Of course, Jefferson’s statement is patently ridiculous. Whether in terms of height, strength, empathic capability, mathematical agility, or any number of other aspects, all people are not created equal; we are each radically different. So, Jefferson wasn’t making a statement about biology or psychology; rather, he was positing the formal structure of a society and its relationship to each of the individuals which comprise it, manifested in its legal and moral structure. As an aspiration, he looked to build a society in which each person was seen and dealt with equally by the state/government/body politic.
But, just as we are each born with different capabilities/attributes, when nurture is added to nature—different family environment, different physical environment, health/wealth/culture—things spin even more wildly.
In particular, I was thinking about social and economic aspects of inequality, the subject of the hefty (both physically and intellectually) recent volume: Capital and Ideology by the French economist Thomas Piketty. There is much to like in this book, as well as much to criticize. Still, it is striking when Piketty writes history as if equality is not measured by the formal legal structure of a society. He makes the point (implicitly) that we are so embedded in the state-centered, legally-defined, rights-oriented epistemology of modernity that we easily brush aside the vast and deep differences in standards of living (whether compared domestically or, even more so, internationally) and characterize ourselves as an ethical and successful society.
He also (expressly) makes the point that the era of “Atlantic Revolutions” (English (1689), American (1776), and French (1789) (not to mention others in Europe and Latin America in the first half of the 19C)) was, unsurprisingly about throwing over the idea that each person’s life was effectively determined by the status (clergy, nobility, commons) into which they were born. From the perspective of a ‘dialectic’ view of history, these revolutions were about getting rid of monarchy and formally embedded privilege. What remained were a variety of mechanisms, principally the sanctity of “private property” but also including slavery and imperialism, by which the “haves” continued to “have” and the “have nots” didn’t.
You don’t have to buy into his set of solutions (which he calls “participatory socialism”) to be impressed with the data-based analysis he musters to support his characterizations of economic inequality (again, both within and between countries) over the past 200+ years. Piketty also points out that while racist thinking has played a considerable role in this process, it is not the root of economic inequality. Indeed, he argues (as I have in earlier postings) that much of the current discontent among “working class”/less-educated whites in the US and Europe is a reflection of their belief that they are being left behind by economically advantaged/better educated cosmopolitan elites. And that this discontent represents a broad and fundamental challenge to the stability of “advanced” societies.
The point of all of this is to force us to reassess what we mean by “equality.” The French writer Anatole France said, late in the 19C: “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.” In the end, it is a question of whether the superficial quality of the law is morally sufficient. Engraved on the front of the US Supreme Court building is “Equal Justice under Law,” in case you were wondering what our official national priorities really are.
We know enough to know that the theory of “meritocracy” with which many of us grew up not only covers up all manner of embedded bias/advantage/privilege, but, by its very mechanistic nature also skews our moral thinking, allowing us to conflate individual worth with “success.”
It is no small matter to wrestle with these concerns at both a personal and at a societal level. It is far from simple to articulate the kind of restructuring of society implicit in a more substantive equality and to turn aspirations and slogans into concrete proposals. Is it sufficient, for example to aim for a substantial narrowing of income and wealth inequality over the next fifty years? Or do we need to start with the definitive goal of averaging it all out ASAP? Do we conceptualize and act on a national basis or a global one? Would I be comfortable living on 10% of my current net worth (still hugely more than national (much less global) averages)?
It is daunting to contemplate how to make the changes necessary to accomplish these goals. It’s not so clear precisely where we should be heading and the tactics of dealing with educational opportunity, tax structures, income redistribution, environmental, racial, and post-imperial justice are problematic to be sure. But it is more clear where passivity will lead, both in terms of personal integrity and societal cohesion.
In this way, the question of equality/inequality is not so different from the principal subjects of this blog: democracy, environment, and candor about who we are and what we want. These are all tough, steep roads to be walked; but, as my good buddy Chairman Mao once said: “A thousand mile journey begins with the first step.”