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.”
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.