Question for the day: Is equality in all things a virtue?

It is a strange paradox that those who applaud diversity never transgress what Charles Murray calls the “inequality taboo.”  By this logic, diversity must mean identity, and our differences validate our sameness.  Man and woman, black and white, smart and dull, strong and flabby — the ideological scalpel of a secular faith performs cosmetic surgery on reality, and behold, all are equal in all things.

To those outside the faith, this description of the world is obviously false.  But would it be a good thing, if true?  Are the blatant inequalities of the human condition an evil that must be resisted to the greatest extent possible, by right-thinking citizens?

The first part of the question conjures a utopia in which the people, despite vast individual variations, are in some essential way equal.  I believe such a utopia in fact exists:  it’s the sphere of morality, of moral agency.  None of us are born morally superior or inferior.  We reveal ourselves as one or the other by our actions, and none can be wise enough to judge us before we act.  Equality before the law becomes a necessary consequence of our moral equality.

Can we push beyond this limited and contingent equality?  My sense is that a class of people — a type of temperament — craves absolute equality, not merely in an airy moral realm, but in the here and now, in power and wealth.  Inequality, to them, becomes injustice.   The powerful and the rich, they believe, must necessarily enslave the weak and the poor.  Unequal relations between the classes spells the death of democracy, its transformation into a well-scripted farce, a sham.

The desire for brotherhood inspired Christianity as well as the French revolution.  One shouldn’t dismiss it lightly.  But we desire many things that aren’t good for us, and that is the question here.

In practical terms, the desire for absolute equality invariably leads to tyranny.  We have known this since 1944, when F. H. Hayek published The Road to Serfdom.  Hayek’s thesis was simple and persuasive:  because inequalities are so fundamentally matrixed into our humanity, the choice of equality is never objective but rather a moral one.  A ruler or ruling class must impose their ideal of equality on the rest of us.  The real-life result, of course, is the opposite of equality:  rule by a moral aristocracy, such as Plato wished for his Republic.

I think recent history shows the reverse also to be true:  when totalitarians lose their grip on power, the first sign of freedom is a spike in inequality.  Competition creates winners and losers, which can mean the difference between life and death.

For decades North Korea sought to impose the most savage equality on its citizenry.  According to this study, however, the famine years of the Nineties ended Kim Jong-Il’s ability minutely to control the population, and also spawned a new commercial class.  “Those who could not trade are long dead,” one local observer is quoted as saying, “and we are only left with survivors hanging around now.”

In fact, as many as a million died.  That is inequality on a Darwinian scale.

Absolute equality isn’t practicable.  It leads to tyranny and death.  To maintain that it is desirable — a kind of impossible dream, like perfect peace — seems perverse and bizarre.  Every fanatical egalitarian, I suspect, wishes to become a tyrant over his moral environment, to impose his ideal of equality.  Whether the ideal sanctifies equal shares of power, wealth, race, sex, strength, beauty, or whatever, is again largely a matter of temperament.

Human nature thrills to differences.  That is why men spend so much time talking about women, and women about men.  That is why Washington Nationals fans, of whom I am one, spend so much time comparing rookie Ryan Zimmerman with the Marlin’s Dan Uggla.  Who will be Rookie of the Year?  Their numbers are almost identical, but we seek subtle differences, inequalities in this or that obscure category, that favor our man.

We seek complementary qualities to our own.  I would not wish my wife to be identical to me, in any sense of the word.  We admire excellence at least as much as we crave brotherhood.  Watching Ryan Zimmerman hit a walk-off home run against the Yankees was, inexplicably, one of the great moments of my life.  To pretend that we are all the same would take the flavor out of life, and squelch all striving to greatness.

Let me suggest that the dream of absolute equality, even when hopeless, is a positive evil.


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