The Spice of Life – Part 1 (One-Piece Silver Jump Suits)
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld is looking forward to a future where we no longer have to decide what to wear each day: “Anytime I see a movie or a TV show where there’s people from the future, or another planet, they’re all wearing the same thing.” He observed, “Somehow they decided, ‘this is going to be our outfit: one-piece silver jump suit, v-stripe, and boots. That’s it.’”
Visions of the future are often replete with a certain utopic uniformity not (currently) realized on earth. Perhaps the most on the nose vision of such a future can be seen on Star Trek, which depicts a galaxy where barriers of culture, religion, class, nationalities, and politic ideologies have withered away. The human race no longer suffers from racism, envy, material want, or class struggle. Progress.
But why the matching uniforms?
There would seem to be baked into this vision of utopia some massive leveling-effort in which distinctions of class, culture, and creeds are obliterated to make way for…Progress. But is that the path to progress? Are the distinctions and varieties found in our world what’s standing in the way of utopia? If so, can they actually be leveled and what would that require? If not, is it possible they serve some purpose?
The Spice of Life
Conservatives view these distinctions and varieties as the spice of life: the unique qualities and aspects of cultures, classes, and individuals that allow us to flourish, grow, and develop into something that is truly ours. To the conservative, a world where these distinctions have been obliterated and all of humanity would be set on a level plain would be cold, narrowing, and soul-crushing. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a step back and look more closely at the existence and nature of inequalities themselves.
No one disputes inequalities exist. But there is much disagreement on why they exist, or what qualifies as an “inequality”, let alone what should be done about it. Perhaps the sharpest question we can ask is who is to blame for inequalities? Does the mere fact that one person is unequal than another person create an injustice? And what of the various kinds of inequalities? We might be able to reach a wide consensus that no injustice is done if John is taller than Bill, or even if John is wealthier than Bill. But what if John belongs to an ethnic or social group that’s predominantly wealthier than Bill’s ethnic or social group? Is that an injustice?
The Stupidest Idea in Politics
“If there were a contest for the most stupid idea in politics,” economist Thomas Sowell lamented, “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 doctrinaire Leftist is far too quick to find injustices in the forms of racism, sexism, classism, bigotry, and oppression whenever inequalities emerge. And while the conservative does not deny that those factors exist and can explain inequalities in certain instances, they are by no means the only explanation. Which, of course, further implies that we should not automatically declare inequalities to be proof of injustices.
But if injustice isn’t the predominant explanation for inequalities, what is? John Adams, Founding Father and second President of the United States, gives just about the best summary of the conservative position as I have yet to encounter:
“Nature, which has established in the universe a chain of being and universal order, descending from archangels to microscopic animalcules, has ordained that no two objects shall be perfectly alike, and no two creatures perfectly equal. Although, among men, all are subject by nature to equal laws of morality, and in society have a right to equal laws for their government, yet no two men are perfectly equal in person, property, understanding, activity, and virtue, or ever can be made so by any power less than that which created them.”
We’ll spend some time thinking through Adams’ assertion that nature provides for equality of moral and political laws in Part 2. What I want to focus on is Adams’ claim that human nature is the root of inequality. For while this idea may seem quite obvious and agreeable, it is often overlooked in the quest to rid the world of the injustices posed by inequality.
Leftist ideologies often advance some idea of justice or equality that prescribe how the world ought to be. But the most important political fact about our place in the world is that it was here long before we arrived on the scene. Untold years—sometimes millennia—passed before we were around to set the record straight on nearly every social, political, and economic inequality there is. We didn’t invent our relationship to our family, we were born into it. The political ties and obligations were ours by birth, having done nothing to earn them ourselves. I didn’t choose to be an American born and raised into the family I was any more than I chose to be righthanded.
It is true that we have some limited chose in these matters. We choose who to marry, and we may renounce our citizenship and gain citizenship in some other country. But these infrequent instances of choice pail in comparison to the overwhelming fact we did not choose most of our associations. Which means we did not voluntarily consent to the duties they impose on us or the rights and privileges they grant us. As Edmund Burke taught: “Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world. The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform.”
If, as some Leftists insist, equality is something that is ours by right, who is to provide us with this equality? I have no more claim to the inheritance of my neighbor than my neighbor has to mine as we were not born into the same family. I can’t claim the rights and privileges afforded to the citizens of other nations. If these things make us unequal would we have a right to take what is ours?
