January 18, 1994 | Lecture on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

The Injustice of Equality


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The Injustice of Equality

By Russell Kirk

Let me commence with two aphorisms, widely separated in time and substance. The first is the observation of Aristotle that it is unjust to treat unequal things equally. The second -is.thb: declaration of Marx-that to establish- equality,-first. we must es t ablish inequality. These two assumptions have been at war one with the other during the twentieth century. What did Aristotle mean by writing that to treat unequal things equally is unjust? He meant that not all human beings are worthy of the same deserts , that not all actions are equally honorable and commendable, that not all works are of equally enduring value; so to confer equal rewards upon ex- cellence and mediocrity would be profoundly unjust to the more deserving of praise. "To each his own." What d id Marx mean by asserting that inequality must be established before equality might be at- tained? He meant that the mighty must be pulled down from their seats, the alleged exploiters expro- priated, whole classes destroyed-presumably by a general blood- l etting- before the earthly paradise of communism might be realized. The bourgeois and all other opponents of socialist pro- gress must be thoroughly discriminated against bythe revolutionary proletariat. The bourgeois should be indulged no equality with t h e son of toil. The Marxist regime in the Soviet Union fell at last after seven decades of terror and suffering; but the notion that "social justice" means equality of condition still works among us. In the connection, I commend you to three books: F. A. H a yek's The Mirage of Social Justice; Helmut Schoeck's Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior; and Gonzalo Femandex de la Mora's Egalitarian Envy: The Po- litical Foundations of Social Justice. The second book is by a German, the third by a Spaniard; it is a sig n of the surviving domination of socialist assumptions about justice in America that these latter books scarcely were reviewed at all in the United States, though editions of both were published here. They deny the notion that there can exist a perfect soc i al justice, attainable by positive law and social engineering; and their authors are agreed that the perfectly egalitarian society would be an un- just society. Let me suggest, also, that those present today would find a keen analysis of socialist er- ror s about justice in a book of yesteryear of which I brought out a new edition some three years ago: W. H. Mallock's A Critical Examination of Socialism. All the four authors I mentioned a moment ago touch upon the vice of envy and its ruinous per- sonal and social consequences. To that vice the Marxists appealed successfully in much of the world. "Why shouldst thou sit, and I stand?" cries incarnate Envy, in Marlowe's play Dr. Faustus. "Come away!" Social justice will be attained, the poor are told, when the y have unseated the afflu- ent and supplanted them in their possessions. Such doctrines have devastated most of Asia and Af- rica ever since the Second World War, causing the massacre of the old leading classes, most hideously in the Congo-now Zaire-Portug ese Timor, Portuguese Guinea, Chad, Viet Nam, Cam- bodia, and China. Yet the earthly paradise of social justice did not result from this slaughter: instead,

Russell Kirk is a Distinguished Scholar at The Heritage Foundation. He spoke at The Heritage Found ation on October 15, 1993, delivering the third in a series of lectures on "The Future of Justice." The first lecture in the series, "The Meaning of Justice," was published as Heritage Lecture No. 457 on March 4, 1993, and the second, "Me Case For and Aga inst Natural Law," was published as Heritage Lecture No. 469 on July 15,1993. ISSN 0272-1155. Q 1994 by The Heritage Foundation.

squalid oligarchs and men of blood succeeded to power, and general impoverishment has been expe- rienced. Perhaps we see toda y the beginning of such a progress toward social justice in the Republic of South Africa. Such is the justice of "the good old rule, the good old plan, that they shall take who have the power, and they shall keep who can." Until recent decades, neverthele s s, socially ruinous envy of this sort was not really powerful in the United States, and did not provoke a powerful political movement for such a restructuring of the economy as would even the scores. During several years of the Great Depression, my parent s and my little sister-.andd lived in-an old -dwelling--near-the -railway yards at-Plymouth, Michigan, my fa- ther being a'railroad engineman. Ourhouse had no bathroom; its necessarium was an outdoor privy, inconvenient under snow. (We had thought we were b uying the house on land contract, but it turned out that the man who pretended to sell the dwelling to us had no proper title to it himself, and so my parents lost their investment and went back to renting; they never did succeed in owning any house, life l ong.) Weekly there arrived in our house the newspaper of the Railway Brotherhoods, entitled Labor. In almost every issue there appeared a cartoon of a literally bloated Capitalist, in evening dress, smoking a bloated cigar; and such exploiters of the work ing poor were denounced in editori- als.

