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Although the socialist tradition is much more diverse than this choice suggests, we will focus on the ideas of Karl Marx (1818–1883) as exemplary of the socialist critique of liberal capitalism. The political economic philosophy of Marx approaches economic inequalities with a concern for freedom, rejecting the liberal assumption that economic inequalities do not affect political equalities and breaking with both the republican and liberal traditions by focusing on the inequalities of neither individuals nor citizens but entire classes. For Marx, the most fundamentally problematic inequality is that between those who own the means of economic production and those who do not. That some are rich and others poor is of concern, but this is only symptomatic of the former, deeper inequality. Moreover, from a Marxist perspective, inequalities that seem not to be economic in nature—inequalities between the sexes, for instance—are outgrowths of the fundamental economic inequality that forms the basis of a capitalist political economic system.

In a capitalist political economy it is not just the economy that is driven and controlled by the capitalist class. All the institutions of society, or superstructure of society, rest on an economic base and serve to legitimate but also disguise that base. The ideologies of liberal democracy only serve to legitimate what is in fact a system of freedom and democracy only for some. The political equality emphasized by liberals is but a veil for the economic inequality that is so fundamental to a capitalist society and so detrimental to human freedom.

For Marx, the central normative problem with capitalism is not simply the poverty or powerlessness of the proletariat or the inequality between the classes in and of itself. The central problem is that no one is truly free in a capitalist regime. According to Marx the fundamental nature of our species is to produce—ideas and art as well as the material objects necessary for survival. By appropriating the workers' product, capitalism denies them, or alienates them from, their fundamental nature. In this alienation workers are unfree, because they are unable to become their fully human selves. Even members of the bourgeoisie are unfree, because in using others to produce for them they are also alienated from their nature as producers. Freedom, then, would be the end of alienation and the realization of humanity's species being as producers. A classless society, in which all own the means of production and all are producers in the deepest sense, is the only means of achieving the end of alienation and therefore freedom (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844). As for other thinkers, equality is not an end in itself for Marx. Instead, equality in ownership and control of the means of production is a necessary prerequisite for freedom.

There are several important developments in contemporary thought about what equality means and which equalities matter. In contemporary capitalist democracies, political theorists and philosophers still debate whether or not the economic inequalities generated by a capitalist economy are consistent with political equality. Defenders of the theories and practices of capitalism, such as F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, argue that if a political economic system provides all persons with an equal opportunity to succeed, then inequality of outcome or result is acceptable. That some are rich and others poor fairly reflects individuals' differing aptitudes, work ethics, and even luck. Free markets, according to such thinkers, justly distribute the economic products of a society among its members because they reward economic contributions on the basis of existing demand for those contributions. Efforts to equalize the living standards of rich and poor would rely on coercive governmental power that would sacrifice individual freedom and rights to a kind of equality that may not even be politically important. For such thinkers, then, economic inequality is not problem as long as political equality—equal rights and capacities to participate in political processes—exists.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEquality - Overview - Ancient Views Of Equality, Equality In The Church And The Protestant Reformation, Liberalism, Civic Republicanism, And The Age Of Revolution