Americans make a big thing out of the word "equality:" equality under the law, equal rights, equal pay for equal work — it’s a word we fuss over a lot. One of the great disputes in our society over this word is whether we should be a society of equal opportunity -you get a level playing field at the start, but your fate is of your own making- or one of equal results, that no one rises too high or falls too far below everyone else. It’s an argument tied up with another fetish word of ours: freedom. The advocates of equality of opportunity value personal liberty and are willing to put up with unequal results to preserve it, while those for equality of results are willing to sacrifice some -sometimes much- personal liberty to get those results.
Historian Victor Davis Hanson reminds us that this argument is as old as Western Civilization, dating back at least to Classical Greece:
In a word, it is adherence to the idea of equality of result rather than an equality of opportunity, the age-old debate that goes back to the Greeks. From Aristotle’s Politics and Plato Laws, we learn of the original dilemma: a stable city-state of roughly similar property owners, who vote as equals, and fight as comrades in the phalanx, tragically, but inevitably, soon becomes tragically unequal.
Divide the land up equally to found the polis; give everyone an similarly-size plot (klêros); and then health, luck, brains, accident, strength, ambition, character, and a myriad of other factors, some understandable, some capricious, conspire to create inequality. I agree with Aristotle; I have seen it with families and communities in which equal inheritances soon led to radically different outcomes, as one sibling on rocky ground thrives, while another in deep loam starves; one town with abundant resources goes broke, while another without natural advantages thrives.
As Aristotle saw, some lose, some expand their original homesteads, and suddenly we have Hoi beltistoi and Hoi polloi-and the rallying cry that someone’s liberty to do as he pleases means that egalitarianism of the lowest common denominator becomes impossible.
Dr. Hanson points out that government then has two choices: it can be coercive to ensure equality of result, or it can accept that results in society will be unequal, but that society as a whole will benefit when the freedom to succeed (and fail) is matched with a sense of personal responsibility to care for our fellow citizens.
President Obama is clearly of the "equality of results" school. His "spread the wealth in the name of fairness" comment to Joe the Plumber was simply a benign mask over his plans to use taxation for the large-scale redistribution of wealth.
The trouble with such a regime is that it leaves the most productive members of society with no reason to put out the effort needed to succeed. If, through dint of hard work and, yes, some luck, one reaches the upper middle-class, Obama and his results-oriented brethren will say "you’ve done well enough, now let’s give some of your fruits to someone who hasn’t." But the more you take from the man or woman who worked day and night to reach that happy state, the more he or she will wonder "why bother?" Eventually they stop trying, and soon society isn’t producing enough wealth to spread. Soon after that to meet its goal of equality, the government will need to spread the wealth of the middle-middle class, and then the lower-middle class, until everyone is equally mediocre.
The productive, wealth-creating elements of society are stifled, all in the name of fairness.
I prefer the equality of opportunity model. Yes, the results will be unequal, but I believe society as a whole benefits from the success of outstanding individuals more than it is harmed by those who fail. And it preserves the freedom of the individual by both telling him he is responsible for himself and letting him be the agent of that responsibility.
I truly believe that the majority of those who voted for Barack Obama did not know the extent of his redistributionist beliefs and depth of his dedication to equality of results, something I think still goes against Americans’ "genes." I expect a growing pushback as he and his progressive colleagues press their agenda, and as once again Dr. Hanson’s ancient struggle between the two ideas of equality plays itself out.
(hat tip: Blue Crab Boulevard)