But these circumstances and publications did not wake envy in my parents. They took it for granted that some people, whether by talent or by inheritance or by mere chance, prosper materially in life, while other peo ple do not; this, they knew, was in the nature of things. They had a subsis- tence, and kinfolk, and love. The caricatures of the Bloated Capitalist did not rouse my father's wrath; my father did indeed think that the railroads were ill-managed, and that i ncreasing centraliza- tion of the economy was to be regretted, and that pride would have a fall on Wall Street, as indeed came to pass; but I never heard my parents utter a word of envy. Things will be as they will be, they took it. Blessed are those chil d ren reared in a household innocent of the deadly sin of envy. Their lives will not be tormented by a grinding resentment that they are not beautiful, or famous, or favored with the gifts of fortune. They will not demand as a natural right or an entitlemen t a presumptuous personal equality with everybody under the sun; nor maintain that their opinions are as good as any- body else's. They will not covet a neighbor's goods. And thus they may come to know peace of soul. They will perceive the wisdom in these lines of a very early poem in Scots vernacular:

I saw this written on a wall: In what estate, man, that thoufall Accept thy lot, and thank thy God of all.

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But I do not mean to imply that every form of equality is the work of env y. The Christian doctrine of equality has worked much moral good. This is the teaching that all souls are equal in the ultimate judgment of God; that God is no respecter of persons. Yet God separates the goats from the sheep; in my Father's house are many mansions, but they are not all on the same floor. God's ultimate judgment is not affected by rank and station, wealth or power, here below. All that matters, in the end, is goodness of heart; so sometimes the last, at the judgment seat, shall be first. An d the jurisprudential principle of equal justice under law, too, has worked much social good. The law also is no respecter of persons: the king himself is under the law, as Bracton put it in medie- val times. Neither in civil nor in criminal cases, declare s the system of law which Americans have inherited from Britain, does any class of persons enjoy privileges or immunities. This doctrine keeps the peace; and to keep the peace is the object of all law.

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Whether political equality has worked much good is another matter. In most of the world, at- tempts at enduring and peaceful democracy have failed. Constitutional democracy of the successful sort has been confined chiefly to English-speaking countries, which have inherited the British his- torical expe r ience. And even in such countries, who can doubt that democracy, political equality, is in grave trouble nowadays? Is not the United States being converted into a "plebiscitary democ- racy," with an election of the temporary dictator every four years, act u ally governed by a central- ized bureaucracy nominally under the supervision of a body of squabbling politicians. How much genuine democracy of the sort discerned in America. by Tocqueville, what Brownson called 11territo- rial democracy.," Will remain by the middle oifthe iwenity-firsi &ifturOlvenloday, indeed, how much political equality remains in elections determined chiefly by what candidates have the most money to spend on television broadcasts? But political equality is too large and complex a subje c t for me to discuss today. I turn, therefore to the subject of equality of condition-that is, equality of incomes and other material rewards, equality in education, equality of mores, manners, lodgings, and tastes. It is this envious passion for equality o f condition against which Tocqueville warned his time and ours. The total triumph of the doctrine of equality of condition would be a triumph of injustice. Unthinking demands for an equal- ity allegedly just notwithstanding, a society in which everybody s h ould be precisely in the condition of everybody else would be a thoroughly unjust society. Zealots throughout the centuries have endeavored to establish communities totally egalitarian; all those endeavors have failed after much suffering. Utopians in the Greek and Roman eras, the Level- lers and Diggers of England in the seventeenth century, Babeuf and his fellow conspirators of 1791, and the communist ideologues who held power in the Russian system for seven decades-these are only some of the enthusiasts for equality who for a time established a domination of equality in mis- ery, collapsing soon or late because contrary to human nature. Yet, as Hegel wrote, we learn from history that we learn nothing from history. What failed disastrously in the late Sov i et Union, a good many Americans now seek to enact in these United States. The instrument of the doctrinaire egalitarian in America is not violent revolution, but employment of taxation-which, as John Marshall declared in the Dartmouth College case, is the power to de- stroy. A leveller pulls down the more prosperous classes in society through crushing taxation, levied to pay for "entitlements" for an abstraction called The Poor-in effect, to maintain a growing prole- tariat that contribute nothing much to s ociety except their offspring. Rostovtzeff and other writers on Roman times have drawn the analogy between bread and circuses and the modem dole or "wel- fare" measures: in the Empire, the emperor with his soldiery united with the Roman mob to extort reve n ue from the propertied classes-until at last the ancient economy collapsed, and the frontiers could not be defended. Clinton Caesar, eager to placate the Welfare Lobby, proposes to establish new overwhelming "entitlements," particularly medical ones, to b e paid for by employers-for of course the wealth of employers is assumed to be inexhaustible. As in the age of Diocletian men fled from public offices, lest they be taxed and regulated to extinction, so by the approaching end of this century employers may b e inclined to flee to some other condition of life-but to what? The mentality of the American leveller nowadays may be sufficiently suggested by a proposal ad- vanced by some of Clinton's inner circle but not presented to the Congress. This was a new tax: a levy upon persons dwelling in large houses. If the residence should contain rooms which might have been rented, had the owner desired, to paying lodgers (or perhaps non-paying homeless per- sons)-why, the owner of the dwelling would be taxed for the roo m s that might have been occu- pied by other people. This tax would have been a federal levy, not a local real-property assessment. It is just the sort of tax to have been devised by some former hippie, now a bureaucrat, spiritually akin to President Clinto n, former hippie himself. The real purpose of this strange proposal clearly was punitive, meant to punish those wicked rich who possessed spare bedrooms. Make them pay

