Friday, January 17, 2014

Worshipping Equality

More than a few of today’s clear-thinking, utterly rational atheists worship at the altar of the great god, Equality. It's not part of Judeo-Christianity. It's idolatry.

As Victor Davis Hanson describes it, they are treating Equality like a pagan idol, one whose bidding must be done, lest terrible torments descend on the Republic.

We take it as an article of faith that all men (and women) are created equal, but too often we imagine that “equal” means “same.”

Thus, we all believe that equal work should be paid equally. We fail to notice that there is, effectively, no such thing as equal work: two secretaries or two cobblers do not do the same work. And we do not question whether the government intervention required to decide whose work is equal to whose will not, effectively, render the labor market less efficient. And that without considering whether the best use of the nation’s resources lies in expanding the bureaucracy.

Obviously, equal pay for equal work will deprive employers of the freedom to pay their workers as they wish. But it will also deprive workers of the chance to compete for higher compensation.

Today we believe, correctly, that all adults should have an equal number of votes in elections. We base our judgment on Jefferson’s famous line in the Declaration of Independence: all men are created equal.

Of course, we forget that the first American constitution limited the franchise to white male adults who possessed property. Evidently, Jefferson believed that some men were more equal than others.

We should also note the earlier version of the line, from the Virginia Declaration of Rights:

…all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights of which . . . they cannot deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety….

Saying that all men are free to pursue their interests, to acquire and hold property and to enjoy life and liberty is not the same as saying that they are equal in all matters.

In a competitive economy, some win and some do not win. Some will have more and some will have less. It's the nature of the beast.

For those whose thought is infected with an unreal notion of equality, disparate outcomes create problems.

And yet, the questions are not fatuous. If we are all created equal why do some have so much more than others. Even if you believe that we do not possess equal skill and strength—we are not all equally competent to do calculus or to hit baseballs— why does a relatively slight difference in skill produce grossly disparate results.

The difference between Tiger Woods and a weekend golfer might be something like one shot a hole. How does it happen that Tiger Woods makes hundreds of millions of dollars while the weekend golfer has to pay greens fees?

In that case, the will of the people, expressed through the marketplace (television ratings) produces the disparity.  

But then, why is Bill Gates worth so much more than a janitor?

Apparently, it’s a function of the amount of wealth he has produced. In many ways, it still feels disproportionate, but confiscating wealth-- however good it might feel-- would surely dampen the entrepreneurial spirit in many people.

Those who worship the idol Equality tend to believe that those who have a disproportionate share of the national wealth have amassed it dishonestly. At times, they are seen to be criminals, people who have rigged the markets in their own favor.

Yet, in many cases, excessive government intervention—performed in order to equalize results—rigs the markets in favor of those who know how to profit from it. Today's economy is a shining example.

It should be underscored, that high status does not always mean great wealth. Besides, people who have great wealth are not always treated with commensurate respect and prestige. Witness celebrities.

When Hanson, following Tocqueville, says that people treat Equality as an idol, he means that they are denying the reality of human nature.

Human beings, like their primate forebears, live within status hierarchies. That means that some have more than others and some have less than others. In principle, position on the hierarchy is decided by competition.

Hierarchies are natural because they correspond to the aging process. With age comes wisdom, experience and responsibility. Being older means enjoying higher status, prestige and power, sometimes, but not always accompanied by greater wealth.

While some people earn their way up the status hierarchy, others are, as they say, to the manner born. By the accident of their birth they receive privileges that are not available to others. They might have more hours of tutoring or parents who are more verbal. They might have better nutrition and easier access to piano lessons.

Some who worship Equality consider these privileges to be an injustice. They want the government to run programs that give all children the same advantages. These include but are not limited to Head Start, which, as we now know, is largely ineffective in making up the gap between those more and less privileged.

They err when they see success uniquely as an individual's possessions. It is better to understand that pride in achievement is a shared emotion. If your brother or father or son succeeds you should share the pride. The same applies to status and prestige.

Many privileges were earned by hard-working parents. If they want to share the fruits of their labor with their children, why would anyone take offense? Many people are more motivated to help their children than to indulge themlselves. Ought they to be forbidden to do so?

You might believe that imposing onerous taxes on estates is a way to level the playing field, but if the children of privilege gain advantages by having brighter and more talented parents, how can one eliminate that advantage? And ought we to want to do so? Would society gain an advantage if everyone is reduced to the same level of mediocrity?

