The Political Organism


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For 70+ years, the “market” and the “state” have been intimately intertwined in most western countries. Since then, there has been a lot of material improvements in production and distribution as well as a few negatives like a decrease in the quality of many of the goods and services people use as well as multiple economic bubbles that insist on popping every now and then.
Interestingly, depending on what side of the political spectrum you fall on, you tend to blame either the market or the state for the bad and praise the other for the good.
In truth, political/economic life is a matter of a thousand interrelated realities. If you change one, it can have a significant influence on the whole and on the others. There aren’t two variables “market” and “state” that just need to be balanced like a chemistry experiment to produce the right outcome. Instead, political life demands an understanding of the intricacy of the relations of the variables that could be described as “state-related” or “market-related” and how the whole relates to non-social variables such as resource availability and climate. Jane Jacobs rightly points on in “Death and Life of Great American Cities” that cities are more rightly compared to a biological organism than a physical science “system.” Our political life can’t just be reduced to statistical analysis based on probabilities since human action is not deterministic. Certainly we have certain material sine qua nons that establish a physical framework outside of which we can not work, but within the fence of material necessity, human choice allows for a variety of answers, all of which can have certain implications, but need not have them if other social factors are present.
Think, for example, of a nation which has sponsored explorers to bring back wealth to court which one the one hand would result in a royal monopoly on the wealth. On the other hand, if there are laws or customs in the nation that the king annually distribute wealth from the royal coffer to hospitals, schools, and churches or that he annually use the wealth of the royal coffer to improve roads and build public amenities, then the royal monopoly functionally becomes a public service. Because of this, the public has an interest in ensuring that the royal coffers are filled.
If, however, the sources of the wealth from the explorers dry up, what becomes of the custom of royal distribution? A broke king is of no use to his people. Thus, to balance it out, he may levy taxes on various things to make up for it. Or, the people could change their customs to respond to the changing times. They could instead choose to sponsor hospitals, schools, churches, roads, etc. with wealth produced domestically and individually. If that should ever fail, what then would the people do? With no royal treasury and no individual wealth to sponsor the good things in life, do they do without?
Within this whole narrative, the various characters can make different choices that affect how the rest of them must act either to maintain the status quo or adapt to the new situation. This is politics, an ever-adaptive response to the social needs of a particular people. So what is the answer? Is the market to blame for our social deficiencies? The
Perhaps it is not so much one or the other but forms that particular aspects of them take that should be adapted to the current needs of our people. If we reduce the organic complexity of the development of political life to a binary, we will almost assuredly destroy our society. Let us instead wrestle the complexity of market and state into service of a peaceful social order.

Is Big Government Conservative?


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A friend of mine recently confessed that as a conservative, it was “hard to be against big government when you’re living in a big government country where said big government actually works really well.” Indeed, it is hard to fight against something that functions smoothly and provides you with the things you need. Imagine refusing to get into a car with a full tank of gas and a well running engine that would take you where you needed to go just because you had to pay someone else to drive it. Not only would you have to forget using Über, you would have to forget using cabs, buses, trains, planes, etc.

Now, a typical conservative response to this might be that those things should be “privatized,” that is given into the control of non-governmental individuals or groups so that through competition, the market will naturally come up with the most efficient way of providing these services. Perhaps this is true, but as I mentioned in a previous post, our distinction between “public” and “private” is a bit strange (Andrew Strain at First Things goes further into how “private” corporations are in fact not so “private.”)

Alasdair McIntyre, in a recent talk given at Notre Dame, made the distinction between “individual goods” “public goods” and “common goods.” The first is a good that belongs to an individual; a good that only he can use or participate in (e.g. a delicious meal). A “public” good is a good that is shared by individuals but is still experienced by each as an individual good (e.g. a bus ride into work). A common good is one which belongs to a group in common, not just in terms of individual experience. This last category is perhaps a little hard to pin down not least because it is often confused with public goods (as McIntyre explains, public goods are often needed for common goods, which is where the confusion arises). However, simply put, the common good of any given group is its end or purpose, which is an ordered (and thus happy) common life. Although each individual in a group benefits from this ordered life, the ordering itself is something that transcends the individuals and is concerned also with relationship within the group.

