The Idea of Equality in America

MAY 01, 1978 by L. JOHN VAN TIL

Dr. Van Til heads the Department of History and is Chairman of the Social Science Core Program at Grove City College, Pennsylvania. He is the author of several books and articles and is active as a speaker. Further rights to this article are retained by him.

Apostles of reform in our time have convinced millions of Americans that the good life for all is finally possible, that Americans are about to enter the "promised land." All that must be done, they say, before the good life can be achieved is to have us bow down before the sacred idea of equality. Thinking in materialistic terms, the apostles of reform believe that the good life can be provided for all if only we use the power of the central government to distribute the "fruits of industri­alism" equally. These well-in­tentioned reformers argue that we have most of the programs legislated and in operation, thanks to the efforts of the proponents of the Great Society. Richard Nixon preached this message, with some modifica­tion, and Jimmy Carter has em­braced this doctrine of reform as well.

Contemporary reformers believe that programs like Affirmative Ac­tion and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will right all wrongs in the market place, mellow evil hearts, elevate the downtrodden, and distribute the benefits of an affluent society to all. In the name of equality all sorts of programs are proposed, programs to guarantee a minimum income, pro­vide "free" medical service to every citizen, and much more. The Walter Mondales and Joseph Califanos of our time demand programs numerous to list, and they make their demands in the name of equal­ity.

Today’s Gospel of Reform

The apostles of reform today, the men of good will who cut their social and political teeth in the nursery of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal or in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, dream about every American hav­ing the same "rights," the same privileges, the same benefits, the same status, and all of this guaran­teed to them by the central govern­ment. Unfortunately, most Ameri­cans have not stopped to ponder the implications of this new gospel of reform. Indeed, most of the apostles of reform themselves have not thought about the implications of their demands. Millions of Ameri­cans have been captivated by the prospects which the new social pro­grams seem to offer. They believe that these programs may "give" them something, not remembering that "there is no such thing as a free lunch."

It is time to pause in the headlong rush down the path beaten by the proponents of equality. It is time to pause and inquire into the meaning of their claims that the good life can be achieved through the use of gov­ernmental power to achieve equality of conditions. As will be evident in the pages that follow, the new pro­grams depend upon a very different concept of equality than was in­tended in the Declaration of Inde­pendence when it stated that "all men are created equal." Perhaps it is even more important to note how the apostles of reform today intend to achieve their new and expanded concept of equality. Unlike the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution, today’s reformers be­lieve that full use of all of the mas­sive power of government is neces­sary and morally acceptable in the drive to achieve their new society, no matter that this would stifle in­dividual initiative and creativity, and ultimately slaughter the economic goose that has laid the golden egg of prosperity.

In the pages that follow two paral­lel themes will be traced. One is the idea of equality itself. Where did it come from? How did it enter Ameri­can social thought? How was it used in the Age of the American Revolu­tion? How was it used in the heyday of social change, in the Era of Re­form (1830-1860)? What brought about the change in meaning of equality in our time? The second theme, crucial to an understanding of the development of the idea of equality, is the concept of reform itself. How did Americans conceive of social change in the early days? In the Revolution? In the nineteenth century? How are these views of social change, or reform, different from that used by today’s reformers?

These and other questions must be examined on the way to an apprecia­tion of the radical nature of the contemporary impulse to reform all of society in the name of equality.

Equality in the Age of the American Revolution

When Thomas Jefferson wrote that "all men are created equal," he did not mean that all men were equal in all respects. In other places he wrote with conviction about the existence of a natural aristocracy among men, based upon virtue and talent. Yet, many today quote Jef­ferson as though he intended to state that all men ought to be made as equal as possible. This is to speak of equality of condition, a position rejected by Jefferson and all politi­cal thinkers in the Age of the Ameri­can Revolution. It was rejected be­cause even a cursory examination of human nature reveals ineradicable differences among men.