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through the nose for such undemocratic private possession of domestic amenities! An Englishman's home once upon a time may have been his castle; but now an American's home should be his own only upon the sufferance of the Washington bureaucracy. If such a one should lodge homeless per- sons in his dining room, say, he might be indulged in a partial remission of taxes. One is reminded of housing in Moscow about the year 1919, when the communist regime requisitioned even the lava- tories of private residence s as night lodging for the underprivileged. Envious egalitarianism as im- plemented by Clintonian zealots might not be satisfied until the whole population of this land should be lodged in immobilized "mobile homes"-a universal rookery of trailer camps. Wh y should i@iybo'dy be..lndulgcd in dome.siic cornioits''n6i"r,eadily i@_aiiablezlo-@ ill'.6tizens? Have I carried to absurdity my argument against equality of condition? Nay, not so; for the enthu- siasts for total equality are not to be satisfied with sma l l concessions. I commend to you a dystopia, a longish short story, by Jacquetta Hawkes, that brilliant Englishwoman of diverse talents, publish- ed in her collection Fables-which volume appeared in 1952, during Britain's disagreeable experi- ence with a s o cialist regime. This fable is entitled "The Unites." God, having sensed no impulses from the planet Earth for a long while, dispatches a humble angel to investigate and report to Him. This emissary, who had vis- ited Earth once long, long before, discover s on this later expedition that humankind has suffered a startling change for the worse. No longer, indeed, do men and women call themselves humans: they style themselves "Unites," for all are united in a kind of sub-human state, everybody precisely like e v erybody else. These degenerate beings live in some 500,000 Life Units dispersed about the globe, and subsist by primitive agriculture. Private property has been abolished altogether. Every Life Unit consists of four standard tenements: the Pink Block for t he young, the Green Block for the cultiva- tors, the Red Block for the industrial workers, the Black Block for the administrators and the govern- ments. Kinship and family life have been swept away, as disruptive of social unity. If equality is the whole a im of existence, why should one person outlive another? There must be equality in death as in life. So on attaining the age of sixty-six, the older Unites are herded into the Finis Chamber of the Black Block, suffocated there, and their bodies incinerated . The only amusement in these Life Unit communes is a colossal sort of motor-drome in which some of the performers bloodily perish, to the crowd's satisfaction.

In short, through the doctrine of equality of condition what once was the human race has trans- formed itself into a moral condition scarcely distinguishable from that of the beasts which perish. And yet a few true human beings, eager to subvert this life-in-death, have survived somehow in Life Unit 1457. The visiting angel learns that this handful of young people are contriving to bring down the dreary system of equality. Indeed their slogan "Equality must be destroyed" prevails; the stupid- ity of the egalitarian administrators cannot resist the innovators; and in one Life Unit, at least, in- equa l ity is happily triumphant. But even so, the angel detects some ideologue of equality plotting already to bring back equal misery; thus the struggle between the forces of individual achievement and the forces of equality runs on in human societies. There a re no lost causes because there are no gained causes.