Now, the ordering of a given country (its purpose) is through some form of government since the common good is concerned with relationship of individuals to the whole and not just individual goods. If the purpose of a country was just to ensure that all individual needs were met, perhaps no government would be needed. An anarchic social-contract theory of society might suffice. This is not the traditional Catholic view of society, however, and if Catholics are to claim any conservatism, it should be first and foremost a conservatism of Catholic teaching, not any given political movement. 

My friend mentioned above, however, is referring to being politically an American conservative, which means being against the intervention of the government into the lives of the citizens. Now, it may be true that a national government should not be directly concerned with making sure every person has a toothbrush (an individual good) but it is certainly in the interest of the common good to maintain certain public goods (which as described above, are in fact shared individual goods). Thus, if we are to live a well-ordered life in a community, we should support public goods by sharing our resources so that everyone is able to share in the common life of the community.

Does this have to happen through government? According to the libertarian Prince of Liechtenstein, Hans-Adam II, no:

The state has to become a service company which competes peacefully, and not a monopoly which gives the customer only the alternative either to accept a bad service at the highest price, or to emigrate.

However, in Liechtenstein, the government is a de facto monopoly because it is able to provide these services well and thus there is no demand for other parties to provide public service. According to Andreas Kohl Martinez at Jacobite Magazine, Liechtenstein is a libertarian paradise: Perfect freedom to opt out of state-run public service through local democracies. It is, however, the case that what “works” is big government, albeit of a tiny nation. Even in a supposedly libertarian scheme, big government isn’t bad per se.

Now, there are issues with how this is framed (because it is dependent on social-contract theory and not a conception of the common good) but it does show that public goods are judged by “what works” and not by the procedure used to attain them. Of course there are procedures that contradict the common good, and modern governments are often terrible at judging true public goods as well. Just because a government is able to provide some service efficiently does not mean that that service is a good thing. In fact, my friend’s nation is well known for corruption and perhaps big government in that country is a bad thing. But it is not bad simply because it provides public services (libertarians commonly decry government services on principle) and through some miracle, the corruption doesn’t seem to have ruined public services. In other words, big government can work.

There is a further argument (from Aristotle and Aquinas) to be made that public goods belong properly to public authority and not to private enterprise. In this view, it is not about “what works” but how to ensure that government does in fact work. But let it suffice for now to say that big government is not just a “liberal” value, but can and should be embraced by conservatives.


Prosperity, An American Religion


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The Prosperity Gospel, simply put, is the belief that God’s favor (and our own justification from sin) is experienced as material or earthly success. It is ubiquitous throughout America (and indeed, the West generally) but it takes many forms. The most obvious example is the often-caricatured Joel Osteen and similar mega-evangelists who preach success as the will of God.

Some examples are harder to recognize. One is the assumption that poverty is a sign of laziness, of vice and not only should we avoid poverty, we should avoid the vicious poor. Another is the feeling that if we’re not doing anything “significant” in the world, we’re not doing God’s will. Another is the idea that the efficiency or success of a political action is enough to make it right.

The corollary of the prosperity gospel is that suffering is a sign of God’s displeasure, or put more bluntly, we think that God doesn’t love us because we are poor, sick, in pain, lonely etc. When we’ve been told all our lives that if God shows us his favor, we will be happy and free and successful, our misery, burdens, and failures can only be a sign that God has abandoned us.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. God himself, who is Love, as the apostle John reminds us, showed his love by giving us his beloved son to suffer torture and die, unsuccessful in the world’s eyes. St. Paul asks:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Romans 8:35, 37-39)

The Prosperity Gospel is, at its roots, the offspring of Reformation theology/anthropology, specifically the idea of the total depravity of the human soul and the arbitrary justification by the gift of Faith from God. In this understanding, we can do nothing virtuous by our own free will, but all the good we do is God working through us, covering up our total depravity with direct intervention. But this also implies we can do no evil without direct intervention from God, and so our actions themselves don’t tell us if we are saved. We cannot know if we are saved unless we can show that God is working through us. Material success is God’s sign that he has saved us, otherwise we are clearly punished with misery and failure.

