The Supreme Court is in the habit these days of mandating “compulsory equality,” essentially the kind of equality enjoyed by hapless conscripts (as in the army owns you now). It seems today that when any social conflict arises, it is invariably liberty which must stand aside to make way for some judge’s concept of equality. One example should suffice: the recent ruling that universally affordable health care justifies what can only be described as the ultimately regressive sales tax, i.e. a tax levied on individuals for NOT purchasing a product (insurance). But if the price of equality is compelling those who do not wish to participate in a particular marketplace to do so under coercion, then freedom has been thrown under the bus; there is no apparent limit to state power over the individual. To be sure, Americans have been passionate about the idea of “equality” from the moment the ink first dried on the Declaration of Independence, but equality often proves to be a two-edged sword which, unrestrained, slashes indiscriminately against the competing claims of personal liberty. A conundrum thereby arises, how are we to achieve absolute equality among the peoples without infringing upon our cherished personal freedoms?
Alexis de Tocqueville addressed this very problem in his classic tome “Democracy in America.“ Observing the young American democracy back in 1831 Tocqueville noted, “The ills produced by extreme equality only become apparent little by little; they gradually insinuate themselves into the body social.
“…The good things that freedom brings are seen only as time passes, …The advantages of equality are felt immediately.
“…The passion for equality seeps into every corner of the human heart, expands, and fills the whole. It is no use telling them that by this blind surrender to an exclusive passion they are compromising their dearest interests; they are deaf. It is no use pointing out that freedom is slipping from their grasp while they look the other way.”[i]
Tocqueville realized the inevitable tendency of democracy to make equality the preeminent virtue even to the displacement of basic liberties such as privacy, freedom of conscience, even property rights. So what are we to make of that expansive term equality anyway? There are many different kinds of equality in human society, after all. Some forms are not so desirable as in the proletarian equality imposed by authoritarian states such as Cuba or North Korea. Why is a doctor in Cuba paid essentially the same wage as a bricklayer? Because Marxism defines equality in terms of economic parity. But this kind of “equality” invades other spheres as well. Consider educational “standards of equality” that proscribes a teacher from even mentioning God as a possible cause of life or even as a principle of order in nature? Woe to any high school biology teacher who suggests such a radical causality in the classroom. The bottom line is this: either submit to secular egalitarian “group-think” or risk losing your teaching position.
Of course, there are happier, and more tolerant, forms of equality which benefit us all such as the equality manifested in a loving marriage. Even though a man and a woman are distinct, highly individual creatures they come together in the bonds of marriage as equals. This visible sign of true unity and equity reflects a deeper truth, that equality resides first in our Creator and flows from his nature to ours. But more about that shortly. My immediate point is that true social equality, ideally rooted in the family structure, emanates from there into society as a whole. It should never be something imposed from the top down. Government policies that carelessly undermine family primacy will invariably harm the individual’s religious and civil liberties and create inequalities to boot. For instance, the recent HHS mandate that all health care plans must provide contraception is a perfect example of invoking “equality” to trump both family values and the religious liberty of individuals and institutions. In the end, certain forms of equality not only discourage freedom but actually lead to its erosion. Tocqueville noted, “the ills produced by extreme equality only become apparent little by little.”
It would seem that equality has become a cudgel to undermine family cohesiveness since the 1960s. By re-defining the term “family” to encompass virtually any unorthodox living arrangement, civil authorities have weakened a vital, God-given social structure, the nuclear family. Children need both an involved mother and father in order to develop into healthy adults; not the two mommies or two daddies that certain sociologists eagerly rationalize as equally effective. Liberalized adoption policies have had the net effect of reducing vulnerable children to the status of dogs or pets. Do same-sex unions provide social equality or do they merely accelerate the downward spiral of the American family which is now at its lowest ebb in history? No need to recite the depressing statistical litany of growing divorce rates, fatherless kids, domestic abuse, drug use, etc. which paints a sobering picture of family decline over the past 50 years. As government vastly expanded entitlements (under the guise of social equality) to women, children, gays and lesbians, and variously defined minorities we have seen significantly higher failure rates among families. How can that be if all these programs and policies are ostensibly designed to help families?
Ironically, the equality which is to many a key civil rights issue today is not in the nature of things as they exist. In fact nature is overflowing with inequities at every level. No two creatures, planets, or specimens are identical. So it is with mankind. No two humans are equal in intellect, judgment, brawn, or social standing. There are tall and short people, cautious and careless, good and bad. Some people are just plain luckier than others but does that mean we should outlaw casinos? Equality has never guaranteed individual success or happiness, yet it becomes an intoxicating drug to the masses as Tocqueville so ably pointed out.