Jacquetta Hawkes's fable or parable is set in a distant future; but in the closing decade of this cen- tury we move in that egalitarian direction. Equality is demanded in politics and in monetary in- com es; more, it is demanded in formal education. My wife, Annette, ten years ago was a member of the Commission on Excellence in Education appointed by President Reagan. She promptly found that many folks in the federal Department of Education, and many educ ationists in teachers' col- leges and teachers' unions, were concerned chiefly for what they called "equity"-that is, equality, sameness, at every level of schooling. Some insisted that American education must have both excel-

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lence and equity, a mani fest absurdity: for the word "excellence" means to exceed, of course, to do better than others; while "equity," or uniformity, necessarily implies mediocrity. The more equality in schooling, the lower the achievement; and the greater the injustice toward s tudents possessed of some talents. Forty years ago, I resigned a university post in disgust at a deliberate policy of lower- ing standards in the interest of "equity"-that is accommodating more students who, from stupidity or indolence, ought not to have b een admitted to a university at all. In general, American standards for an education allegedly "higher" have declined still more since I departed from the Ivory Tower. Egalitarian-pressures. are exerted.-in -virtually. every: country.-to push into the.-un i versities most of Ahe rising generatidn.- however dull; bored, or feckless a young -person may be. The consequence of this movement is to make the higher learning lower. Avoiding the dullness of most graduate studies in the United States, in 1948 1 went a b road for my higher learning-to St. Andrews University, still somewhat medieval in appearance, the oldest of Scottish universities, situated in a charming medie- val town. Nowadays St. Andrews is under political pressure to change its character by admittin g many more students, which would destroy the tradition of learning there by the North Sea. For what reason? Why, to "give everybody his chance." Perhaps we ought to confer the doctorate upon every infant at birth, and reserve the universities for people r e ally interested in right reason and imagina- tion, so eliminating degree-snobbery and degree-envy. The present disorders of the intellect on most campuses result from the combination of ideologue egalitarians among the professors with ignorant and bored s tudents.

Permit me to suggest some probable long-run consequences of national infatuation with equality of condition. First, great injury to the leading class that every society requires for its success. This leading class is not identical with sociological "elites"; to ascertain the distinction, read T. S. Eliot's slim book Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. This leading class, even in the American democracy, is made up of public-spirited men and women of property; well-educated professional folk, la w yers among them; honest politicians who take long views; publishers and writers who help to shape pub- lic opinion on a diversity of matters; the clergy; persons experienced in military affairs, foreign af- fairs, and the arts of political administration; local leaders in charitable and civic concerns; those people of industry and commerce who know that there is more to life than getting and spending. I am even willing to acknowledge among this leading class some of the better professors of arts and scienc e s-although Nietzsche reminds us that in politics the professor always plays the comic role. The authority of this class of persons in America has been declining in recent decades, from a va- riety of causes; and the decay in public and private morality, t h e decadence of education, the shal- low populist tone of our politics, and a number of other afflictions result in considerable part from that decline of authority. Now a renewed demand for levelling assails this leading class. For one thing, it was possi b le for members of this leading class to take part in public and charitable con- cerns, and to set the whole tone of life in their communities, because most of them possessed some private means; they were not daily money-grubbing. Increasingly this class i s being pushed to the wall by heavy-nay, savage-taxation. Most people here will have noticed how in the past few years various deductions and exemptions have been eliminated from income-tax returns, particu- larly for persons with incomes exceeding $ 100,0 0 0; for such folk, medical deductions from income are a thing of the past. Now the Clinton Administration imposes new burdens, falling principally upon the class I have just been describing. Many will pay more than half their incomes in taxes= federal and state income taxes, real-property taxes, sales taxes, and the rest. What margin will re- main for such people to exercise the functions of voluntary leadership?