It would be nice if we could engineer a society filled with high achievers, but providing everyone with the equivalent of privilege is not a realistic possibility. If we convince those who have been less successful that the rich and the powerful are cheats they devote themselves to punishing those who have done better. This will, naturally make it more difficult for them to succeed.

Hanson wants to underscore this point. He notes that Tocqueville observed that a status hierarchy can inspire people to improve themselves or it can provoke a passion of equality that breeds resentment and envy.

If you want to produce equality by punishing those who have succeeded, you will be purchasing a cheap thrill while undermining your own chances to succeed. And you will be reducing everyone’s freedom to compete in the marketplace.

In Tocqueville’s words:

There is, in fact, a manly and lawful passion for equality which excites men to wish all to be powerful and honored. This passion tends to elevate the humble to the rank of the great; but there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level, and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom.”

Hanson also added an analysis of a similar sentiment, expressed by Hesiod:

As the ancient poet Hesiod noted, there are two sorts of human jealousies: the positive one of a free society in which citizens are impressed by the singular works of some and thus redouble their efforts to match or exceed them (“She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbor, a rich man who hastens to plow and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbor vies with his neighbor as he hurries after wealth”), and a destructive envy (“foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face”) in which the many resent that the few have something they do not, and thus redouble their efforts to either destroy them or take away what they have acquired.


blogger said...

But surely Hanson knows that the 'left' doesn't mean what it says.

All this yammering about 'equality' by Liberals is just to fool people into thinking that (1) something is being done by 'progressives' about the growing income gap and (2) it's all the Conservatives' fault.

Does anyone really think Democratic Hollywood moguls who rake in billions a year want to be equal with us?
Does anyone think Bill Clinton wants to give up his millions to be equal with a janitor?
Does anyone think all those well-paid and privileged Liberal professors at Yale and Harvard wanna be equal with grocery clerks and truck drivers?

All this 'equality' stuff is smoke-n-mirrors used by the 'left' to fool their minions that 'something is being done' for the sake of 'social justice'.
But in actual practice, the urban Liberal elites actually do things to increase their own wealth, privilege, and etc.

If Liberalism is all about 'equality', how come the most Liberal cities like San Fran, NY, Chicago, and etc. keep getting richer and richer while the rest of the nation sinks deeper into economic stagnation?

So much for 'equality'.
Given that the Democrats are the rich party getting richer and richer, it's rather funny watching conservatives berate Liberals about pushing 'equality'.
Obama bailed out Wall Street bankers and not a single big time bankster went to jail.
Liberal elites send their kids to Harvard and Yale, while conservative masses send their kids to the Middle East to come back in body bags or with missing limbs. Liberals sure are all about equality in suffering and sacrifice.

Anonymous said...

Aspirations for equal opportunity is an ideal not an idol. I can agree it is amazing we've gone as far as we have in trying to give everyone access to the benefits of society.

I recall the saying: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." -George Bernard Shaw

If a city with a budget of $10 million per year has ONE handicap person, does it makes sense to do $50 million in public building upgrades? Probably not, but if you have low interest 40 year bonds, perhaps it'll happen?

It might be more sensible for handicapped people to all move to a single "handicap friendly" city, and make better use of that amenity.

But in the world of equality, the courts can rule ALL PUBLIC BUILDINGS IN ALL CITIES must be handicap accessible, and as long as we can afford that, people may grumble, and we may or may not be better off in the long run.

Ares Olympus said...

There is a 2006 documentary about Ralph Nader, "An unreasonable man" that uses the Shaw quote, and focuses on his rise to fame with his book "Unsafe at any speed" in the campaign to get safety belts in cars.

Equality is an ideal like "safety" - you can never be perfectly equal, perfect access to opportunity, and can never be perfectly safe, so if you set these as virtues, you may fail to find the wisdom to know when to say enough, whether by cost, or wasted time trying to follow tangled and contradictory regulations.

So if you can't see ideals can never be achieved in reality, then it is an idol or "ideology" that makes you a bully to those who have to pay against their will.

Unknown said...

Is this an error? "to the manner born", shouldn't this be "to the manor born"? Or is this something very clever that I haven't figured out yet?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

What, me err...

The usual phrase is "to the manor born." The variant, which I used, dates to Shakespeare, first appeared in Hamlet:

But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.