Humble equality vs. haughty equality
In the history of the United States, the word equality has been held in the highest esteem. It has also been subjected to a multitude of meanings. Our understanding of equality has drifted far from what it was when Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” In Jefferson’s day, had one seen one man rich and one man poor, he would wonder if the two men we being treated equally in the civil realm. If they were, then the two men would have been considered equal. This is humble equality. Now, when one sees the same sight, he assumes that there must be an inequality between the two that society must rectify. This is haughty equality.
First, let us look at the concept of humble equality—that we can only level the playing field in the public realm (law, the courts, government, etc.) by ensuring that people are treated equally regardless of race, class, and gender. We do not know you should live your life, nor do we know how you should run your business. You have the same chances to succeed, and fail, as we grant ourselves. We do not care how you live your life not because we are mean or selfish, but because we are simply not qualified. Sadly, we are in the minority.
Now, let us contrast that with haughty equality. Such equality, in fact, is not equality at all. It is illusory. It relies on a fundamental inequality—that some people know, better than you, what you should have or how you should live your life. In thinking about equality, it is an amazing proposition—that people are truly not equal, and should not be treated equally, so that they may appear equal to observers. It is also an incredibly dangerous proposition, since it relies on people to determine what way of life is good and how to enforce it.
Imagine you come upon two people, one rich and depressed, the other poor and happy. They are clearly not equal and your goal is to change that. What do you do to change it? Do you take from the rich man to give to the poor man on the rationale that money is good and the poor man does not have enough? Do you do the same thing on the rationale that the rich man is too rich to be happy? Do you reckon that the poor man is happy as he is and take from the rich man to make him emulate the poor man, keeping the takings for yourself? What is the right course of action for these people? How do you know? Do you even care what is right for them, instead focusing on what you think is right?
How much information would it take for you to make a good decision in this case? Would you need to know why the rich man is depressed? What if he were normally quite happy but had just lost a close relative? Would that impact your decision? What if he had gotten where he is by betraying everyone around him and he was burdened by guilt? What if he were suffering from cancer and needed the money to fight it?
What about the poor man? Would you like to know why he is happy? What if he were married to someone wonderful and wanted nothing more than he had? What if he were about to have a child? What if he were an artist or writer who cherished the way he lived?
Would you make a better decision if you knew any of those things? Absolutely. If the rich man were suffering from cancer and needed his riches to fight it, you would (hopefully) find it unconscionable to take some of those riches to give to a happy, albeit poor man. Likewise, if the poor man actually cherished his lifestyle, you would probably think it futile to give him riches he did not want.
Believe it or not, I gave you more information about the two men than most “haughty equality” crusaders have. Usually, they can only see the cold bottom line: one man makes a lot of money, another makes a little money. They, based on this, decide that the rich man should—must—give up some of his riches to help the poor man. Of course, they do not often deal with two individuals. Instead, they seek, through government, to impose their beliefs on a multitude of individuals—a multitude of lives, of circumstances, of temperaments.
They may deprive a rich man dying of cancer the money he needs to save his life. They may give money to a poor man who does not want or need it. It does not matter. The advocates know, by virtue of intelligence and belief, what is good for each of those individuals even without knowing the details of each life. The advocates are more equal than the multitudes they impact.
This ego trip, though, is not the end of the issue. If, in a democracy, a minority used its power to the detriment of the majority, they would not hold that power long. The “haughty equality” advocates always manage to garner a good amount of support for their efforts. How? The advocates get a good number of people to believe that they will benefit from the scheme. Listen to FDR, perhaps the greatest of the “haughty equality” advocates:
The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.
These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding straight of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.
Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement. As examples:
We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.
We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.
We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it.
I have called for personal sacrifice, and I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call. A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes. In my budget message I will recommend that a greater portion of this great defense program be paid for from taxation than we are paying for today. No person should try, or be allowed to get rich out of the program, and the principle of tax payments in accordance with ability to pay should be constantly before our eyes to guide our legislation.
-From FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech.
With words like this FDR convinced an entire generation to trade away their liberty, and the liberty of their fellow citizens, in return for the promise of a brighter future. Roosevelt convinced a good part of the American population that the government could make better decisions for them than they could themselves. They saw the promise of mighty civic heroes acting to save them from the vagaries of circumstance.
The decision to give up control of one’s life to another, of course, is one every individual is free to make. The problem here is not that people are choosing to do this for themselves, but rather they are choosing to do it through the state, an institution that affects everyone. We all participate in and pay for FDR’s “great defense” program, even though a good number of us would rather not. Because FDR’s program is run through the state, a democracy, our preferences were ignored in favor of the majority.
Sadly, this process has been repeated time and again in this country and many others. Time and again, people decide that they deserve to run the lives of others. Time and again, they convince those others that they should be running their lives. Time and again, they will do this in the name of equality. Time and again, these people declare themselves more equal than others. Time and again, these people inflict harm. Yet, if enough time passes, it will happen again, unless we stop it. We should not bow to “haughty equality” again.
(Cross-posted at News, the Universe, and Everything.)