This is a gospel of despair and is completely antithetical to the promise of God in the scripture and through the sacraments of the Church. We are all in need of forgiveness. Success doesn’t mean we are virtuous and on our way to heaven. Nor does suffering mean we are wicked and damned. But this despair has taken hold of our country (and even our world where we have insisted on spreading it.) If God inflicts suffering on us because we are evil and depraved, we must all be evil and depraved and unworthy of love. If God grants success to his elect, then most of us experience a sad absence of election.

This insidious gospel is in fact not good news at all, and it is no wonder so many turn away from the Prosperity God. He is a vindictive and spiteful God, and heaven with Him would likely be as hellish as earth.

Yet, for all our rejection of the Prosperity God, we still seek after and desire earthly prosperity, for what else is there if heaven is hell? This leads to a viciously competitive culture and an ideal of progressive positivism; all of history ought to lead to an ever-increasing freedom of humanity from the shackles of pain and misery. We thus seek out pleasure as the main goal of our existence. Let nothing stand in our way, and certainly not a vindictive Prosperity God. This is liberalism, and it is the bastard son of the Prosperity Gospel who has rejected his profligate father.

Of course, the real Gospel holds the hope that we can do good, not just “have success.” Heaven is real, and the glories of it make the suffering of this world less than dust on the scale. God is not vindictive, but loving, and he calls us to reject earthly success so that we do not choose this life of suffering over the the afterlife of bliss.

Private vs. Public


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There is an odd distinction in modern politics: Private vs. Public. The assumption seems to be that if the “government” runs something, it is public, whereas when “private citizens” or groups of “private citizens” run something, it is private. However, “private citizen” is somewhat of an oxymoron, as “citizen” has the connotation of belonging to a political entity (most literally a city) and “government” is run by individuals or groups of individuals. A better understanding of the words “private” and “public” might be that they refer to either private or public interest. But if this is the case, things like education, healthcare, and housing are all “public” by nature, since they all serve to promote a healthier community through the care of its members.  In some people’s minds, this means that the government ought to run it as a “public” service, but this is because there is no sense that “private” companies have public obligations. Instead, there is a sense that “private” companies are doing something right when they give to charities or form charitable foundations, but not that they are doing something wrong if they don’t contribute to the health of their communities through “public” works. Thus, we have an untenable situation where the government has total responsibility for public works while trying to incentivise public aid through things like tax breaks. Ultimately, the common good becomes a tug-o-war between competing groups of people, the “government” and “corporations.”


Compare the term “Public School” in Britain and America.

Time is Pressing


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Individualism and liberalism are antithetical to politics (and especially democratic politics) because when the assumption is made that we can live according to our own truth (unless your way of life hurts someone), the only way to accomplish anything is to get people to agree with “your” truth because “other” truths are inherently harmful. Thus, you naturally get a polity that is divided not pragmatically but morally. The other side is *morally* repugnant because that’s the only calculus for rejecting someone else’s position in an individualist world view. Furthermore, this requires the individualist to propose a strict morality that applies to everyone thus contradicting the individualism he espouses. This pitting of individualistic, competing and self-contradictory moralities against one another is corrosive to any community whether it be a city, a state, a nation, or an empire; whether it be a democracy, a republic, or a monarchy.  If we dismiss the members of our communities as morally “other” we risk categorizing them as unwanted, unneeded, undesirable. It leads to treating others as sub-human and not deserving of charity whether in word or deed. It leads to a broken understanding of justice both in regards to punishment of criminals and our obligations to those around us.

What we need is to embrace a moral vision of humanity and our world that denies this individualism and regards each person as a moral and rational agent with the innate desire for good and the capacity to cooperate toward a common good. It must be a consistent moral vision that embraces all political action that promotes this common good. This political action takes many forms, but its foundation is care for the spiritual and material growth of the people. The family is where this growth begins and our energy should be focused as a society on promoting healthy families where spiritual and material welfare flourishes. Our schools should be places where this moral vision and where the family is supported in its growth as the kernel of a moral society. Our cities should be planned so that the family and the schools are given all they need to fulfill their purposes.

