The explicit, palpable social divide on airplanes fascinates me. Travelers meet as equals at the airport gate and then divide into two distinct classes to receive unequal treatment while crammed together in the tight space of a fuselage.
Where, other than on an airplane, do people queue in a social hierarchy? The awkwardness is telling. Something inside the plane hangs in the air while we wait to board and then are forced to skirt tightly past the few people who are—for that brief time in the air—our social betters. No wonder we always avert our eyes.
It’s not even clear who the bigger sucker is—the one having to sit in economy class, squashed between, behind, and before strangers, or the one paying up to 70 percent or more for a little extra legroom and a mediocre cocktail.
The curtained divide between first and every other class is a very evident example of aristocratic privilege. Perhaps the strangest part is how readily Americans accept it, given that we are so prone to cry foul at all other infringes on our sense of equality.
But it’s evident why we accept it. We know that it’s the money that first-class travelers pay—not their race or last name—that gets them that better seat. If someone wants to subsidize everyone else’s ticket by sitting in first class, by all means, let them take the extra legroom and sycophantic service.
This example shows that, in the private sphere, Americans are fine with someone paying for privilege with money that potentially any of us could one day have as well. The outrage over the recent college admissions scandal, however, shows how repugnant such presumption is to Americans in the public sphere. These two examples provide a glimpse into the way most Americans understand justice and equality.
I say “most” Americans, because Bernie Sanders is currently trying to lead a revolution in resentment against all inequality in an effort to redefine justice in U.S. society.
Democratic Justice as Only Partial Justice
“Our government will be based on justice,” Sanders recently said in a tweet. Yes, of course, every government is based on some conception of justice. The question is whose conception of justice.
The basic ethos of Sanders’s purely democratic understanding of justice is an urge to view all inequality as “a moral issue” of injustice. He assumes, for example, that all people are equal in their ambition and earning capacity, and so he concludes that all are due relatively equal resources such as incomes, health care, and provision for a college education.
As Aristotle pointed out, though, democratic justice is only a part of justice. Complete justice requires giving to each what is due. But sometimes people are due equal things—like lawbreakers due equal convictions for the same crime—and sometimes people are due unequal things—like soldiers due unequal honors for performing different deeds on the battlefield.
Sanders refuses to recognize that some people—through hard work and honest dealings—make themselves unequal to others in those respects and are thus due the earnings they receive. He’s currently having a difficult time defending his position, though, now that he has revealed that, on account of his book sales, he ranks among the top 1 percent of the richest people in the United States.
The U.S. conception of justice, however, completes democratic justice. Though neither perfect nor ever free from abuse, this understanding of justice recognizes the right to individual excellence, and it has led to remarkable benefits for all of U.S. society.
The American Understanding of Justice
The American Revolution was a revolt against the understanding of justice that some men are politically unequal to others and thus have a right to rule their inferiors without consent.
To honor the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson summarized the main vindication of that document as “the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”
The U.S. conception of justice is dedicated to securing to all citizens equal possession of their natural rights—including the right to property—without regard to artificial distinctions such as race or family name. The Constitution strictly prohibits the government from granting legally protected privilege in the form of titles of nobility. Alexander Hamilton called this rejection “the cornerstone of republican government” because it requires that all citizens be considered equal before the law.
Despite these American hallmarks of commitment to justice and equality, Sanders has spent his whole career decrying the goodness of U.S. society. He once said: “It would, I think, be hard for anyone … to make the case that the United States today is a just society or anything close to a just society. In America today, there is massive injustice in terms of income and wealth inequality.”
Sanders holds that most inequality is caused by systemic injustice in society whereby certain groups supposedly have access to privileges that are denied to others. The only cure for such systemic injustice is for the strong hand of the state to redistribute equally what “society” has distributed unequally.
In his crusade against the windmills of systemic injustice, Sanders is forced to attack all forms of excellence, for by definition one cannot excel without making oneself unequal to one’s fellows.
The Greek historian Herodotus told the story of Periander, a young tyrant, who sent a servant to Thrasybulus, an older tyrant in another city, to learn from him the secret to holding on to tyrannical power. Thrasybulus refused to answer the question directly, and instead, walking with the servant beside a cornfield, snipped off the heads of all the cornstalks that stood higher than the rest. When the servant related this action to Periander, the young tyrant understood that he needed to cut down all of the men of excellence in the city.
Excellence is always a threat to those whose rule is unjust, for “just powers” are derived “from the consent of the governed,” from treating other citizens as political equals. Recognizing that equality, though, also requires recognizing the natural capacities that each rightly has to excel.
In Sanders’s world, there is no first-class air travel. There isn’t even business class. There’s only economy class, but it is no longer economical, for all the tickets are more expensive.
Clifford Humphrey is originally from Warm Springs, Georgia. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @cphumphrey.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.