Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The consequences of equalitarianism

Equality involves considerable complexity under apparent simplicity. The US Declaration of Independence famously declared that:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Who was equal and in what respect did not turn out to be a remotely simple question. Women were obviously excluded (the US has Founding Fathers but no Founding Mothers) as were slaves: slaveowners being prominent among its signers and protection of slavery being, fairly obviously, a significant motive for the Declaration (given the outcome of Somersett's Case a few years previously). As was settler land hunger clashing with the British Crown's public commitment to its treaties with the Amerindians. (The American Republic's appalling history of breaking treaties with Amerindians was somewhat encoded into its founding "DNA".)

But that multi-dimensionality can make equality a very useful banner: since there are so many dimensions along which equality can be considered, there are always new realms for the partisans of equality to conquer. And, while the slogan "no taxation without representation" was fairly clearly brilliant political shorthand for a range of public policy issues, it was brilliantly effective because it was true: British subjects in North America were denied any say in public policy decisions that affected them deeply. There was a profound inequality at work.

But we can differentiate the egalitarian urge--concerns with legal status, opportunities, having a say--from the equalitarian urge--trying to create a society equal in outcomes. What distinguishes the equalitarian urge is that it creates a profound inequality: the inequality between those who are to be equalised and those who do the equalising. The more complete the equality to be sought, the more complete the control, and so the power, flowing to those doing the equalising over the lives of those being equalised.

In this equalitarian drive, private property gets in the way: variations in luck, skill and past legacies mean private property precludes equality of outcome. Yet no complex society can abolish property since property is just the right to control a specified resource. So, in an equalitarian society, property clearly needs to be controlled by the equalising authority. Which is just a specific manifestation of the logic already set out in the previous paragraph.

Which is why the societies most ostentatiously committed to equality--Enver Hoxha's Albania, North Korea under the Kim Family Regime--have also been the most totalitarian societies. The absolute drive for equality creates an absolute centralisation of power. In the case of North Korea, that has been taken to the stage of creating hereditary Stalinism. The ruling tyrant becomes effectively the owner of the entire country (including its people) since all are under his control (in a very direct and practical sense) so he can choose to pass that ownership onto his son.

Which is a grotesque negation of the stated original intent of creating a profoundly equal society. But a straightforward manifestation of equalitarian logic as a political program. For it is not airy intent which matters, but how the intent's logic works out when implemented. Bob Carr's claim that North Korea is the logical working out of Marxism possibly goes a little far. But that Albania under Hoxha and North Korea under the Kim's represent the working out of the equalitarian urge is clearly true.

Though the equalitarian urge is not the only form where ostentatious equality undermines itself. Even in more limited versions, that partisans of equality so often, so clearly, regard their commitment to equality as a manifestation of moral superiority is another way ostentatious equality undermines itself. The forms of equality worth having typically involve some strong sense of reciprocity. Where that is lacking, the equality on offer is probably not worth having: or, worse still, will make things much worse.

There are forms of equality which matter deeply: and there are others which are disastrous to seek. The apparent simplicity (even "self-evidence") of equality can be treacherously misleading.

[Cross-posted at Critical Thinking Applied.]

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