If we are to understand the idea of equality in American society we must begin with an examination of its use in the mind of the Founders, tracing their view into subsequent developments in American history. Much has been written on the his­tory of equality, especially in the twentieth century. Yet, most of what has been written does not help much to clear up the confusion that surrounds the term, confusion aris­ing, for example, from the fact that

Jefferson could state his belief in both equality and inequality with­out a sense of contradiction.

How did the idea of equality come to be part of the intellectual baggage of the mind of the American Revolu­tion? The concept of equality was not an invention of the Founders them­selves, rather it was absorbed by them from the intellectual climate created by the Enlightenment and from colonial experience. The typi­cal philosophe argued that since sovereignty in political society rests with the people, a certain sense of equality follows. Yet this sovereignty was delegated, the philosophe argued, to the crown or to other rulers. But the notion that equality could be part of society at all was part of their theoretical or mythical claim that equality had to be part of the State of Nature.

Enlightenment Thinkers

Voltaire observed that equality must have been part of the State of Nature, yet it was something that men give up when they enter human society. Montesquieu agreed, but stressed the fact that since only a very limited degree of equality was possible in human society, men are left to ponder how they may reduce the inequalities. Sanford Lakoff has pointed out in his definitive study of equality in political theory that "the philosophical champions of en­lightenment in the eighteenth century were for the most part less anxious to propose equality than to denounce extreme inequalities."¹

The most powerful and most di­rect influence on American thinking about equality was John Locke. His Treatise on Civil Government had considerable impact on the de­velopment of political theory in America. In it he argued that each man is born according to the rights and privileges of the law of nature "equally with any other man or number of men in the world." Locke’s view of equality appears to be a corollary to his belief that man comes into the world with the mind a blank slate. Distinctions among men were the result of what experi­ence wrote on the tablet. In his scheme these differences and in­equalities were, therefore, not from nature, but rather artificially wrought. Locke concludes, like the philosophes, that in nature there is equality though in society there are inequalities. But, importantly, in his scheme it was possible to change some of the "artificial" inequalities into conditions that were more equal. Locke himself did not explain how society should be changed in this regard.

In some respects his view of equal­ity is qualified by his concept of Rea­son. Though he observes that "all men are by nature equal," he also states that "I cannot be supposed to understand all sorts of equality." By Reason men may establish certain political practices which will assure "that equal right that every man hath to his natural freedom." By this he means to guarantee that none should be "subjected to the will or authority of any other man."3 Lakoff concludes that Locke did not intend equality to be an instrument for leveling in any area of society except in politics.

Colonial Experience

In addition to the theoretical un­derstanding of equality provided by Locke and the Enlightenment think­ers, the Founding Fathers were heirs to a practical understanding of the idea based upon colonial experi­ence. The colonies were far distant physically and psychologically from England and Europe, and thus, far removed from the pretensions of aristocracy. Equally important were the facts of life in the wilderness. Frederick Jackson Turner stated this point clearly when he said that "the wilderness stripped the gar­ments of civilization" from a man, confronting him with the Indians, starvation, disease, and other hazards of the frontier. The settler was on an equal footing with his fel­lows, for the frontier life would kill the son of an earl as readily as the son of a cooper.

Further, life on the frontier with the lack of fixed social organization made men free and equal in a visible sense. In this condition one could change his social position very rapidly; hence, there was no need for a person to feel inferior to his neighbor. These conditions prompt­ed Tocqueville to remark, "The soil of America was opposed to a territo­rial aristocracy," concluding that the equality forced upon Americans by the conditions of their existence was the most compelling fact about the quality of life in America.4

Colonial experience elicited one common reaction from people, a de­sire for equal opportunity, the most forceful element in the equalitarian tradition in America. This was the motivation for most who came to these shores. Wealthy and success­ful Englishmen, for the most part, did not come because they had no need to improve their condition. Those who did come were in search of a way to improve their lot, disad­vantaged people, middle-class squires who hoped to become landed gentry, and others. Tocqueville saw this and observed, "The happy and powerful do not go into exile, and there are no surer guarantees of equality among men than poverty and misfortune."5