The appeal to universal natural rights under Natural Law may provide for some claims outside of the liberties and equalities recognized by a particular State. High-ranking members of the Nazi party were found guilty of crimes against humanity in the Nuremberg trials. Their defense that they were simply following the laws of their government was deemed inexcusable for violating the most basic right a person has: the right to exist.
But the conservative is unwilling to go beyond the limited rights afforded to us by God (or by Natural Law, if you like), to the assertion that we have a right to something that is not ours by nature. The right to exist is ours for as long as we are alive, and though it will eventually be taken from us all it is quite different than the supposed right to equality. The right to exist is pre-political; that is, no political arrangement or even government is necessary to provide us with this right. Enforcing equality, however, would require political action. Equality was never ours by birth, and it is not within our power to bestow absolute equality on a species born in inequality.
True Equality and Unnatural Equality
To the conservative, true equality—equality before the law and before God—is precisely what gives rise to inequalities. And enforcing unnatural equality necessarily violates our natural equality. If people who are born with different abilities and access to opportunities are all set on a level playing field, we would naturally expect radically different outcomes. If we were to force equal access to opportunities by granting them to those without and depriving them to those who would otherwise have access, we would still see different outcomes because people would still be operating within the abilities they inherited at birth. If we strove still to eliminate even these inequalities, by demanding or enforcing that all outcomes be the same—such that if one person’s abilities allowed them to produce more or excel in some way beyond that of their peers we would deprive them of their excess production—we might finally achieve absolute equality. But the price we’d pay would be the death of distinction, variety, and—in a multitude of historical examples where such heavy-handed leveling has been attempted—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Is that justice? Is that progress?
Leftists demand equality because they demand progress. But what is the relationship between equality and progress? To Russell Kirk, equality was the death of progress:
“Throughout history, progress of every sort, cultural and economic, has been produced by the desire of men for inequality. Without the possibility of inequality, a people continue on the dreary level of bare subsistence, like Irish peasants; granted inequality, the small minority of men of ability turn barbarism into civilization. Equality benefits no one. It frustrates men of talent; and it reduces the poor to a poverty still more abject. In a densely-population civilized state, it means near-starvation for the poor.”
The French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville echoed a similar idea: “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.” We strive for greatness, perfection, or even a simple job-well-done because we understand what it is to get ahead. That does not necessarily mean we are greedy or jealous or prideful—it may simply mean we are ambitious, and we discern personal progression by how we compare with others. That lacking, we cease striving and reaching for more; which results in the death of progress.
Undeterred, Leftists have consistently insisted equality would not only bring progress, it could even address the very roots of what ails humanity. We are not suffering from a fallen, imperfectible nature but from a lack of ideal social conditions. “Liberalism believes that if you diminish income inequalities and provide cradle-to-birth income security, criminality will wither away,” wrote Irving Kristol, “In the face of increasing criminality, therefore, liberalism responds with ever more fanciful and ever more desperate ‘therapeutic’ programs, all of which are ineffectual.”
While it stands to reason that significant inequalities in social conditions, to say nothing of abject poverty, can be a factor in how willing some are to engage in illegal or even violent behavior, it is simply not true that eliminating social inequalities provides for any meaningful reduction in crime. And the burden of proof in such a grand experiment would be on those insisting we would be better off if only we gave their latest equalization scheme a go.
Journalist Noah Rothman notes how those who resorted to violence in efforts to shut down speech they deemed “hateful” on college campuses weren’t exactly underprivileged: “Those who engaged in violence in 2016 and 2017 were born in the most fortunate period in the safest and most stable country mankind has ever known. They were born into stability and relative prosperity, regardless of their personal circumstances. Unless they have migrated from elsewhere, most have never known organized, state-supported political terror. But they have nevertheless romanticized political violence and, to some extent, welcome it.”
“The liberal myth holds that privation and dispossession will drive people to acts of political violence,” Rothman continues, “because the liberal myth is a reductionist philosophy that boils down every sociopolitical development to privation and dispossession. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like an opportunity to redistribute incomes.” If equal incomes, social conditions, and outcomes could address societal ills, we would not expect to see violence and lawbreaking among the most privileged and pampered among us.
Instead, efforts at enforced equality through leveling only distort our nature. Perfect equality of social conditions and outcomes isn’t possible because we do not come into this world equally—nor does that mean some oppressive group or class is to blame for inequalities as much of our inequalities are built into the very nature of who we are as a species.
However, as Adams suggested above, we do have a right to a certain kind of equality.In a just state, all of us are equal before the law and before God.This kind of equality affirms the variety that we see in human nature.In fact, it celebrates it.And that is where we’ll turn in Part 2.