There are many issues that are close to many people; injustices that must be stopped, confusion that must be addressed. What is the answer? What are we waiting for? Do not hesitate on the way to demonstrate your superiority or to revile your opponents. Do not scoff at those who are less fortunate or at those you perceive as less intelligent. They are in need. You are in need. There in only One who can address every need, but we are made in His image and therefore have that capability written faintly in our hearts. He made us to be helpmates. It is time to take heed of the plight of the members of our society; those who suffer violence at the hand of another, those who experience misfortune through no fault of their own, even those who hurt themselves in apathy, despair, or confusion. We need each other and must not let fear and anger divide us, even when justified. We have a great capacity for evil, but an even greater capacity for good. Let us act on that capacity together and perhaps, by the grace of God, we can make our society great.

A Little Thought on Leisure


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86433-adapt-768-1Leisure is more than just free time. It is time devoted to the unencumbered fulfillment of the human spirit in its reflection of the Godhead. It is a time for love, creativity, and contemplation. In this way, it can only be enjoyed consistently by those who are not required to work for a living.

However, it is proper that our work also contain in itself the seeds of leisure (it should be a service or creative or yet some form of contemplation) so that even those who must work may fulfill the needs of the human spirit (in fact, one may say that work is itself a reflection of God. Yes, truly, but drudgery is proper to the fall and is not work as God Himself works.)

Furthermore, it is proper that the worker also have regular recourse to leisure that is not work, and this is to be contrasted with “recreation” or the recovery of the body and mind after working. Leisure is not passive. It requires the engagement of the whole person. For this reason, leisure is often not possible on a daily basis because for the worker, his mind and body  are not recovered sufficiently to engage in true leisure, not to mention various other responsibilities that take his time. Thus, leisure is not just “the time when you are not engaged in your livelihood.” In fact, your livelihood, as I mentioned above, should itself contain at least the seeds of leisure and there are many other uses of free time that are not leisurely.

The other reason why leisure is not possible for the average worker (nor even for the independently wealthy) is that true leisure is not understood because human nature is misunderstood. This leads to a decided lack of education in leisure which in turn leads to an inability of most people to properly pursue it. This is beside the fact that leisure itself is sort of seen as something you “earn” and often makes modern man feel guilty that he is not engaged in some utilitarian pursuit, so called. This obsession with work and utility yet this lack of understanding of leisure and human nature leads to a very depressing society in which fever-pitch activity alternates with boredom and/or bouts of mere inactivity.

This is not good for the individual nor is it good for society. We are all called to reflect God in our daily lives and we must as a society decide to ennoble work with leisure and provide the education in leisurely pursuits to all so that all may partake in natural human fulfillment in the broad variety of ways that we have developed.

The Absurdity of the Modern Market Mentality


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In a strict democracy, it’s all a numbers game. The more people who agree with a course of action, the more likely it will happen. The majority rules. The minority has to submit. This is of course assuming it is an absolute majority and not just a majority of the people who can and decide to “cast their vote.” Whatever the case, in a democracy, the more people who like something, the more valuable it is. Might, as they say, makes right.

The modern market wants to be a democracy, but instead of a vote (which in theory costs nothing except a little bit of time), the “majority” is decided by the amount of money behind a certain product or initiative. In the stock market, the more people buy certain stock, the more valuable it is. “See?” we seem to say. “Look at all those people buying up. It must be a good investment/a valuable product/a good thing.”

This happens of course on a local level. If a rich person (or even a middle class person) buys a house in a neighborhood, the neighborhood increases in value. (I mean, if a poor person buys a house in a neighborhood, it doesn’t say anything about the neighborhood since poor people “have no choice.”) Of course, as rich people buy up a neighborhood and increase the property value, poor people can’t afford to buy in the neighborhood. The value of the land and the houses has nothing to do with any intrinsic value of the land and the houses, but with how many people are buying there. The houses and land are the same before and after the sale.

Sure, the rich can afford to improve the house and land in appearance, but property values are based more on whether there are sales being made (and thus money being invested in the neighborhood) than on what the neighborhood looks like. In this way, the neighborhoods where there is more money are more valuable in the modern market mentality.

So too with any local services. Because we live in a “competition economy,” money is the deciding factor on whether something is worth keeping in the neighborhood. For example, a big-box hardware store can afford to build a new location where there is a locally owned and operated hardware store. It can also afford to sell more at a lower price. This means that although the people in the neighborhood have been happy to go to the other hardware store, it won’t win the competition because it doesn’t have as much money to compete. Furthermore, the people in the neighborhood will pay for the cheaper store and thus will cast their monetary vote for that store.