The Reformation Tradition

The central cluster of ideas that were used in the era of the American Revolution had their tap roots in the Reformation tradition as modified by Puritan experience. This is evi­dent in the concern the Founders had for liberty. It was to preserve liberty that the American Revolu­tion was fought. True, there were other concerns, but it was to pre­serve religious, economic, and polit­ical liberty that the Americans ral­lied in the 1770′s. Preservation of liberty was a concern that ran deeply in colonial and English ex­perience. Roger Williams made this point when he left Massachusetts Bay and formed Rhode Island. Lib­erty of conscience, Williams said, is the most precious freedom that man has and he must protect it with his life if necessary.6

Williams was carrying on the fight that had begun in England, and had been fought for in the En­glish Civil War. Freedom, by the 1770′s, was the most fundamental idea in the American mind. Free­dom in this sense was a corollary of the Protestant Reformation. The Re­formation in England resulted in the Westminster Standards, one of which declared, "God alone is Lord of the conscience and hath set it free from the doctrines and command­ments of men." Man through con­science was free in relation to other men. It was this idea that informed the American experience between the days of the early settlements and the time of the Revolution. In this sense the American Revolu­tion’s principal ideas were rooted in a Reformation base.’

Perhaps a consideration of the dif­ference between the American and the French Revolutions will help to make the point more obvious. Men act in important events upon what they conceive to be the most funda­mental authority. The trauma of the moment is relieved if one appeals to the most secure authority possible. Since this is true, we may look at these revolutions from the point of view of what they conceived to be authoritative for them as they acted out their revolutionary aims.

Authority, for the Americans, was rooted in the God of Revelation in Scripture, or in the laws of nature that He had created. True, some of the leaders of the American Revolu­tion stressed the laws of nature, but even this emphasis presupposed a transcendent God who limited and defined the actions of men. In con­trast, the men of the French Revolu­tion, products of the Enlightenment mind all, enshrined Reason as their authority. Reason, when viewed in this way, is not subject to a trans­cendent God; rather, it becomes whatever the mind of man makes it. The result for France was a revolu­tion which knew no bounds but human imagination. Liberty meant whatever one wished. Indeed, liberty among the French came to mean license. Equality was part of the French Revolution’s ideology, too. But in the context of Reason, equal­ity turned out to be a radically level­ing concept, unchecked by any Bib­lical notions of the social order.

It would be incorrect, therefore, to argue that the mind of the American Revolution was the product of the Enlightenment, although some of its principles were absorbed into the thinking of some of the leaders of the American Revolution. Here an important distinction must be em­phasized.

In a Context of Freedom

When the Founders spoke of equality, they did so in light of colo­nial experience, and to some degree from Enlightenment influence. But all discussion of equality was within the context of a more basic principle, namely freedom. Stated another way, freedom as developed in the Reformation tradition was the fun­damental, constitutive principle in the American Revolution, while equality was a secondary and inci­dental concept.

With these matters in mind we are in a position to survey some of the Founders’ expressions about equality. Thomas Paine had no diffi­culty with the concept when he said that "the unity or equality of man is one of the greatest of all truths." Fisher Ames objected to Paine’s un­qualified endorsement of equality, calling it the "pernicious doctrine" of demagogues. Joel Barlow, in his Vision of Columbus (1787) wrote, "Equality of right is nature’s plan, and following nature is the march of man." Franklin, an instinctively practical man, commented that "Time, Chance, and Industry" created distinctions among men. He also believed that all men were fun­damentally equal in "the important ends of society, and the personal securities of life and liberty."8