Liberty is natural to man because it comes directly from God. Equality, on the other hand, is a subjective standard of comparison which invariably highlights differences more than similarities. Thus the pursuit of absolute equality frequently becomes an exercise in futility, like trying to match a paint chip exactly with an existing house color. The more one stares at it the more obvious the differences become. There are also occasions where liberty and equality conflict headlong. Should a businessman making $1,000,000 per year be taxed 90% of those earnings in order to level the disparity between his income and the median working wage? Should a virtuoso violinist be allowed only two working strings on his instrument so that his fellow musicians will sound better by comparison? Two rival philosophies are struggling for the soul of America today: one philosophy holds the state should protect fundamental freedoms while a competing school insists that it must insure equality, whatever the cost.
So what did the founding fathers mean by asserting in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal? Does “created equal” mean that gay couples should be able to tie the knot in order to decrease their tax obligations or that all employers must provide full insurance benefits to every worker? I suspect that equality in their minds was something more than an entitlement train from which to gather countless social and economic benefits. They subscribed to a longstanding Christian belief that we are all equal in the sight of God. Equality is in the soul of man because it reflects its Maker. God is a community of three co-eternal and co-equal persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Apart from the theoretical universe of mathematical abstraction the only absolute measure of equality is to be found in God himself. God is, therefore, the ultimate measure of equality.
By sharing in some small way in God‘s absolute equality, every soul shares a bond of spiritual equality with every other human soul. Furthermore the Son of God, Jesus Christ, bestowed a new dignity on every person by redeeming mankind. This equality of dignity in God’s sight demands that we respect one another as fellow temples of the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless in our human capacities — spiritual, intellectual, physical, and emotional — we are anything but uniform. True equality resides neither in society, politics, nor the marketplace but only in the human soul, a place where we have no ability to see or make comparisons. Nevertheless inequality does in fact prevail in the social order and with good reason. No society could function let alone exist if everyone were exactly the same. Some are natural leaders, others are thinkers, producers, followers, and the like. St. Paul uses the analogy of the body, “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another.” (Rom. 12:4,5) Despite a million lesser distinctions it is the soul which gives each person inestimable and equal value in the sight of God.
As long as we accept this Judeao-Christian notion of spiritual equality then a harmonizing degree of social equality and even liberty proceed quite naturally from it for we are, according to St. Paul, “..individually parts of one another.” Under such conditions equality and liberty are perfectly able to co-exist and prosper in a democracy. Our nation’s founding fathers subscribed to this broadly religious understanding of equality while acknowledging God’s supreme authority in determining who possesses what gifts for the greater good of society. Even those founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin who were of a more Deist than Christian persuasion accepted that society’s welfare ultimately depended upon God’s providence and a strong, religiously based ethic among the people. American democracy thrived because it was planted in the fertile soil of Judaeo-Christian culture. That soil had a clearly rooted Biblical moral foundation. Free men were best able to govern themselves when they practiced Christian self-restraint. After all the most effective form of social control is self control.
Views have obviously changed in today’s secular world and God is not always acknowledged to be the source of our equality. But what happens when one removes democracy from its Judaeo-Christian soil? Those freedoms and equalities which democracy is meant to insure flourish only so long as they are understood in a Christian context. When God is purged from the equation equality becomes a destructive idol, something akin to a hammer used for social engineering. If we deny God’s existence then we must inevitably substitute some notion of human equality for its divine counterpart. The net effect is to create an “idolatry of the self.” If “God is dead” as Nietzsche proclaimed then man must be the new “god.”
American society today has become increasingly divided between the traditional Christian understanding of freedom, justice, equality and a secular, post-Enlightenment vision. There are many reasons for this division but I believe that much of our deep seated social conflict is theoretically rooted in a tract published in 1651 by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. Hobbes’ underlying premise is that in the natural state “every man has a right to everything.” He deftly substitutes the Judaeo-Christian “Natural law” with his own “law of nature,” lex naturalis. He expounds on this theme by saying “the laws of nature are immutable and eternal.” But Hobbes’ laws are not eternal in the same sense that the Ten Commandments are eternal, nor even in some cosmic sense, because Hobbes’ lex naturalis does not originate in nature itself but in a presumed social contract among men, the first principle of which is the absolute equality of human beings. Prior to human society Hobbes does not recognize any law. As he avows, “Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice.”[ii]
Conversely, God’s eternal laws, visibly manifested in Natural law, are unchanging. Its statutes apply even to the lone individual wandering in a remote wilderness a thousand miles from civilization. Hobbes’ “law of nature” is both temporal and conditional, resting upon mutable human society. God’s law is imprinted upon the heart of man; even in the Garden of Eden it was in full force. If Hobbes’ premise, “every man has a right to everything,”[iii] be true then Adam and Eve could never have fallen through disobedience. It would have been unjust for God to punish them for taking something to which they were entitled, after all. The truth is that Hobbes’ “law of nature” is really a subtle deconstruction of the “Natural law” as codified in the Ten Commandments. (For Hobbes original sin did not effect any loss of integrity, only the penalty of dying.)
