On the Dangers of ‘Equality’

October 29, 2020 Updated: November 4, 2020

Commentary

The question of the day seems to be whether or not equality can be legislated.

The short answer is “yes.” Anything can be legislated.

But everyone knows that no two human beings, trees, fish or flowers, are exactly equal. Difference is the rule of the universe.

There are many kinds of equality, too. In his famous work “Republic,” for example, Plato argued for equal treatment of the class of slaves, of the class of warriors, of the class of property owners, and of the class of citizens (slaves, women, and foreigners weren’t citizens). But he was no egalitarian. He never argued for the equal treatment of everyone. So the larger question is: What kind of “equality” are we talking about? And if the wrong kind, whether it will eventually transform our floundering liberal democracies into the genteel totalitarian sort which, under conditions of sufficient economic and social distress, will mutate into the real thing?

The great liberal dream of the West, however imperfect, is of free individuals acting according to their effort and merit as authors of their own lives and destinies, under an impartial law equal for all. Everyone is born with a different hand of cards; you play them to the best of your ability under the same rules. This is often called “formal” equality, because it makes no distinction between citizens as to class, wealth, sex, race, or anything else. A prince and a pauper must suffer the same penalty for the same crime. It’s a principle that has underpinned liberalism from its birth, and it’s under widespread legal and political attack.

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Plato (L) and Aristotle in Raphael’s 1509 fresco, “The School of Athens.” (Public domain)

In place of that noble dream, however, we increasingly see the rise of the perennial anti-liberal nightmare rooted in envy, which begins when whole classes of people begin to believe that the differences between themselves and others are a consequence of systemic-oppression, of something outside themselves, that they are victims of pervasive visible and invisible bias and discrimination. So they line up with hands outstretched to the law and the state, demanding “substantive equality.” Which is to say, demanding that their lives be improved by differential laws and quotas aimed at leveling inequalities wherever found, whether natural, inherited, or freely chosen.

The problem with this approach is that laws and quotas promoting policies such as “affirmative action” impose a new kind of official inequality of a kind once found only in the most openly totalitarian states, discriminating in favor of one group that has earned no reward, and against another that has deserved no punishment.

From the failures of ancient Greece and Rome to every modern collectivist nation where this paternalistic ruse has reared its head, it has first been introduced by a power-hungry class of legally trained, militantly egalitarian intellectuals zealously bent on installing by force its version of perfect social justice. Substantive equality—the belief that the power of law must be used to equalize all citizens insofar as possible in the outcomes of their lives—is the rallying cry.

This collectivist form of politics is easily traceable from its earliest root in secular works from the “Republic,” mentioned above, to the religious messianism that flourished in the second century of the Christian era through and beyond the Middle Ages, to the millenarianism of the “levelers” in the English Revolution, to the utopianism of those such as Rousseau and Paine in the 18th century, to Marx and Engels in the 19th, and on to their many modern acolytes sheltering today in our media, public institutions, and law schools.

The key element at the heart of perfectionism is the notion that the responsibility for injustice and evil in the world can’t have much to do with the behavior of individuals, because all human beings are born naturally good. To many of us still, this remains a natural belief. I recall being deeply outraged when the priest who baptized my first child asked God “to banish the devil from her heart.” My beautiful, freshly born child a devil? I did have a belief in innate human goodness, but I figured that after a while we choose badness or goodness ourselves.

Utopians, however, are forced by their own logic to reject personal responsibility for badness so they can blame something outside themselves, usually bad social and political institutions and beliefs. The modern high priest of this “something made me do it” tactic was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who laid the foundation for this unnatural idea in the first sentence of his widely influential book “The Social Contract” (1762): “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.” It was a childish and manifestly false notion, for any sensible person knows we are not born free. We are born completely helpless, dependent on loving parents, and bonded socially in our communities under viable laws and institutions formed long before our birth, and the vast majority of us become unchained, free, and independent as we mature.

You can see the contrast with the dominant traditional (and Christian) view that evil isn’t a force outside us. It begins deep in the hearts and minds of men and women—of which evil governments aren’t the origin, but the reflection. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who suffered great evils in the gulag, and powerful temptation to become evil himself by helping his guards for rewards (which, hungry and weak, he struggled to decline), produced a striking version of this view when he wrote that “evil does not run between human groups. It runs through the middle of every human heart.”

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Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn waves as he gets on a train on June 1, 1994, in Vladivostok bound for Khabarovsk. Russian writer and dissident Solzhenitsyn died on Aug. 3, 2008, at the age of 89. (Michael Estafiev/Getty Images)

Once the comforting view that evil is external and systemic is embraced, however, the logical course of action is to eliminate every external evil by force of law. For this belief you immediately need targets for elimination—usually entire institutions you believe create systemic inequality, and of course, all individuals who disagree with you. If by any means available we can make the world more equal, is the belief, then the natural goodness of all people, their true selves, will naturally flourish, and society—the state—will be perfect.

Whether ancient or modern, this sort of fanaticism—which has become a secular “political religion” in our midst—is driven by a mission to create heaven on earth. Even if you have to pack a court to do it. I remember when the USSR fell, Time asked a Soviet marshal, “Why? What were you trying to do, locking your people up, forcing totalitarianism on them with machine guns and gulags?” The marshal answered, “The Kingdom of Heaven on earth, in the Third Millennium.”

Ironically, the more atheistic such missionaries, the more spiritual or dream-like their fervor. For if God is really dead, we will have no help. Justice will have to be defined and enforced by humans alone. The new godhead of this secular religion isn’t grace, or personal redemption, but real, tangible, forced substantive equality, to be provided by law as dictated by the priests and priestesses—the new godlets—of the progressive state.

