There a great many shibboleths in American culture. One of them is the myth of equality. We are all supposedly equal to one another.
This myth supposedly comes from the Declaration of Independence. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. This is usually where the person ceases quoting Jefferson and switches to Marxist lexicon. Gender equality, diversity, egalitarianism, etc. Everything has to be “equal.”
Rarely do they continue with the rest of text – that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The Sage of Monticello was referring to equality as far as rights were concerned. All men have the same rights.
The Myth of Equality
The observant man will note that beyond this, however, nothing is more certain than inequality in all areas of life. Though we pretend otherwise, for the sake of the myth. Whether the idea of equality is a noble myth depends on your interpretation of it and the true motives of those promoting it. Ultimately it is irrelevant, because it’s not true.
Let’s be clear on what we’re talking about. Inequality isn’t a Wall Street insider being able to plunder and loot by cooking the books or concocting a Ponzi scheme. It isn’t allowing the rich and powerful to violate the rights of the poor and powerless. It’s not allowing one country to exploit another because the people believe they are exceptional. Nor am I referring to inequality caused directly by state violence (Jim Crow laws, state-coerced segregation, apartheid, you get the idea).
I am referring to inequality that stems from innate differences in intelligence, physical abilities, personalities, and life choices. It’s ten-year-old protege Jimmy Chang being able to sight read the violin, piano, and cello while whizzing through calculus and computer programming languages as other classmates struggle with basic arithmetic and finding the right notes on the trumpet. Inequality is Jamal growing up to be six foot six in a family that worships sports as other classmates suffer from autoimmune diseases or chronic health problems that prevent them from doing any kind of physical activities…and besides, dad always wanted him to become a lawyer, anyways.
Inequality Is the Norm
Inequality is natural. It’s everywhere you look. A kid born into a family of entrepreneurs or small business owners is prevented from making any significant mistakes because their father is wise and prudent – it’s how he earned his wealth – and there the whole time guiding him. Meanwhile, the kid’s friend has to learn everything the hard way because they grew up in a home with parents who made poor life choices and didn’t teach him how to do things differently.
Some kids grow up in dirt-poor rural areas, others in cities. One is born perfectly healthy. Another gets cancer at age three or is born with Down Syndrome.
These provide an inequality of life experiences. The intent is not to dismiss the hardships people go through or downplay their struggles. What frustrates so many is that, in many of these examples, the person is not responsible, and often there is no one person responsible. Most importantly, it is not the fault of others who has a better lot in life.
This isn’t to say inequality is permanent, at least in some areas. Teddy Roosevelt was born a sickly child with asthma who lifted weights and built his body up himself. But he had to work harder to get what other man gained with far less effort. It is possible for a person to improve their circumstances through their own effort – in that regard, opportunities do matter. We all love the underdog story, the tale of someone overcoming the inequality of circumstance. Think Rudy.
But the appeal of these stories comes from the very fact that they are not the norm. Inequality is.
Take beauty, for example. Contrary to what people tell you about it being in the eye of the beholder, at a certain point a person’s physical beauty borders on scientific fact. What’s more, some people are born with more appealing features than others (whether their personalities match is another matter). Some may argue that it’s cruel to tell a child they are not physically attractive, but this objection misses the point. It’s inequality, but it is natural. Homecoming queen Jennie is not responsible for the way she looks, nor is Kylie responsible for the weak eyes or oddly-shaped face she inherited from her mother.
Circumstances are important, as is the environment to which a person exists, but they’re secondary issues. Nobody likes to talk about genetics, for example, and how much of a role it plays. Nor do we like to talk about IQ, either, but it exists. Some people have higher IQs than others. It is primarily genetic. For those born with low IQs, they are limited in what they can do. This causes inequality.
Fred Reed has pointed out the significance of a person’s innate intelligence and how it produces unequal outcomes in life.
Consider. Chuck Gauss, usually regarded as one of the world’s three greatest mathematicians, was born to a poor family of peasant stock in Germany. So were tens of thousands of other boys, all of whom, on the environmental theory, should have been among the world’s three greatest mathematicians. You see the problem. Newton, another of the three, was born into a family of small farmers. (The farms were small, not the farmers.) So was half of England. No method of fluxions from the rest.
On an emotional level, the reaction to inequality, at least when it comes to wages and work and employment, makes sense. It just doesn’t seem fair that Billy Joe slaves like a mule for twenty years loading/unloading freight at the local railyard, making just enough to get by and afford a blue collar budget of cheap canned beer, while someone else his age earns a six figure income pecking away at a computer surrounded by empty Cheetos packs and depleted Monster Energy drinks. Or, a woman who has never lifted more than thirty pounds in her life spends her days giving presentations, socializing with coworkers, and relaxing on Friday afternoons sipping on wine and cheese while relishing the view that comes with their posh downtown waterfront location – yet she makes enough to afford a $2,400 a month one bedroom condo in the hip part of town.
The reason Marx’s Labor Theory of Value survives is because it seems logical at face value. The person who works the hardest should make the most, right? Except there is inequality of labor value. Writing computer code or selling marketing product creates more wealth than lifting freight onto a train.
The myth of equality also completely ignores personal preferences. Some people want to become a doctor and earn $200,000 a year. Others prefer to not work 70 hours a week. Or they find fulfillment in life working a job that pays , say, $40,000. It ignores cultural attitudes about life. Some see life as a journey to be enjoyed; people who subscribe to this are often less ambitious in terms of financial gain or social status.. Others perceive life as a conflict, a struggle one must survive by earning as much money as possible.
These attitudes produce different life choices, different behaviors, and different paychecks. When it’s done on a mass scale, you see it reflected in the culture.
Inequality and the State
What makes the equality myth so harmful is that it is considered to be the natural state of things, when everyone knows, deep down, it is not. So when things are naturally unequal, we use the violence of the state to alter it. We pass laws designed to erase this inequality, but only in certain areas of life. Rather than rectify the problem, it only exacerbates it and inflames tensions between people. No conversation that starts with “we need more _____ because there are too many ______ here” usually ends up engendering harmony between the two.
As Reed puts it:
The tendency of the Beltway 99th to live in an imaginary world, of conservatives to think that everybody can be a Horatio Alger, of liberals to believe that inequality arises from discrimination, guarantees wretched policy.
What puzzles me is when libertarians get caught up in the equality movement, when all libertarianism concerns itself with is the use of coercion and aggression. It’s why left libertarianism’s dual goals, equality and the abolition of the state, are mutually exclusive. They want equality when the natural state of things dictates otherwise. Certain inequalities can be addressed through voluntary means, but at a certain point, coercion and aggression are necessary to effect real changes. It’s why socialism, which is supposed to create equality, doesn’t work.
Some may say “but inequality is caused when some people are prevented from exercising their rights.” In many cases, this is true, but again, in trying to justify state intervention, they ignore an inescapable fact.
The state is itself a product of inequality. It unequally grants power to one person at the expense of another. The citizen is inherently unequal to agents of the state. The state may employ coercion and aggression against the citizen without their consent. Yet the citizen may not do the same. The state may violate the rights of the citizen and determines how and if the citizen may respond to it.
If those looking to solve inequality wonder why years of laws, regulations, departments, policies, social engineering, and propaganda haven’t worked, perhaps they should reconsider the use of an institution that relies on inequality to function at all.