By far the most extensive and reflective comments on the place of equality in the American scheme of things came from Jefferson and Adams, especially in their exchange of letters after both were in retire­ment. Both agreed that equality was a law of nature, but what did it mean beyond that? Adrienne Koch, a recognized student of Jeffersonian thought, states that Jefferson did not mean an arithmetical equality which reduces all men to the same level of talent, ability, and moral virtue. Rather, she observes, he was talking about the essential traits of the species.9

Adams took the same view. It is, he said, nothing more than the fact that men "are all of the same species, and this is all that equality of nature amounts to. . . . Nature has ordained that no two objects shall be alike, and no two perfectly equal." For Adams equality most certainly did not mean what some of its more extreme proponents said it did: "Equal rank and equal property can never be inferred from it, any more than equal understanding, agility, vigor, or beauty." Then Adams came to the heart of the matter: "Equal laws are all that can ever be derived from human equality." Adams had no intention of denying equality. His concern was to define correctly its limits. Clearly he rejected what has been called "equality of condition."¹º

Jefferson believed that equality was a gift of God through nature; it was a self-evident, natural right that society could neither give nor take away. Thus, it guaranteed all men perfect equality of human privilege (life), political and reli­gious prerogatives (liberty), and personal opportunity (pursuit of happiness). Limited in this way, equality did not extend to physical, moral, intellectual, or other aspects of human existence.¹¹

Equality in the Life of the New Nation

To understand the character of American society in the life of the new nation, in the period between 1789 and 1869, some consideration must be given to the way this era has been interpreted by historians in our time. The reason for this is the fact that this period has been an intense battleground between advo­cates of a neo-Marxist view of his­tory and more conventional views. Once the effect of this dispute has been outlined, it will be more clear what the true state of affairs concerning social theory actually was. Led by Charles Beard, historians in the twentieth century have viewed American history as primarily a struggle between social classes, between the rich and the poor, those in power and those who exercise no power. Virtually every textbook in the past forty years assumed this point of view as it covered the early life of the new nation. Obviously there were differences between peo­ple in American society, differences in wealth and in power. The Found­ing Fathers saw such differences in their time, but they understood that such differences were natural and unavoidable. Unlike the Founding Fathers, Beard and his followers have taken the point of view that social differences are wrong and should be eliminated; therein, they follow the thinking of Marx and other socialists.

The assumptions of the En­lightenment and French Revolution were always present in America as an option for Americans to embrace. In general, it is true that these prin­ciples were not adopted in toto by Americans during the Revolution and during the nineteenth century. But circumstances changed as the twentieth century began. Increas­ingly, the intellectual climate was ripe for the acceptance of the ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, mediated, in some re­spects, by Marx. Indeed, it may bestated that as the influence of this tradition grew in America, it did so in proportion to the decline of the influence of the Reformation tradi­tion as expressed in the principles of the American Revolution. In other words, by the end of the nineteenth century intellectuals were disposed to accept humanistic standards rather than Biblical ones, whether the humanistic standards were sci­entific or in some other form.

Economic Class Conflict

Anyone with a knowledge of American history writing knows that Beard, Carl Becker, James Harvey Robinson, J. F. Jamison, Ar­thur Schlesinger, and many other lesser lights in the field were de­voted to writing history from the point of view of economic class con­flict. They have been succeeded by a generation of disciples who followed their lead slavishly. Together these writers have shaped the image of the American past into a picture which is dominated by the principle of class conflict.

Two generations of Americans have grown up on history written from this point of view. The result has been that most Americans as­sume that soon after the Revolution, if not in the Revolution itself, American society began to be domi­nated by a conflict between those with wealth and power and those without it. The hidden assumption in this interpretation is the notion that the Revolution instituted the principle of equality of condition. The class conflicts that are said to have taken place were aimed, in this view, at achieving equality of condi­tion.

One of the main areas of impact of this revisionist view of American history has been in interpreting pre-Civil War society. Of course that era was a time of very rapid change in American society as it began to make the transition from an agra­rian base to an industrial one. But the question is how to evaluate these changes. Is the fact that many people were able to climb the social ladder evidence of class conflict? Contemporaries did not view it that way. Many could build better houses, save money, take trips, and more, but such social development does not imply class conflict.

