The conflict between formal justice and formal equality before the law, on the one hand, and the attempts to realize various ideals of substantive justice and equality, on the other, also accounts for the widespread confusion about the concept of “privilege” and its consequent abuse. To mention only the most important instance of this abuse–the application of the term “privilege” to property as such. It would indeed be privilege if, for example, as has sometimes been the case in the past, landed property were reserved to members of the nobility. And it is privilege if, as is true in our time, the right to produce or sell particular things is reserved to particular people designated by authority. But to call private property as such, which all can acquire under the same rules, a privilege, because only some succeed in acquiring it, is depriving the word “privilege” of its meaning.
This is from Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 1944, pp. 88-89.
I said in my previous post on privilege that I would give my own view. My view of privilege is similar to Hayek’s. The key is that government grants certain items or permissions to some that it withholds from others.
To take an example from current-day America, in New York City few people are allowed to carry concealed handguns or even handguns at all. Among those few are the bodyguards of Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg and they are privileged. You might argue that that’s because if he were unprotected, then he, being a high-profile person, would be at great risk of being murdered. But there are probably people in Harlem whom you and I have never heard of who are at as great, or greater, risk of being murdered but who are not allowed to carry handguns.
There is a very important way that I am privileged and that a lot of readers are privileged: we have U.S. citizenship. Now I had to work harder to my citizenship that the vast majority of Americans. But still, they and I are privileged. Although we can get stopped at the border, once we answer some questions, we are free to enter the United States. Most of the people in the world are not free to enter the United States and look for a job. My U.S. citizenship is probably my most important privilege.
Reading through the above, I realize that there is a sense in which my holding property in coastal California is a privilege in the Hayekian sense. My wife and I bought a small house in 1986. Because of increasing restrictions on building, it has appreciated in real terms quite a lot. So we got something that other people starting out today are not as easily able to get–because government has made it harder for them than it made it for us.