Sunday, March 2, 2008

What is a liberal? (part 2-equality)

Equality is, perhaps one of the most elusive qualities in modern thought. Almost all argue for it, or claim to be advancing its cause, but there seems to be very little agreement as to what equality actually means. In his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence, the historian Jacques Barzun argues: “In arithmetic equality is a simple idea; once grasped, never unsure. In society it is complex and elusive. Thinkers who argue from a state of nature find it easy to say that all are born free and equal; but that is only because in that imagined state there are no standards to measure people by and at birth no talents to compare.” He concludes his arguments a few paragraphs later:

There is but one conclusion: human beings are unmeasurable. It follows
that equality is a social assumption independent of fact. It is made for
the sake of civil peace, of approximating justice, and of bolstering
self-respect. It prevents servility, lessens arrogant oppression, and
reduces envy—just a little. Equality begins at home, where members of the
family enjoy the same privileges and guests receive equal hospitality without
taking a test or showing credentials. Business, government, and the
professions assume equality for identical reasons: all junior clerks, all second
lieutenants, earn so much. In other situation, as in sports and the
rearing of children, equivalence based on age, weight handicap, or other
standard, is computed so as to equalize chances. That is as far as the
principle can stretch.

It is obvious that not everyone is “equal” in their various talents. It would be absurd, for example, to wish that everyone in the country had a statistically equal chance at becoming president. What would our government be like if our president was chosen by lottery? We are all much better served by allowing those with the better ideas, talents, skills and popular support compete for the job. Clearly if equality is going to have meaning in society it is necessary to recast the broad-brush approach to equality.

If we are going to argue that equality is important to free society, then we need to address Mr. Barzun’s objection regarding a lack of standards. By what standard can we rationally say that equality has meaning for society? The answer, in fact, is found in Mr. Barzun’s initial objection. At birth everyone is the same, that is to say, in a free society no person should, by accident of birth, be disqualified from full membership and participation in society- thus all are equal. A unique feature of Mormon theology supports this idea– the refutation of original sin by the Mormon conception of the cleansing power of Jesus Christ. The impact of this is stated in the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 2:26.) This extends to racial, gender, ethnic, and religious lines–“. . . he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God . . .” (2 Nephi 2:26 emphasis added)

To fully avoid Mr. Barzun’s more sweeping argument, we must speak specifically of political equality. Political equality is not an individual’s possession of the same amount of some trait when compared to others, but society’s lack of a trait, namely the assignation of value, position, or reward to individuals based on criterion other than merit (those arising from circumstances of birth or other uncontrollable events.) Therefore political equality is not a measurement where everyone measures the same against some standard. Equality is society’s lack of irrelevant standards imposed at birth. Conceiving of equality as lack of unmerited judgment is also reinforced by, and itself reinforces, the idea of individuals as moral agents. For example if we cannot use race as a measuring stick then we must use some other measurement; one that reflects on the merits of the situation for which measurement is required. If a black man is applying for a position as professor of law, it should be his law credentials that are under review, not his race. Merit can be developed, or not, by individuals exercising their moral agency. We cannot assume that some people, by virtue of birth, are more worthy to participate in public discourse than others.

To this point it seems as if liberals and most conservatives would have very little to disagree about, (there still is an unfortunate wing of the conservative movement that does indeed believe that race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or national original are significant justification for denial of full participation in society.) The disagreement seems to be one of what factors present at birth deserve consideration, and what consideration should be given. For example, does the principle of equality mean that the children of a billionaire and a welfare mom are inherently equal, and therefore no special advantage should be given to one or the other (is income irrelevant)? Or does it mean that the poverty of the mother should not deny the poor child an education equal in quality to that of the one born into wealth? In other words, should a brilliant poor child be denied the best education by accident of birth, while the spoiled rich child attends all the best schools? And what should the rest of society do about it? The liberal answer would be that the circumstances of the mother should not bear on the child’s furtherance, and that society has a responsibility, by virtue of its commitment to equality, to help the child overcome the disadvantages over which she had no control. Thus allowing her ideas and contributions to be judged against those of the billionaire child on merit alone, uninfluenced by factors extraneous to those ideas. It is liberals’ belief that equality is an aspiration, a goal that society is continually working toward, that distinguishes it from conservative views which hold that equality is an achieved fact, or an inherent characteristic of our society.

This will bring us to our third quality, fraternity.


vaclaw family said...

Let me introduce myself, I am a childhood friend of Allison's. I stumbled upon your blog out of curiosity. I am a born and raised mid-westerner and life long Mormon. I consider myself conservative, I tried to be a "liberal mormon" in the 90's, but have changed my views. I have spent the past 5 years working as an RN in our local Labor & Delivery dept. I have something to say concerning welfare moms, big government enslaves the poor of this country, giving cash incentives to not marry and therefore ensuring these unfortunate children will grow up fatherless. I know capitalism is a dirty word to liberals, however I don't see a way around it until the Second Coming. People simply won't be inspired to work hard if they know there is a bail out around the corner, and maybe I'm a synic but I'll bet on human nature 9 times out of 10. It is insulting to the disadvantaged of society to deny them the opportunity to work for what they receive. And it breeds resentment and hostility from those of society that work. I don't meant to generalize here because certanily there are success stories of people who've benefited from government programs, however the attitude of entitilement without work is absolutely mind boggling to me.

Jack & Danielle Monroe said...

I have to agree with the Vaclaw family. Some things sound great in a classroom, but do not work in practice. My sister is a social worker and has seen large government programs (mostly money handouts) do much more harm than help. Again, she says the programs are great in theory, but they aren't making a difference - at least in the families she works with. Also, I believe in agency. Giving, etc. is right, but it should not be enforced by law, even if everyone votes for it. It sorts of isn't giving then.