The Spice of Life – Part 3 (Enforced Equality or Valued Variety?)
Updated: Aug 31
To the conservative, the idea that variety is the spice of life is not just a colloquial idiom but an understatement. On its face, it suggests variety provides excitement that saves us from blandness and boredom. Indeed. But it’s more than that, for the absence of variety would mean stagnation, poverty, and possible extinction.
Standing opposed to the conservative’s view of variety is the Left’s notion of diversity and equality. The ideologically-driven Leftist celebrates a world of pluralistic identities where everyone is freed of the restraints of tradition, customs, associations and external pressures and can live as they want, marry who they want, partake in whatever activity they want, consume or experience whatever they want. They just can’t choose to remain in those traditions, customs, associations, and external pressures because then they wouldn’t be—in the Leftist sense of the word—“free”.
And in this world of diverse ethnicities, fluid sexual identities and orientations, and uninhibited self-expression there would also exist perfect equality: the disabled, homosexual union worker, the transsexual African American authority on feminism and queer theory, and the straight, and white male who works in finance would surely earn about the same and be just as likely to be as satisfied in their life and personal relationships as anyone else.
ut where a diversity of sexual and ethnic expressions would be celebrated—even if that celebration were compulsory—a diversity of opinions or lifestyles that called this paradise into question would most certainly not be tolerated. The Leftist seeks diverse inputs that result in roughly the same outputs, so long as “diverse” is intended in the rather narrow celebration of anti-traditionalist lifestyles.
Traditional Variety and Anti-Traditionalist Diversity
The conservative, on the other hand, desires room for pluralistic traditions from the rich—sometimes competing—heritages of Western civilization, and never expects equal outcomes precisely because that sort of variety would prevent equality. To the conservative, the fact that the average straight, white male who majored in finance earns considerably more than the transsexual African American who majored in Women’s Studies is not because of systemic racism or bigotry, or an oppressive patriarchy where the market enforces some outdated code of morality through compensation, but because the variety we find in life means some people will choose to pursue occupations and interests that naturally result in different outcomes.
And just as the Left celebrates anti-traditionalist diversity, the conservative relishes the variety each individual brings within their traditions. Variety makes possible a flourishing culture and prosperous economy, as economist F. A. Hayek explains:
“The development of variety is an important part of cultural evolution, and a great part of an individual’s value to others is due to his differences from them. The importance and value of order will grow with the variety of the elements, while greater order in turn enhances the value of variety, and thus the order of human cooperation becomes indefinitely extensible. If things were otherwise, if for example all men were alike and could not make themselves different from one another, there would be little point in division of labor (except perhaps among people in different localities), little advantage from coordinating efforts, and little prospect of creating order of any power or magnitude.”
If we were all of similar athletic ability such that the distinctions that set competitive athletes apart from the rest of us ceased to exist, so would the enjoyment of watching these athletes in action. It is precisely because we celebrate the athletic abilities of some as greater than most that sports as a profession can even exist. So too with intelligence, beauty, strength, and abilities of all sorts. The varieties that set us apart allow for a market where our abilities are profitable not only to us, but to those who lack such abilities and will happily compensate us for our services.
But beyond material prosperity, variety also allows for growth of the individual. “I think that men are better than beasts, and that life is something more than the gratifying of appetites,” offered Russell Kirk, “I think that variety and growth—not equality and uniformity—are the characteristics of a high culture.” Kirk viewed variety as incompatible with the Left’s vision of diversity and equality. Variety demands inequality—or at least, guarantees it—and true growth and liberty are only realized within sound tradition, not by breaking free of it and certainly not by tearing it apart.
The Uniqueness of Cities
I think this idea may be easier to understand if we take a step back and substitute cities and towns for individuals. Much of what attracts people to a certain city or what instills a certain pride in belonging to a city are the variations that make it different from all the rest. All cities aspire to address poverty, civil unrest or discontent, and the perceived needs and wants of its citizens, but they all do this in remarkably different ways and—as one would expect—with significantly different results. Even where two cities have professional sports teams, similar amenities, and near identical ethnic mixtures, they will still produce massively different lived experiences for their citizens. To be a part of a city—or any region for that matter—is something one “feels” in their gut, and no amount of uniformity can erase these regional distinctions.