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The late Michael Harrington, a few years past, was addressing a crowd of poor people. He said that too many affluent people were paying less than half their incomes in income tax. He was sur- prised by the reaction of his audience. They were indignant at Harrington's proposal that the state should take more than half a man's income, however l a rge that income. "That's just not fair." some of them cried. His audience was right and Harrington wrong. And perhaps some in his audience per- ceived, better than did Harrington, what would happen to a society-including persons of very mod- est incomes-i n which the Leviathan state should kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Already many.-of&you: her-e-.Ioday,-and for-that .matter your servant, are,paying more than half their incomes in taxatiod.'Otjr time occupied-in trying to make ends meet-, how mu c h leadership shall we be able to offer? More and more, in such circumstances, the remnant of authority and the power of decision-making are usurped by a centralized bureaucracy-and in the name of "democracy." Second, an obsession with equality commonly re s ults in general impoverishment, by diminishing saving and capital accumulation, and by "humanitarian" welfare measures that diminish the incen- tive to work for one's own subsistence. Egalitarian "entitlements" already have so increased the na- tional deb t that, as matters are drifting, the amount of interest on the national debt, annually, will come to exceed the total federal revenues collected by the present tax structure! Decreased economic productivity, caused by a virtual oppression of industry and c o mmerce, will afflict the poor worst of all-even though the mistaken policies of government were undertaken in the name of equality of condition for the alleged poor. A third consequence of deliberate levelling in society would be grave intellectual damage , already in progress. Over the centuries there was developed in all civilized countries an elaborate edifice of schooling, originally religious in character, meant to impart some measure of wisdom and virtue to the rising generation. Aristotle instructs u s that the process of learning cannot be made easy. The higher learning is concerned necessarily with abstractions, in large part; but the common man tends to dislike abstractions. As T. S. Eliot said once, there ought to be many different kinds of educati o n for many different kinds of people; but the egalitarian zealot would enforce uniformity of schooling, perhaps of the "outcomes education" sort to produce conditioned responses, now being pushed in Virginia, Michigan, and other states. The black-militant outcry against the study of the works of "dead white males" suggests what a thoroughly egalitarian system of schooling would discard. Thought always is painful; so let us get on with the rap sessions. Those intellectual disciplines that nurture right reas o n and moral imagination, requiring real thought, are unpopular with the egalitarian, who regards them as archaic and snobbish. The egalitar- ian much prefers utilitarian schooling and vague "social studies." But both private wisdom and pub- lic order requ i re that a substantial number of people be well acquainted with genuine works of the mind. The natural sciences, humane studies, and the philosophical habit of mind neglected, the per- son and the republic sink into ignorance and apathy; but the egalitaria n zealot does not perceive these ruinous consequences until the decline no longer can be arrested. The condition of most of our public schools today, and the inferior performance of most colleges and universities by contrast with their work half a century a go, ought to suggest to us how far, as a people, we already have slipped down the slope toward intellectual failure. What I say of American education is quite as true of British education nowadays, and, with few exceptions of Europe generally. But the edu cational egalitarian is not deterred-not quite yet: so long as "everybody has equal opportunity" to spend four or flve years in an educational establishment professedly higher, social justice has been achieved, he fancies.

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In short, ladies and gentlemen, I have been arguing that it is profoundly unjust to endeavor to transform society into a tableland of equality. It would be unjust to the energetic, reduced to equal- ity with the slack and indolent; it would be unjust to the imagina t ive, compelled to share the school- ing and the tastes of the dull; it would be unjust to the thrifty, compelled to make up for the losses of the profligate; it would be unjust to those who take long views, forced to submit to the domina- tion of a majori t y interested chiefly in short-run results. But I shall not labor this point, already made forcefully by Alexis de Tocqueville and other writ- ers whosetalents,e@xceed myrown.-Theegalitarian society., -far from satisfying....desires for "social jus- tice," would be unjUst to the very- people who made possible a tolerably orderly and prosperous society. Eric Voegelin remarks that the tolerably just society is one in which the more aspiring na- tures are free to exercise their talents, but the large majority o f people, who desire merely a quiet life, are secured against oppression by the aspiring natures. Mediocre necessarily, the egalitarian so- ciety would discourage or suppress enterprising talents-which would result in social stagnation. Life in a social t a bleland of equality would be infinitely boring. Yet don't I believe in equality of opportunity? No, friends, I do not. The thing is not possible. First of all, genetic differences cannot be surmounted between individual and individual; Thomas Jefferson an d the whole school of "created free and equal" knew nothing whatsoever of human ge- netics, a science of the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Second, opportunity depends greatly upon family background and nurturing; and unless it is proposed to sweep away the family altogether, as in Jacquetta Hawkes's fable, the rising generation of one stock will differ greatly in opportunity from the rising generation of a different family. For instance, I read every evening to my four little daughters, or to l d them stories; while my neighbors did not so instruct and converse with their children; accordingly, my children have enjoyed superior opportunities in life. It would be outrageously unjust to try somehow to wipe out these advantages of genetic inheritan ce or famil- ial instruction.

Inequality is the natural condition of human beings; charity may assist those not favored by na- ture; but attempts to impose an artificial equality of condition and intellect, although in the long run they fail, meanwhile can work great mischief in any s ociety, and-still worse-damage human na- ture itself.

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