Posted by Curt on 24 March, 2015 at 7:20 am. 15 comments already!


Matthew Cochran:

It’s only been a few centuries since the idea of equality became a staple of Western political conversations. In that time, it has brought about some substantial benefits. We no longer divide our citizens into peasant and lord or master and slave, for example. Those with power and authority can be brought before a judge and answer to the same law as those they govern. It’s a concept that would be quite novel in many times and places, but it has been effective when it comes to curbing abuses of authority (while it lasts, at any rate.) It’s no wonder that equality has become a powerful political concept. Appealing to it has great potential to spur action and provoke change.

Nevertheless, such power has a tendency to corrupt even good ideas, and equality is no exception. As the West became more and more impressed with this new hammer it acquired, we began to see every social problem as a nail. As time passed, we sought to extend equality and enforce it within every area of life—often to our own detriment. Eventually, we changed it from a political tool with specific and defined purposes to a broad, factual belief to which all human thought and behavior must be made to conform.

When this happened, equality ceased to be our servant and instead became our god. Rather than a means to an end, we deemed it valuable for its own sake, and today it claims unjust authority over our lives.

‘Equality,’ the Modern Incantation

C. S. Lewis wrote about this transformation half a century ago in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” In it, the demon Screwtape discusses Hell’s efforts at undermining every form of human excellence through modernity. He wants the humans to use the word “democracy” as a kind of incantation—not as a term with a clear definition, but as a sound that invokes a particular set of feelings in both speaker and audience. Screwtape advises his underlings accordingly:

You can use the word Democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading (and also the least enjoyable) of all human feelings. You can get get him to practise, not only without shame but with a positive glow of self-approval, conduct which, if undefended by the magic word, would be universally derided. The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say I’m as good as you.

Our everyday language has changed a bit since 1959. Nowadays, when Americans use democracy as an incantation, it is usually to generate certain feelings about our military adventurism in the Middle East. However, we do use equality in precisely the way Lewis describes. In the same paragraph, Lewis himself connects democracy with “the political ideal that men should be equally treated” which Screwtape uses to “make a stealthy transition in [human] minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal. Especially the man you are working on.”

Regardless of how the magic word has changed, the practical function of the incantation has not. Although the word is shouted far and wide, we seldom consider what we actually mean by equality. Neither do we question exactly what measurements or characteristics we suggest are equal. Sometimes we mean our standing before the law, other times we mean our virtues, still other times we mean our genders, but we never bother to specify because the specifics have become unimportant to us.

By and large, invocations of equality are merely used to ward off good judgment by generating feelings of offended entitlement that cry either “I’m as good as you” or, perhaps just as common among the social-justice warriors who most regularly abuse the word, “He’s as good as you.” No excellence can be acknowledged lest others feel ashamed or left out.

Overemphasizing Equality Erases Distinctions We Need

Some of our most poisonous philosophies have only managed to afflict America under the aegis of this kind of equality. No matter what our differences may be, we are told that these differences make no difference because we are all equal. Yet civilization hinges on the being able to recognize and judge certain differences. When we willfully fail to do so, the natural consequences are dire.

Socialists, for example, proclaim an idealistic equality of rich, poor, and everyone in between as their rationale for equalizing wealth and income among them in fact. They chant equality over incomes and outcomes and expect society to fall in line. But a broad equality that purports to cover every aspect of economics ignores the very important distinction between the industrious and the lazy—between those who produce wealth and those who merely consume it.

Unfortunately, a society that is either blind to this difference or dismisses it as unimportant is fundamentally incapable of either discouraging laziness or rewarding and training a strong work ethic. It cannot encourage economic excellence among its citizens because it flattens the difference between excellence and inferiority. Equality instead demands the redistribution of wealth among lazy and industrious alike. Accordingly, such a society rewards the administration of wealth rather than its production, for only administration can achieve this venerated equality.

This is precisely how our own economy has shifted over the years. Administration does have a legitimate role to play, in that it aids the productive by greasing the wheels of commerce; but we do not treat it as a mere supporting role. The wealthiest of us are increasingly found among the bankers—those who administrate the wealth others have produced and skim off as much as they can.

Likewise, the largest and most successful businesses tend to be the ones who are better at influencing government administrators to provide them special favors and opportunities. Meanwhile, as Lewis observed over 50 years ago, taxes and penalties meant to equalize rich and poor are destroying the middle class. These were precisely the people most willing to make sacrifices so their children would be better-educated and more productive than they were themselves—the class which, Lewis notes, “gave to the humans the overwhelming majority of their scientists, physicians, philosophers, theologians, poets, artists, composers, architects, jurists, and administrators.”

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