We might demand that all cities address poverty the same way or rid themselves of some social malady, but—I suspect—most of us recognize that such gargantuan endeavors are only going to be realizable to the extent the citizens within the city find a way to answer the challenges in a manner that’s uniquely theirs. In the same manner, each individual may fail or succeed at life by any number of metrics. But they can only flourish if they are afforded the opportunity to operate within qualities that are unique to them. The same variations that make New York City much different than Branson, Missouri are related to the variations that make Janice different than Sam. When we try to reduce these metrics to economic outputs or cultural affluence, we do each a disservice because we don’t recognize the vast complexities that form each person.
Irving Kristol pointed to Aristotle’s vision where “a just and legitimate society…is one in which inequalities—of property, or station, or power—are generally perceived by the citizenry as necessary for the common good.” But rather than celebrate such true diversity, the Left has demonized such a society as unjust and illegitimate. “I do not see that this definition has ever been improved on,” continued Kristol, “though generations of political philosophers have found it unsatisfactory and have offered alternative definitions.”
Such alternative definitions must find a way to deal with the rampant inequalities found in any society. And, many of these “alternatives” have advocated the enforcement of equality to provide for the sort of “just” and “legitimate” society advocated. Yet forced equality kills the variety that allows for material prosperity and the development and flourishing of the individual.
We do not know how to enforce the creation of geniuses or those with artistic brilliance. But we can enforce a great levelling where those with unusual talents and abilities are brought down to where the rest of us dwell. “Society ought to be designed to encourage the highest moral and intellectual qualities in man,” Russell Kirk wrote, “the worst threat of the new democratic system is that mediocrity not only will be encouraged, but may be enforced.” The good-natured pursuit of equality can easily devolve into discouraging, delegitimizing, or even outlawing and punishing variations that perpetuate inequalities, even when those variations are beneficial to both the individual and society at large.
Equality Enforced by the State
A further problem arises when we set about to end inequalities: such an endeavor, necessarily, involves trifling with individual liberties and requires a very unequal power to enforce. Even those who are of the mindset that inequalities only exist due to some injustice or oppression must face up to the fact that such perceived injustices and oppressors will continue to produce inequalities unless than are forced not to. If there’s one thing the conservative and Leftist can agree on it’s that inequalities aren’t going away if we simply do nothing about them.
But what’s necessary to “do something” is a very unequal force: the State. “In order to establish equality, we must first establish inequality,” writes Karl Marx in Das Kapital. Here again is a rare point on which the conservative and the Marxist heartily agree. Where the conservative disagrees is that such enforce equality will be self-sustaining. Marx’s assurance that the state would eventually wither away once equality was enforced, when tried, has produced precisely the opposite result. Everywhere such power has been amassed in the State for the purpose of establishing equality, the results have not been utopia followed by the dismantling of the overbearing State, but an entrenched and aggressive government fiercely guarding its power.
This is what Thomas Sowell referred to as promoting “equalitarian ends by unequalitarian means”. He writes “only very unequal intellectual and moral standing could justify having equality imposed, whether the people want it or not…and only very unequal power would make it possible.” Not only does enforced equality require power greater than all the varieties found in a society, but it is also necessary that such power reside in the hands of those who believe they know best how the rest of us should live. What Sowell refers to as a very unequal “intellectual and moral standing” could also be viewed as those who presume they know more than they actually do and fancy themselves to be better people than they actually are.
“Who but a tyrant,” writes Edmund Burke, “could think of seizing on the property of men, unaccused, unheard, untried, by whole descriptions, by hundreds and thousands together?” In Burke’s day French radicals had plundered the wealth of the church and the state and redistributed it in the name of “equality”. Burke had nothing but contempt for such actions: “Who that had not lost every trace of humanity could think of casting down men of exalted rank and sacred function, some of them of an age to call at once for reverence and compassion, of casting them down from the highest situation in the commonwealth, wherein they were maintained by their own landed property, to a state of indigence, depression, and contempt?” These were not the high priests of moral egalitarianism but monsters who did not comprehend the havoc they were causing in the name of equality.
