What Conservatives Believe: Variety and the Allure of Equality - Part 2
“Conservatives pay attention to the principle of VARIETY.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles*
In Part 1 of this series we discussed how conservatives celebrate the variety found in all life as an expression of the created order. Because this variety is hardwired into life, conservatives are suspicious of efforts to “correct” these inequalities and believe societies that aim for utopian uniformity end up with tyrannical government. If you’re reading this series for the first time be sure and check out Part 1.
Relentless calls for ending inequalities are tempered in a sense of responsibility of the supposed privileged. Inequalities are decried as an injustice; the unalterable reality of human nature established by nature and nature’s God are defiantly ordered undone. No doubt Thomas Sowell had this in mind when he pointedly remarked, “If there were a contest for the most stupid idea in politics, my choice would be the assumption that people would be evenly or randomly distributed in incomes, institutions, occupations, or awards, in the absence of somebody doing somebody wrong.” The only appropriate response to an injustice is justice. And a mistaken belief that inequalities exist because of some injustice inevitably leads to bringing the guiltless to retribution. I’m by no means suggesting there are no instances in which people exploit or defraud others and should rightly be brought to justice. But this must be determined on a case-by-case basis, applying the law equitably.
The conservative recognizes that inequalities have always existed. The presence of inequalities does not necessarily mean an injustice exits, though injustices may lead to inequalities. The term “social justice” has been co-opted to justify an overall intolerance of inequalities, or even the perception of inequalities. It is imperative we understand the difference between these two types of justices. Once again, the Philosophical Conservative blog offers invaluable insight:
“Justice is a legal concept. Defining it in a legal sense is a simple matter, we need only look at what is written within the body of the law itself and ask ‘Do the rights, privileges and duties outlined here apply equally to every individual?’ The legal definition of justice is straightforward. The idea of ‘Social Justice’ however takes this concept out of its original legal context and attempts to apply it in an area for which it was not designed: society in general. While legal justice is easily defined as the equal application of the law (whatever that law may be) Social Justice is a sort of phantom for which no clear objective definition truly exists.”
But if no clear objective definition exists, the practitioners of social justice initiatives are free to define justice as suites their fancies. This is the undoing of a society ruled by law and order.
It may sound laudable to insist on a broad definition of equality for all, but the conservative rightly recognizes the institution of government is ill-equipped to carry out this lofty goal. Much like wantonly declaring there will be peace leaves a nation all the more vulnerable to war, declaring there will be no inequalities leaves a people vulnerable to the machinations of social experimentation. Noble Laureate Milton Friedman, in his 1978 lecture at Stanford University, observed that “a society that aims for equality before liberty will end up with neither equality nor liberty. And a society that aims first for liberty will not end up with equality, but it will end up with a closer approach to equality than any other system that has ever been developed.” Valuing equality above liberty is a case of misplaced priorities which risks the loss of each, as evidence by a good many Communist regimes.
Humans are more than material organisms and human aspirations surpass the baser aims of egalitarian utopias. Supposing a government could eventually enforce upon its citizenry absolute equality, a sort of eerie uniformity would take hold. Those who admired variety, individuality, and liberty would easily be dismissed as social pariahs. Absolute equality kills that which makes us human. Alexis de Tocqueville, perhaps France’s most influential 19th century political theorist, had a great deal to say about the dangers absolute democratization presented to liberty, including[JL3] :
“Whenever social conditions are equal, public opinion presses with enormous weight upon the mind of each individual; it surrounds, directs, and oppresses him; and this arises from the very constitution of society much more than from its political laws. As men grow more alike, each man feels himself weaker in regard to all the rest; as he discerns nothing by which he is considerably raised above them or distinguished from them, he mistrusts himself as soon as they assail him. Not only does he mistrust his strength, but he even doubts of his right, and he is very near acknowledging that he is in the wrong, when the great number of his countrymen assert that he is so. The majority do not need to force him; they convince him. In whatever way the powers of a democratic community may be organized and balanced, then, it will always be extremely difficult to believe what the bulk of the people reject or to profess what they condemn.”
Because conservatives hold that mankind is as much a spiritual creation as a biological organism, they reject efforts to bring about a social utopia through mechanical or scientific means. Such attempts to reduce men to machines is seen in the progressive visions depicting our future. Individuality is swallowed up in uniformity to such a degree that everyone wears a similar uniform in a society where all racial, religious, and cultural differences on entire planets are obliterated. The last “prejudices” that exist are between alien races. Uniformity, a classless society, the obliteration of cultural diversity—such is the endgame of a worldview devoid of the constraints of conservatism. Yet history has shown us time and again, these lofty aims inevitably lead to new and even more savage forms of inequalities.
*The “What Conservatives Believe” series was inspired by Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles”. As a diligent student of conservatism my aim in this series is not to improve upon his manifesto—a task for which I’m hardly qualified—but to restate his ideas in a more digestible manner for the political layman who’d like to know what it means to be a conservative without having to read an academic paper.