Essay: Oh, that Egalitarian Feeling

Oh, that Egalitarian Feeling!

Tibor R. Machan

If I recall this right, the prominent philosopher and legal theorist, Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago (where she is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics), has argued that while it is true that full human equality is not something found in the world, we are, nevertheless, obligated to try to bring it about. She wrote, in her book Sex and Social Justice (Oxford UP, 1999), "At the heart of this tradition [of liberal political thought] is a twofold intuition about human beings: namely, that all, just by being human, are of equal dignity and worth, no matter where they are situated in society, and that the primary source of this worth is a power of moral choice within them, a power that consists in the ability to plan a life in accordance with one’s own evaluation of ends." (SSJ,57) She has also written, in that same work, that "Human beings have a dignity that deserves respect from laws and social institutions. This idea has many origins in many traditions; by now it is at the core of modern liberal democratic thought and practice all over the world. The idea of human dignity is usually taken to involve an idea of equal worth: rich and poor, rural and urban, female and male, all are equally deserving of respect, just in virtue of being human, and this respect should not be abridged on account of a characteristic that is distributed by the whims of fortune."

Professor Nussbaum has, accordingly, devoted herself to just that mission, via several global initiatives, working with the World Institute for Development Economics Research, which is an organization connected with the United Nations. (Full disclosure: she once very kindly penned a foreword to a book I co-authored with Craig Duncan, Libertarianism: For and Against [Rowman & Littlefield, 2006], making no bones about which side of the debate featured in that book she supported.) I am afraid her good will in attempting to rearrange the world so that all humans are equal, especially in economic matters and how they fare medically, educationally, and in other eras where inequalities are evident, is misguided and can do much more harm than good.

A good start on understanding why this is so can be made by considering the short story by the late Kurt Vonegut, titled Harrison Bergeron, in which we are offered a good debate about perfect equality as well as a picture of what a country would look like in which it is the ruling regime. But this is fiction and too many slights of hand can sneak in, so let me just make clear why the egalitarian world Professor Nussbaum advocates is a very bad idea.

To start with, the egalitarian ideal isn’t that of the American Declaration of Independence in which we are told that "all men are created equal." Never mind about the precise process of creation the Founders had in mind, divine or natural, the equality they were referring to is what most people know is equality under the law or procedural equality. In particular, what the Declaration declared is that all human beings are equal in possessing the rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and whatever other rights are implied by these. (The U. S. Constitution is an attempt to work out just what they are and the U. S. Supreme Court often struggles with the task of applying the principles of the Constitution to concrete cases put before it.)

To be plain about the matter, the Declaration’s conception of human equality acknowledges that everyone has the right to live, to act freely, to devote oneself to peaceful goals of one’s choosing. Accordingly, however, one can be quite unequal in one’s life conditions to others. One may not be as healthy as one’s neighbor, nor as wealthy or good looking or bright or lucky. So long as these unequal conditions are attained peacefully, without violating anyone’s rights, that is perfectly acceptable and just, as it is perfectly acceptable that the outcome of a marathon race would be decisively unequal for the participants. Indeed, although many speak of the Declaration’s support of "equality of opportunity," that isn’t quite right either. After all, just as in a marathon or virtually any other race the participants come to it with very different abilities, preparation, motivations–e. g., not everyone runs to win, some do it for the exercise or to simply have the experience–so in life the starting point is very different for different people.

Now inequality is clearly objectionable from this position when it is created by violence, by imposing on people by oppressing them, limiting their liberty to strive for a good life either on their own or in free, voluntary associations with others. But it isn’t the inequality per se that’s the problem but the intrusiveness, oppression, tyranny and so forth which often produces it. Clearly, without such interference there could still be inequality among human beings, based on one’s natural attributes and life conditions. Yet it is not all that easy to sort out just why inequalities occur. At times it is evidently something that’s no one’s doing, as when someone is very tall while another very short in physical stature (although even in this the poverty that others may have imposed on someone or someone’s family could be instrumental).

Bottom line, however, is that no matter how diligently Professor Nussbaum and all who agree with her might work at it, there is no reasonable prospect for establishing total human equality, nor is it a value to be pursued. Why would it be a good thing to have us all equal? Our equal human dignity does not imply that we are better off if we are equal in our benefits and burdens to all others. It is a non-sequitur to believe that! Indeed, many of our greatest benefits in our social lives come from the prominence of inequalities among human beings, even some that are undesirable. For example, doctors and medical researchers benefit from the presence of the sick! Teachers benefit from the presence of ignorant students. The superb talents of artists and athletes are of benefit to all who enjoy witnessing what such persons can but they cannot do!

One source of the desire for full equality is clearly that in our families and small associations there is cause for insisting on some of it. Families ought to share the benefits of a superb dinner or household and in a college classroom all the students ought to be attended to professionally and helpfully by the teacher.

But notice the limited range of these cases where equality is a valid objective! Extrapolating from them to societies at large, let alone to the entire globe, is unjustified and the attempt to do it has wrought havoc in the world whenever it has been tried seriously. The dystopian vision of Vonegut, then, has it right, after all, as do the warnings off all those who insist that imposing the vision of full equality in human societies will mean very little equality–after all, those doing the imposing will certainly always be unequal to the rest–but a whole lot of grief from the deployment of massive government coercive force.

Finally, are all of us of equal worth, really? At birth, perhaps, although it is probably more correct to say that at that point our moral worth, our dignity, hasn’t really surfaced yet. Only once we begin to make an impact on the world, including our own lives, do we earn our dignity, provided we do a commendable job of that task. And it is a myth to think that everyone does so. Even egalitarians will have to contend, implicitly at least, that opponents of their project aren’t so deserving of dignity as are those who support it.

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