For such minds, the end will always justify the means. The famous “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” that set its stamp on the bloody Terror of the French Revolution began by declaring freedom and formal equality (only) a right of all citizens. But as French historian Claude Quetel writes in his recent blistering condemnation, “Crois ou Meurs” (“Believe, or Die”), in less than six months this noble liberal standard mutated into an envy-based public rage against all privilege and a demand for substantive equality. At this very point, the heads of the privileged, the rich, and the successful began to fall to lynch mobs who paraded them, eyes agog and dripping blood, on pikes through the streets of Paris.

“The people” had become evangelical believers in Rousseau’s gospel that citizens who fail to follow the general will of the state for their own good must be “forced to be free.” Death for unbelievers was his suggested remedy. Believe, or die. His key disciple, Maximilien Robespierre, applauded the death of a quarter-million French citizens in the name of this kind of “equality,” which he described for all to hear as “virtue.”

In a chilling speech on May 7, 1794, he stated: “The basis of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror. Terror without virtue is murderous, virtue without terror is powerless. Terror is nothing else than swift, severe, indomitable justice—it flows, then, from virtue.”

This same purifying incantation is easy to find in all subsequent revolutions, in the words of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Hitler, Castro, and Pol Pot, all of whom relished murdering millions of their own citizens in the name of equality. Believe, or die.

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An engraving shows the beheading of Louis XVI during the French Revolution. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

This terrible truth led the French writer Anatole France to observe that when one starts with the supposition that all men are naturally good and virtuous, one inevitably ends by wishing to kill them all! That’s because, by definition, as the drive for righteousness defined as substantive equality rapidly intensifies, no one can possibly be good enough, or equal enough. So the bad (who must be more loosely defined in order to widen the net for virtue as death) are soon labeled internal “enemies of the state.” First the privileged aristocrat is targeted; then the baker who dared to sell him bread. Contact-tracing with a vengeance!

Eventually and swiftly, all internal enemies suspected of even the slightest privilege must be suppressed, silenced, fined, sent off to prison, or liquidated as an offender to the principle of Holy Equality. After all, killing is the most logical and cheapest way to achieve perfect equality and social justice, neither of which can ever arrive because they get continuously redefined as still to be obtained (because nothing in life or nature is equal). That’s why all egalitarian revolutions end by eliminating even their own founding theorists who are eventually deemed not sufficiently virtuous. That’s why even Robespierre, the first grand theorist of the Revolution, “the incorruptible,” lost his head, too. He walked dazed, bruised, and beaten to the guillotine, clutching a copy of Rousseau’s “Social Contract” to his breast.

I don’t wish to suggest for a moment that Canada, or the United States, will ever reach such a point. But no one thought Germany would, either. In fact, Hitler was admired by a lot of prominent Western progressives as the great social and political renovator who single-handedly raised Germany by its own socialist boot-straps. It’s rather sobering to consider that the two largest professional membership classes of the Nazi party in its heyday were educated teachers and lawyers.

Just so, our universities, originally a monastic type of institution now secularized, are increasingly resorting to the specific habits of mind that produce the evils of which I warn, and it would be gross self-deception to believe we will somehow be exempt from the worst natural consequences of such thinking. Once a bastion of liberty, the universities of the West have become islands of ideological oppression. More than one observer in history has pointed out that when fascism comes to America (and, I venture to add, to Canada), it will come in the name of democracy.

To conclude, I would say that the current notion of “substantive equality” has become a modern substitute for the leaven of divine grace, or as that astute thinker D.H. Lawrence once described, a kind of “earthly bread” to be gathered up by our priesthood of social engineers and redistributed as “heavenly bread” to thankful, docile masses.

Postscript

This article is a lightly edited first part of an unpublished speech I delivered to 400 students and professors at the School of Law, Queen’s University, Ontario, on March 1, 1994, in debate with Sheila McIntyre, then a well-known radical-feminist law professor.

The debate drew a full house, with additional loudspeakers set-up outside the venue, where a gauntlet of protesters advertising themselves as “sponsored by the International Socialists” lined both sides of the walk, waving placards demanding “Protest Speech by William Gairdner, Author of ‘The Trouble With Canada,’ and ‘The War Against the Family.’” I have hung that poster on my wall.

In discussion after this talk, shouts of derision were raised twice. The first time was when (it was 1994!) I told the audience that “one day soon, Canada will legalize gay marriage.” It was legalized as a Charter right, although not mentioned there, 11 years later in 2005.

The second cause for loud scorn was when I said, “One day soon, Canada will legalize euthanasia, and license doctors to kill.” This drew more loud gasping and shouts of “get serious” from the audience. Euthanasia was subsequently legalized in Canada in 2016 under the euphemistic label “Medical Aid in Dying,” on the Charter ground (where it isn’t mentioned) that all citizens have a “right to die.” But that is silly. Dying can’t be avoided, whether you believe you have a right to it or not. The bill was about the legal right of some to kill others.

Perhaps the most telling moment of the entire debate was when I told the assembled students that even though many of their professors were present, students shouldn’t be afraid to show their hands on a very important question. Namely, “In your four years here, have you ever been afraid to say what you really think in a class at Queen’s?”

About 40 percent of the audience tenuously raised their hands.

The difference between then, and now—after all, we are more “woke”—is that today many of those professors would put up their hands, too.

William Gairdner is an author who lives near Toronto. His latest book is “The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree” (2015). His website is WilliamGairdner.ca

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Follow William on Twitter: @williamgairdner