As is true of a great number of modern day moralists, moral relativism pervades Hobbes’ doctrine: “Good and evil are names that signify our appetites and aversions; which in different tempers, customs, and doctrines of men are different.”[iv] Morality was, in other words, a fluid and changeable code of behavior occasioned by purely human desires and initiatives. Leviathan in a sense became the early prescription for the modern dystopic statist culture because it makes human desire the basis of morals and laws. Hobbes’ morality is defined by human passions and the state, not by God or his Church.
Leviathan represents an important landmark in the development of modern social and political thought. Later progressive thinkers and social activists would echo its passages, many of which anticipate the totalitarian socialist state, “..for equal distribution is the law of nature, and other means of distribution cannot be imagined.”[v] Hobbs penned those prescient lines some two centuries before Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto! He further advanced the nascent theory of man’s perfectibility which would later gain popularity among liberal social progressives. “The same laws [of nature] because they oblige only to a desire, and endeavor… are easy to be observed. For in that they require nothing but endeavor, he that endeavors their performance fulfills them, and he that fulfills the law is just.”[vi] In other words, justification is no longer a free gift of God (who seems to play little active role in Hobbes’ universe) but something that man achieves simply by giving it a good effort. For Hobbes, natural law is no longer a covenant between God and man but merely an understanding between man and nature, incidentally the same nature over which man presides, conveniently, as the sole rational component.
Curiously, Hobbes openly embraces social equality alongside a strict absolutist view of government. He considered the authoritarian Machiavellian state controlled by a sovereign ruler as the optimum stable social order. How is one to square such apparently opposing principles? The answer is that democracy does not have a monopoly on equality. Peasants toiling in a hot field share far more equality than they do freedom. Equality is no guarantor of liberty, after all, as Communism has ably demonstrated over the past century. Even democratic states can turn frighteningly despotic given the right conditions. So it was not irrational for Hobbes to hold that state absolutism and equality were compatible principles in civil society.
His eighth and ninth laws of nature read like modern liberal political slogans. “That no man by deed, word, countenance, or gesture declare hatred or contempt of another.” Again, “that every man acknowledge another for his equal by nature.”[vii] Such high sounding phrases may sound like a recipe for universal tolerance, inclusiveness, and equality. However, the very same words also apply to a Marxist proletariat regime where every worker is equally subservient to the state. Political and social equality play out very differently in North Korea and the United States. Based upon historical experience it is apparent that not all forms of equality are equal.
Democratic equality may be viewed through many different lenses. The lens that contemporary society increasingly favors is hardly the lens our founding fathers had in mind. Courts and political leaders today demand an “equality of outcome” which is a perversion of the “equality of opportunity” that Jefferson, Madison, and their peers believed to be the only kind of equality compatible with freedom. Even in a horse race we expect equality at the starting line, but not at the finish line. How exciting would the race be if every horse started at a different point on the track so that all the contenders might reasonably end up in a “photo finish” at the end? Yet that is essentially what all our “social leveling” and affirmative action programs attempt to do. They use equality as justification for implementing some preferred social change, however inequitable it may prove to be.
But “equality of outcome” is little more than a utopian chimera because it militates against human nature itself. Some people are motivated to succeed while others are willing to coast. History has long proven that no state can guaranty outcomes indefinitely. One cannot outlaw gravity because some people get hurt by falling down. The major impediment to universal equality is and will remain the competitive human spirit itself. The vast outlay of money on sports and election campaigns should dismiss any theoretical notion of outcome-based equality. People still want to win, and winning does not generally mean sharing the pot with the losers.
Equality of opportunity must never be confused with equality of outcome. Once we allow that Trojan Horse into the city there will be endless confusion and chaos, but very little equality. Chaos breeds anarchy and equality is always the first casualty of anarchy. But even in Hobbes’ theoretical utopian world it is impossible to claim absolute equality. We need look no further than Hobbes himself for our proof. Since no one else will ever be Hobbes, therefore no one will ever be equal to Hobbes. Each person has a subjective, distinct consciousness which manifests itself as an ego. No “other” can or ever will be fully equal to the “I.” Hobbes may see other men as essentially equal beings but not one of them will ever be Hobbes himself. This is the problem upon which all systems of natural equality must eventually flounder. You will never be entirely equal to me simply because “I am me,” and no other can be me. Self autonomy is fundamental to the creed of every liberal modern society that believes in equality, and yet it is this very same sense of autonomy which competes with and undermines the very idea of equality. “I am just as good as any other man,” when psychologically filtered through our human ego invariably means that “no other man is quite as good, and therefore equal to me.”
