able to move far in advance of the others?

Not only are the countries of the West richer because they have more advanced technological knowledge, but they have more advanced technological knowledge because they are richer. And the free gift of the knowledge that has cost those in the lead much to achieve enables those who follow to reach the same level at a much smaller cost…

It is worth remembering in this connection that what enables a country to lead in this worldwide development are its economically most advanced classes and that a country that deliberately levels such differences also abdicates its leading position—as the example of Great Britain so tragically shows.

All classes there had profited from the fact that a rich class with old traditions had demanded products of a quality and taste unsurpassed elsewhere and that Britain, in consequence, came to supply to the rest of the world. British leadership has gone with the disappearance of the class whose style of living the others imitated. It may not be long before the British workers will discover that they had profited by being members of a community containing many persons richer than they and that their lead over the workers in other countries was in part an effect of a similar lead of their own rich over the rich in other countries.