Those that are “more economically successful have a greater influence on the market than those who are “less.” In other words, the rich can do things the poor can’t, even if the poor have a better product. The only way the poorer people can compete is if they can get enough rich people to cast their monetary vote for them.

This obsession with a competitive, consumption-driven, majoritarian market translates nicely into the other realms of political life. The more money that goes into a certain initiative or candidate, the more important and valuable it seems. After all, without the support of money, nothing can get done. However, in a country split by special and individual interests, the richer special groups and individuals will always hold sway regardless of the “right” or “wrong.” Our political and economic system is, in fact, a behemoth of bribery. Political action is bought and sold daily. The federal government can refuse to give states federal funding if they don’t make the correct laws. There is no political will where there is no money.

This is what we get if we insist on the absolute neutral equality of political and economic action. When we allow any industry that can “succeed” and bring in money to the economy, we lose sight of any sense of something’s intrinsic worth. As long as enough people are investing in something, it is good. As long as enough people want a politician or a political platform, no matter how tenuously they want it, we have to accept it. After all, we live by social contract decided by a majority. Agreement is truth.

The problem is, money can buy agreement. Money can buy loyalty. Money can buy support. If only our personal interest is at stake, money can make anything palatable because it allows me to pursue my interest even if at the expense of something that we don’t like. Money is a moral equalizer.

And if that’s not a problem, I’m not sure what is.

The Basis for Equality


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While we’re on the subject of equality and justice, we might as well ask the question, “What is the basis for equality?” In what ways are all humans equal and why?

Absolute equality indicates commonality in kind and degree. We can say that two men who play for the National Football Leagues are equally football players, but not that they are absolutely equal in respect to being football players; one is better than the other. In order to determine which is better, we have to have set criteria by which we judge them. Distinctions are a necessary part of these criteria. We could very well say that one of them is a better football player, but not a better man. One could be better at running, another at catching, another at throwing. The general equality of “football player” does not factor into who is the best at this or that. It is, however, relevant to what rights and responsibilities these men have. The NFL gives certain things to and expects certain things from all its players.

When judging whether there is absolute equality in humans, we once again have to look at kind and degree. It is a pretty well-established fact that if you are human, you are human. In other words, we are all of the same kind; there is something common to all of us and binds us together as one kind as distinct from other kinds of things. Do we all have that thing to equal degrees? That is a question for the ages.

There have been many instances when human beings were “dehumanized” or at least their humanness was regarded as diminished. There is the infamous “3/5” clause in the original Constitution of the United States (as well as just general consensus that the black slave was “less human” than the white slave-owner). The Jews in Nazi Germany were considered “less human” than the Aryans. A human fetus is considered by many to be less human than an adult human. It is clear from all of these instances that the commonality of human genetics was not a factor in determining equality of degree. The “uncommonness” is what drives dehumanization.

Human genes are common to all humans and we all have them to the same degree; there are no “dilute” human genes. Are genetics (and biology) the common factor which determines human equality? What would justice based on genetics look like? In order to figure this out, we would have to figure out what good or end is common to all human genetics.

The human gene wants, as all living organism, to sustain and reproduce; to continue the existence of the human gene. If there is a “sick” gene, one unable to reproduce, or reproduce healthy genes, then that gene is not fulfilling the purpose of a gene; according to “genetic justice,” it is an insidious presence in the development of the human gene, generally speaking. If we are to base justice merely on genetics, it must, therefore, not be allowed to reproduce or infect other genes with its deficiency.

If “eugenics” comes to mind, then my point is made. It appears that not all genes are, in fact, equal. They do not all have the same potential; they are not equal in degree. A “genetic” view of equality is not absolute and will ultimately lead to dehumanization. What is it, then, that we all have in the same degree? In what do we have the same potential?

From a material standpoint, there is nothing we have that is absolutely common in kind and degree. Our bodies develop based on genes and environment and no two people have the same genes and environment. Furthermore, no one has “perfect” genes that he or she can pass on perfectly. Equality from a materialistic standpoint is a doomed project.