Hobbes preached equality on the one hand but defended absolutism out of logical and practical necessity. Millions of competing human egos are certain to create chaos. This necessitates the domination by one ego (monarchy) or a limited group of related egos (oligarchy). We are all fundamentally selfish beings who desire equality, yes – but on our own terms. We want peace – on our own terms. We want justice, prosperity, even love but always on our terms. I can accept equality among everyone else, but they will never be equal to me! We will never be happy with someone else’s terms except under compulsion. Therein lies the need for an absolutist state which can impose its own terms, ostensibly for the good of all.
Of course there is another, more humane, way to level the self with the rest of humanity which is to acknowledge a higher being capable of taming our unruly human egos. Only God can, in a sense, “put each one of us in our place.” Just as an infant is completely self-centered until it is gradually socialized into its family by its wiser parents, so God instills his Natural law in each one of us to socialize us and give us that harmonizing sense of equality with one another. We may be very different from the “other guy” but from God’s mountaintop we are all just heads of grain waving in the wind far below on the golden plain.
The one and only source of true equality must therefore be God, not some sovereign state. If we run God out of the public square, out of the courtroom, out of the classroom, and out of the bedroom what kinds of equality will we be left with? Hobbes’ lex naturalis is little more than the law of rebellion against the divine law. It is the same law of rebellion that Adam and Eve obeyed in the Garden of Eden when assured by the serpent that “you will be like gods, knowing what is good from what is evil.” (Gen. 3:5) They confused opportunity with outcome. Why work to develop the human opportunities they had been given when they were falsely promised equality with God? They forgot who they really were until it was too late. When they finally regained their sense they found that even the equality which had existed between themselves was shattered.
This is precisely why it is so essential to be certain of our true identity. We are the privileged offspring of God himself, and yet we are infinitely less than God! That alone is the basis of our equality, an equality based upon a humble realization of who we are. If we see ourselves as the product of something that crawled out of the primeval slime rather than sparks emanating from the Almighty’s anvil we will have shortchanged ourselves. Self identity is everything. Without a clear recognition of our divine lineage it makes little difference whether we live in a democratic, oligarchic, or autocratic society. Our sense of freedom and equality will be severely compromised, or worse subjected to any stronger human power. Those liberties can endure only so long as the people understand that they are first of all God’s subjects. When free citizens begin to deny their subjection to God as outlined in Natural law they will inevitably be subjected to the whims of the state. The only question remains, do we prefer to live as free citizens under God or to become (equal) subjects of an absolutist secular state where God has no voice?
Secularism is a danger to any truly free society because it removes an important braking mechanism, fear of God, that moderates human behavior. Edmund Burke famously quipped, “a man’s passions forge his fetters.” Hobbes’ natural man is a creature of unregulated passions and, lacking any serious motive to curb his excesses, the state must do so, but only those excesses expediently deemed offensive. Human values are, after all, quite changeable so a secular power might even encourage sexual license and / or rebellion against established religious authority in order to maintain its own grip on the people. Authentic freedom is thus traded for the false freedom of the moral anarchist and libertine. Revolution simply becomes a useful tool for social evolution, the endless Marxist / Hegelian quest for elusive “equality” which is never quite achieved, as exemplified by Castro’s Cuba.
Ultimately it is man’s recognition of God’s sovereignty, not some utopian vision that provides true equality. For free men and women some sort of religious faith is therefore essential to any successful democratic enterprise. Without the moral restraint incumbent upon a basic belief in God, mankind resorts to Hobbes’ lex naturalis which civil authorities may use to justify human laws which contravene the Judaeo-Christian Natural law. In the long run abortion, same-sex unions, compulsory insurance, invasive security measures, etc. do not expand human liberties but threaten them. The proper role of legislators is certainly not to create moral anarchy, which is the first sure step to social anarchy! Anarchy has forever been the tool of despots and totalitarian regimes to justify the seizure of power, and the imposition of a much different form of equality the equality of slavery.
In the end we must choose that kind of equality which best serves authentic democratic principles. Otherwise we will suffer the consequences. The kind of arbitrary equality which is imposed from above, whether it be the courts or administrative state authority represents a form of paternalistic tyranny. True freedom means freely embracing that moral equality which is a natural outgrowth of God’s Natural law. By accepting others as our equals in the sight of God we show an understanding of equality at a deeper level, the equality of love. Such equality produces courtesy, kindness, and the true charity which is a sign of our Christian vocation. No other sort of equality is compatible with human liberty, nor can it be free of external compulsion, nor preserve the dignity of every individual. Equality cannot be legislated or mandated; it requires a humble recognition of God’s ultimate sovereignty. If so it will then be exercised freely as one of the natural benefits of freedom.
Francis J. Pierson
[i] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Part II, 1840, p.
[ii] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651, New York, Touchstone ed. 1997, p. 101
[iii] ibid., p. 103
[iv] ibid., p. 123
[v] ibid., p.120
[vi] ibid., p. 123
[vii] ibid., p. 119,120