Equality is one of the key values of Liberalism. Thomas Jefferson of course most famously framed it as “all men are created equal,” while the French Revolution pledged itself to “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” These days it is held up as a rallying cry in all areas of life: Gender Equality, Income Equality, Marriage Equality, and so on.
This is, I believe, a horrible mistake. Equality is fundamentally not something that ought to be sought in society.
Or rather, it should not be held up as an ideal. Of course, the law ought to apply to all equally, which is to say that there is one law for all citizens, as there is one for all men, and no one should be exempt from it. If this is what Mr. Jefferson meant, then I have no quarrel with him, and indeed I believe this is how most Conservatives would take the words.
Who or What Defines Actual Equality?
But there is a catch even with regards the law, one which we are in the process of discovering. It is that ‘equal’ is an ambiguous term, and what one person considers equal treatment may seem unfair to another, depending on what factors they consider relevant.
Say you have a law that requires employers pay all employees “equal pay for equal work.” Who determines what constitutes equal work? Who decides which factors may justly make a given employee more or less valuable to their employer? Say there are two employees, both doing the same job, but one has a history of leaving jobs without notice. Would the employer be justified in hedging his bets by paying that person less than he would otherwise?
The important point isn’t what answer you or I would give; the point is that people may legitimately disagree on the subject so that one person may call that equal treatment while another may call it unequal.
Which raises a more fundamental issue. Before you can say any two things are equal, you first have to have a common and objective standard of measurement between them. I can say that two people are of equal height because ‘height’ is an empirical measurement. But honesty, virtue, intelligence, wisdom, kindness, talent, beauty, and all the other factors by which we judge men are not empirically measurable (an IQ score is not an objective measure of intelligence, so that a man with an IQ of 100 is exactly twenty points smarter than a man with 80. It only serves, at best, to give a general idea of relative intelligence).
Thus, ‘equality’ cannot really apply to human beings in any meaningful sense. You cannot measure, say, wisdom and create a scale by which one man can be compared to another. We can identify these things to a greater or lesser degree, but we cannot empirically measure them. Moreover, these qualities are incommensurable: they cannot be compared one to another (how does talent measure up against wisdom? how many ‘units’ of beauty are equal to a single unit of virtue?). Moreover, even if we could, anyone can see that we would not, in fact, find ‘equality’ even between any two given individuals, let alone across the entire human race.
What this all amounts to is that ‘equality’ is simply meaningless when applied to human beings. Law is ‘equal’ in the sense of applying indiscriminately among the population (‘indiscriminate’ would probably would be a better term in the first place), but to say that all men are ‘equal’ in any other sense is simply a misuse of language, like saying that painting is on a level with music. The point is that there is no ‘level’ by which the two can be compared.
Hierarchies Are Natural and Logical
Now, there is one more possible way that ‘equality’ could conceivably be applied to human society: that there ought to be no ‘classes’ or ‘ranks’ in society, but only a pure meritocracy, or a purely level social environment, where no one’s wealth or status was any higher than anyone else’s. If someone truly means that, however, then I think they are asking for something that never has and never can exist.
The fact is that there is no such thing as a classless society, even if you try to specifically design a society to be so. Even in the early Church, the Apostles soon discovered they couldn’t both preach and minister to those in need, so they selected assistants to take on the majority of the ministry while they dedicated themselves to preaching the Word. “It is not right that we should neglect the Word to wait at tables” (Acts 6: 2). The Apostles thus assumed leadership roles, relegating the bulk of the day-to-day tasks to others. The same process awaits in any group of humans that grows beyond a certain size; simple division of labor demands that someone will have to focus on the immediate, someone else will have to attend to the big picture, and the latter will, by definition, have a broader scope of authority than the former.
In addition, there is simply the fact that those who have common work and common experiences will tend to band together and support one another in friendship, while those who do not will not, and that those who achieve more will naturally earn more, whether of wealth or of honor, simply because the society has to encourage such behavior in order to survive.
Even in Communist nations, those like General Zhukov who achieve great things are placed in a higher position than the common man. You can change the names of the classes, or shift which individuals make up which class (which, in fact, is all socialists societies do), but you cannot remove the fact of hierarchy from human society.
So, the first argument against elevating ‘equality’ as a value is that it is impossible, not just practically, but conceptually. There is no ‘end state’—no point at which equality can be said to have been achieved, because the relevant factors cannot even be measured or compared, and the very nature of human society renders it impossible even if they could. But there is another, and more dangerous factor.
How Striving for Equality Leads to Deeper Inequality
A large part of human happiness is simply expectation. C.S. Lewis described this very well by the analogy that if one person thought he was in a prison and the other a hotel, they would have very different assessments of the accommodations.
Now, if you have a rich man and a poor man, and you tell them that they are equal, it will direct their attention to the fact that, by any objective standard, they are nothing of the kind. They will thus seek for an explanation. They will, in fact, compare themselves to each other. The one is encouraged to think that he must be somehow ‘better,’ since he has evidently acquired more, and the other to think that he must have been somehow cheated, since if they are equal in theory there must be a reason why they are not equal in practice. It follows, then, that the pretense of a classless society in fact aggravates class differences, rather than eliminating them.
By holding up equality as a value or an ideal, a society pledges itself to a state of affairs that cannot exist. This means that it has created, within its own framework, a bottomless source of grievances against itself. Once make equality a value, and someone somewhere will always have a justification for claiming he has been cheated, because, of course, he has. But the cheat was in the promise itself, not the failure to fulfill it.
So what should we say instead?
Instead, we ought to say that there is nothing wrong with inequalities or class structures as such. The rich and the poor we will always have with us, and that is simply how the world works.
This will be much easier to accept if we recall that the end that humans strive for, at least in this life, is happiness, and that neither wealth nor status will confer it, but only virtuous living. That money cannot buy happiness, and that contentment is a crown few kings enjoy is very basic morality, yet we always seem to forget it when discussing equality.
The most common objection to this is that it is merely an excuse to keep the poor down and the wealthy in power. The full answer to that involves the whole subject of ‘hierarchy,’ which is too large to deal with at the tail end of an essay, but the short version is that part of justice is the obligation of the wealthy to the poor. “To whom much is given, much is expected.” That is to say, one of the particular duties of those in a higher position—whether of wealth, class, position, or so on—Is to provide for and support those in lower positions.
Ironically, this duty is done away with by ‘equality’: when two men are ostensible equals, then by definition the one’s obligations are no different than the other’s, regardless of their practical positions in society. But if one is ‘higher’ then he can be said to have special obligations to the ‘lower.’
In other words, the fiction of equality is, in fact, far more effective at keeping the poor down than a frank admission of inequality.
This is not to say that genuine injustices—e.g. Jim Crow laws—should not be opposed, but they should not be opposed in the name of equality, because that is bottomless pit that will never be filled. Instead, they ought to be opposed in the name of Justice. Justice means rendering to each what is his due, and his due is based on reality; what he has or has not done and who or what he is.
If both the rich and poor are told that they occupy an essential part of society, and that they each may become as good, pious, and happy as they are able to be in their own particular sphere, then the question of comparison simply doesn’t enter into it. The one may be just as good a man as the other, but they are not the same kind of man. They have different roles and different duties. The important point is not how they compare to one another, but how well they fulfill the duties they have (which includes duties to each other).
As St. Paul described it, the body is made up of many members, each of which has its own purpose and none of which the others can simply do without. Or, as the Columbian philosopher Don Colacho put it, “Even the most modest thing has, in its proper place, immeasurable worth.”