However, are also spiritual beings and as such have spiritual goods and ends. In my last post, I mentioned two “universal” ends: a happy and just society and union with God. Both of these are derived from humanity’s spiritual reality, not its material reality. “Happiness” and “Justice” are things unknown to genes. Union with God, who is Himself spiritual, must be spiritual in nature. However, our spiritual good is aided by our material good, and thus the good of our genes is important, yet ultimately subservient to the more absolute spiritual good.

It is in this spiritual way (with spiritual goods and ends) that we have equality. No matter what our material reality, our souls have happiness and justice (ultimately union with God is the highest happiness and justice) as their end. If we deny this, we deny any true basis for equality. If we affirm this, then all of our decisions, both in positive law and general consensus, must reflect this.

Universal Rights and the Universal Telos


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Our obligations to each other originate in common goals. If a community wants to run a soup kitchen, the members are obligated to bring soup (or other food), staff the soup kitchen, etc. If a business wants to make a profit, the CEO, managers, and employees all have specific tasks that they are obligated to perform so that profit is made. If they fail in their obligations, the business fails.

In the same way, insofar as a society has common goals, the members of the society have obligations to each other to bring about the common goals. These obligations imply certain rights; every member has a right to demand that the obligations be met and a right to see that the goal is achieved. If the goal is contingent or not absolute (such as the amount of profit or the size of the soup kitchen), then the rights are also contingent or absolute. In fact, profit-making and establishing a soup kitchen are both themselves contingent goals, contingent on some higher and more absolute goal: a happy and just society. True, either one can be used wickedly, but in each case, the ultimate goal is something else entirely.

The more absolute the goal, the more absolute the obligations (and thus rights), but also the general or abstract. The Bill of Rights gives Americans the right to bear arms for the goal of a well-ordered militia. That is a specific right for a specific goal, but the militia itself is to be formed for a more general and absolute goal: the safety and protection of the community. However, a militia of freely-armed citizens isn’t the only way to protect a society (though it may be the most just). Thus, the right to bear arms for this purpose is not an absolute right. If it was thought that only arming the best-trained citizens was the most just way of protecting the community, then only the best-trained citizens would have a right to bear arms, according to the common goal of the people.

However, people do not just have the right to the means to the goal, but to the goal itself. In the previous example, the goal is a safe society. Because this is a common goal that applies to everyone, it is a right that everyone has (and equally). How that goal is achieved, through what means, is dependent on what means are available, and of course the effectiveness of the means. Rights (and obligations) are distributed according to the means of the members of society so that those who have greater means have greater obligation (and a right to fulfill that obligation!) Ultimately, though, all of these rights and obligation are in service to a common goal. Rights are as universal as the goals to which they are applied.

The question, I suppose, is, “Are there any universal goals that apply to every human being.” If there are, then we have a foundation for a sense of “equal” or “universal” rights (and the obligation to fulfill these rights). Two goals that come to mind that apply to every human being are a happy and just society and union with God. There may be others.

If we think about these two goals, it is clear that one is more universal than the other. Union with God (according to some definitions, the ultimate being, according to others, being itself) is the ultimate universal goal to which all other goals are subordinated. Everyone, therefore, has a right to pursue this union (and in fact, some say, a duty.) We also have an obligation therefore to ensure that people are able to pursue this union. This ultimate universal goal implies ultimate universal rights and obligations, though the means to achieve the goal may mean that the rights and obligations are not identical for every single person.

However, even if we were to deny the existence of God (a dangerous prospect, to say the least), a happy and just society is universal enough, since it does indeed apply to all people (if you would like more information on this goal, consult your Aristotle.)

If the goal of a happy and just society is universal, then the right to that goal is universal, as are any rights that are necessary to achieve that goal. Of course, the definition of “happy” and “just” are operative. What is justice? What is happiness? If any society is to have this goal, they must first determine what it means. Perhaps we shall discuss these questions further at a later date.

In my previous discussion of equality, it became clear that on a purely material level, we are not equal in means; neither do we have equal rights in our contingent, material goals. However, on a spiritual or supernatural level, one that demands justice and a union with God, the rights to pursue these things is universal, though not all ways of pursing them are effective or good. Our universal rights do not mean that we have a right to do whatever we want, but rather that everyone has the same right to practice good means to a universal end, whatever those means are and whatever that end is.