The desire for equality is not—in and of itself—rotten. But it may fester into an unthinking, immoral pursuit of equality at the expense of the liberties and unique qualities of others. The French observer of American society, Alexis de Tocqueville, distinguishes between this dual nature of a desire for equality:
“There is, in fact, a manly and lawful passion for equality which excites men to wish all to be powerful and honored. This passion tends to elevate the humble to the rank of the great; but there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level, and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom. Not that those nations whose social condition is democratic naturally despise liberty; on the contrary, they have an instinctive love of it. But liberty is not the chief and constant object of their desires; equality is their idol: they make rapid and sudden efforts to obtain liberty, and if they miss their aim resign themselves to their disappointment; but nothing can satisfy them except equality, and rather than lose it they resolve to perish.”
As we discussed in Part 2, equality in the sense of equality before God and before the law, as well as a certain desire that all people flourish and realize their full potential, is quite compatible with liberty. But equality of the sort where the strong are made weak to “level” society is at enmity with liberty. Equality and liberty are often equated as the dual virtues of any just society. The actual relationship between them is far more complex and contentious. One must, necessarily, be superior to the other. “In a republic, a fair degree of equality and prosperity are important goals, but it is liberty that is given priority as the proper end of government,” wrote Kristol, “In a democracy, these priorities are reversed.”
The Democratization of the Equalizers
Is it any wonder then that advocates of equality are often the strongest advocates of ever-expanding democratization? Rather than the uniqueness found in each individual person, the radical equalizers look on humanity as an interchangeable, faceless mass. “When all are uniform the individuality of each unit is numerical only,” observed philosopher George Santayana. It is precisely when the uniqueness, distinctions, and varieties found in each of us wither that levelers can get to work. This effort to make us all the same can turn quite silly. The Democratic presidential candidates in 2020—following, especially, Bernie Sanders’ lead—began to contemplate extending the voting franchise even to prison inmates. Evidently they believed our democracy would be enriched by extending suffrage to the lawless.
Sanders shares Marx’s faith that equality is the natural order of things in absence of—how did Thomas Sowell put it?—"somebody doing somebody wrong”. To Marx this meant that once power could be vested into the right hands who’d enforce equality, then such power would no longer be necessary as things would be as they should be. To Sanders this means that the voice of the masses must surely demand equality—since the only reason they don’t have it is due to the powerful few keeping us all trapped in inequalities—so let’s expand voting rights to the young, the questionably-legal immigrants, even convicted felons. If we could just democratize everything enough, surely “the people” would vote for the sort of equality they all secretly want.
Unsurprisingly, the conservative disagrees. The atomization, democratization, and dissolution of the individual into some faceless mass collective does not make us better off. It does not allow for the individual to flourish, strips us of liberty realizable through tradition, and makes us vulnerable to the ever-expanding power of the State. Yuval Levin presents us with Burke’s objection to such an arrangement:
“Breaking apart all the connections that stand between the individual and the state and leaving equal but separate individuals alone would expose them all to the raw power of the state directly. The people would also have no protection from one another or from the mass of citizens, in such a situation. Burke worries that this would leave them unable to defend their freedoms and subject to even more brutal and dangerous abuses of power than the ancient despotisms could have been capable of. The social institutions that stand between the individual and the government are crucial barriers to the ruthlessness of public officials and the occasional cruelty of majorities. They are essential to liberty.”
But surely the conservative cannot mean—in all this haughty talk about liberty and the value of variety—that there is no place for addressing inequalities if that means ignoring those who are in poverty? If you’re in need of food and shelter, does it really matter that you just happen to live in a society that’s happy to leave you alone to “flourish” in your own unique way? This is where we’ll pick things up in Part 4.