Originally posted 2009-06-13 19:56:44. Republished by Blog Post Promoter
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
With this opening statement in our nation’s Declaration of Independence, its 56 signers, represented by such great minds as Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and John Adams, established a core founding principle for what was to become a new nation; a nation different in its beliefs, values and government structure than any other at the time.
As is the case with many words in the English language, the word “equality” lacks certain precision and has historically been interpreted through different lenses. For example, mathematical equality assures sameness in quantity, but does not ascribe value to the equal results. An equal amount of rain having fallen over a rain forest and over a desert, although mathematically equivalent in volume, does not produce an equal effect. Nor is the magnificence of Niagara Falls’ cascade of water the same as that of a lazy river flowing through the plains, though again the volumes of water may be equal.
Equality as a doctrine in the 18th century was indeed a revolutionary concept. Not since the ancient Greek and Minoan cultures has equality been written into a societal code of beliefs. So therefore, the opportunity to build a new nation on such beliefs was in and of itself a revolutionary step forward.
In order to understand the intentions of our founding fathers, we have to understand the psychology of the times in which this concept of equality was being presented. Indeed, we need to use the prism of an 18th century intellectual to affix the proper meaning to the word. In particular we know that such prism would filter out any notions of equality in the context of modern day social systems such as welfare or affirmative action.
A reasonable and arguably most credible interpretation of the founding fathers intended meaning of equality is one where the goal of equality is defined as one of opportunity and not necessarily of results (or outcome). This is fundamental, in that it underscores the principle of giving each individual an equal opportunity to improve his own state but does not mandate that the results of such efforts be held to the same standard of equality as for others. In fact, an argument can be made that enforcing equality of results is fundamentally unfair in that it unjustly rewards low performance and is eerily akin to Marx’s “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” formulation, which would not be written until 100 years later (1875, Critique of the Gotha Program). The distinction between opportunity and results equality was recently taken up and extensively discussed by British Business Secretary Peter Mandelson at the 2009 Fabian Conference at the Imperial College in London.
In our modern society we can observe countless examples of divergence from the principle of equality of results.
- Affirmative action, previously mentioned, is perhaps the most glaring example of the up-side-down interpretation of equality, where results trump all other objectives – a starkly Marxist construct indeed
- Progressive taxation, though widely accepted as fair and equitable, in fact is not ubiquitously fair as it creates disincentives to higher productivity and redistributes the output of the individual’s labor to those who have not contributed to its creation
- Compensation pay grade systems such as within the government and many older companies, where rewards are defined within pay scale boundaries, regardless of the value of an individual’s contribution
A society which does not respect equality of its citizens is frail and cannot sustain itself indefinitely without the degeneration of its social fabric, inevitably leading to massive resentment of government and eventually social unrest. By misinterpreting our founders’ meaning of equality, we are at risk of steering our social policies toward the statist objectives of government welfare and control over our means and our lives. Our Constitution is a finely tuned and time proven instrument of democratic government with ideals interwoven such that in concert they support and amplify each other’s meaning and value. A misinterpretation or misapplication of one of these fundamental ideals not only diminishes its individual value, but also jeopardizes the document’s role as a compilation of our guiding values.
Next time you’re engaged in a discussion with someone who is justifying their position with arguments of equality, make sure to ask them: “What do you mean?”
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