A Little Thought on Equality


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As George Orwell once wrote: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Can we have a society of perfect equality? Or perhaps most importantly, should we? What does equality mean? Are “all men created equal?”

It is interesting to note that not everyone has the same definition of equality, or, I suppose more accurately, not everyone agrees on what should be equal. When the Founding Fathers stated that “all men are created equal,” they certainly weren’t talking about the black slave, and some weren’t talking about women or Catholics either. However, this aside, what “all men” were “equal” in were certain inalienable rights. Everyone (except those excluded) was endowed by the Creator with the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, among other less explicitly mentioned rights.

This idea of “equal rights” which is so fundamental to the American way of life is a little misleading. For one thing, there has always been a system of justice designed to deprive criminals of life, liberty, and/or property (sometimes considered analogous to happiness, somehow); there are some who don’t deserve to exercise their rights, even if they have them. Furthermore, where there is a dispute between individuals, an appeal to “equal rights” falls flat on its face. Whoever adjudicates the dispute must decide whose “rights” are more important.

It is often hard to exercise rights without the means to do it. For example, according to the Bill of Rights, Americans have the right to bear arms (I won’t go into the debate over this amendment right now). Not everyone can afford a gun (or a sword, or a spear, or a bow and arrow, etc.) not to mention that not everyone can afford the same kind of gun. As to the right to Life mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, not everyone has the power to decide who lives and who dies, but some people do! Not only are there lawmakers who decide what is considered a crime deserving of death, but there are also those with the social capital to influence these decisions. Furthermore, not everyone dies or lives according to his or her choice. Some are unable to provide for themselves or their families and thus their “right to life” is not fully exercised.

So, clearly “equal rights” are not absolute in our society, and if there are any rights that should be absolute, it is not entirely clear which they should be. Let us, for now, set aside the question of rights.

Perhaps, then, equality of means is what proponents of an equal society are pursuing. A perfect society is one in which everyone has the same things so that they can do and get the same things, so that no one has an advantage over the other. On the screen, it looks great. Let us not be satisfied with “on the screen” however. Imagine, if you will, that it was possible for everyone to have the same things. This would either mean that everything was shared by everyone or else that every single person owned an instance of every single thing. Ultimately, the first is the collectivist’s dream, the second, the individualist’s. However, they are both nightmares.

If everything is shared by everyone, who makes sure that everyone gets to share equally in that which is shared? If there is a farm that is shared by everyone, who farms it? If everyone who shares it takes turns farming, who decides who works when? Not everyone can farm well. Some are weaker physically, others are allergic to certain plants, etc. Clearly not everyone can work equally on the farm, so do they get less of a share of the farm? Should only those who can farm well be allowed to share in the crop? This clearly flies in the face of the “equality” first posited. Decisions have to be made by someone as to how things are shared. Things get even more complicated when we think about the fact that life demands much more than just farming. The more that is “shared” the greater the need for a decision-making authority to ensure justice.

In the individualist’s nightmare, each person owns one of everything. However, not every single farm is equal. Even if each person receives an equal size farm with an equal amount of seed, the harvest will be different in each place, not to mention the inequality already mentioned above; not everyone can farm well. To give each person everything needed for survival so that he or she need not depend on anyone else is to give everyone more than they can properly handle.

Instead of these nightmares, we of course can see that reality demands that not everyone have the same things. Inequality is a necessary part of any work toward a common end. A new building needs a leader of design and a leader of construction not to mention people to do the various tasks for each area. No one can do everything and not everyone can do something.

In the end, “equality of means” is both undesirable and impossible. After all, one of the most important “means” that we have is our own strengths, and these are all inherently different and unequal. Contrary to popular belief, this inequality is of utmost importance in reaching our common goals. Not everyone will be or can be a politician. Not everyone will be or can be a farmer, but we need people who do each if we are to reach the goal of a just society.

There is very little in which humans are naturally equal. There is always the stronger and the weaker in nature. Instead of focusing on equality, perhaps we should, as a society, be focusing on mutual cooperation within the inequality that is inherent in nature. A proper and useful distribution of rights, obligations, and means will always be unequal, and it is the only way we can work for a just society.