The class conflict writers have imposed their bias upon the evi­dence from the period to create their own vision of society. These writers are a product of their age, a time when it was intellectually respect­able to reject the Protestant Ethic, to reject the philosophy of the Found­ers, and to embrace leveling con­cepts in the tradition of the French Revolution and in the tradition of Marx.

Turn now to Douglas Miller’s comments on the problem in his Jacksonian Aristocracy. Though Miller’s purpose in writing was merely to correct some errors of other writers in the class conflict tradition of interpretation, he does establish the point we wish to em­phasize. Miller states, "To write of the rise of aristocracy in Jacksonian America is to contradict traditional beliefs and interpretations." Con­scious of his disagreement with some in the class conflict school, he continues, "Politically this was the age of democracy as historians have repeatedly emphasized." Noting the main theme of those he criticizes, Miller states, "Most political studies of the Jacksonian era have implied that democracy was victorious not only in the political realm but so­cially and economically as well." Coming to the heart of his argu­ment, Miller concludes:

This study does not deny that repre­sentative political institutions based upon nearly universal white manhood suffrage were the rule from the Jackson­ian era to the Civil War. Politics is given very minor consideration here. What is questioned, however, is the as­sumption that throughout this period democracy meant social and economic equality as well as equal political rights.¹²

Equal Opportunity

Social and economic equality was not a constitutive principle of the American system created in the Rev­olution and embodied in the Constitution. Inequalities in America did exist, but they were not based upon a feudal hereditary nobility as they were in Europe. Inequalities were obvious in such things as "wealth, rank, manners, dress, speech, family, and intellect," Miller observes. Of these, says Miller, "Wealth was the outstanding crite­rion for high social standing, and as long as inequalities of wealth were comparatively slight . . . it was easy for Americans to associate political democracy with equality."

Concerning equality, Miller ob­serves further that "the concept of equality itself had a meaning pecu­liar to America. As a belief it did not imply that the rich should be re­duced to the level of the poor." Here, it must be pointed out, we see one of the principal differences between twentieth-century equalitarianism and the ideas of equality in the nineteenth century. Equality was not a device to be used for erasing of social distinctions. Continuing, Mil­ler captures the essence of the idea in that age when he notes that "equality meant that each person should have an equal chance to out­strip his neighbor and become rich himself."¹³

The point Miller is making needs to be emphasized. He argues that while there was great interest in the idea of equality in this age, it was defined in a way very different from that in a later age. Equality was tied to opportunity and in this sense it was closely related to the fundamen­tal concept of the American Revolu­tion, namely, freedom. In this age each man wanted to be free to seek a better life, he wanted to have an equal chance to rise on the ladder of well-being. Americans could see the expansion of economic wealth around them and they wanted to be free to gain part of it for themselves. Miller states this another way when he says, "The most important single factor in shaping and sustaining American equality and democracy was this accessibility of wealth.""

Others have found what Miller has noted concerning equality in this era. Alan Grimes states that "to the extent that there was an underly­ing and unifying theme to the Jacksonian movement, it existed in an emphasis on equality." The Jackson­ians did not believe that men were equal in talents or capacities, or that they ought to share equally in property, according to Grimes. Jacksonianism, broadly conceived, was a reaffirmation of the principles of the Declaration, especially that portion that spoke of an equal right to pursue happiness.

Most foreign travelers observed these qualities in America, some­times being confused by them. Michel de Chevalier, traveling in 1833, observed that the democratic spirit was infused into all the habits and customs of society, and it "beset and startled" the foreigner who had his every nerve and fiber steeped in European aristocratic ways. A British sea captain noted in his diary in 1839 that "among the ad­vantages of democracy the greatest is that all start fair," by which he meant that all have an equal oppor­tunity.¹5

Politically Equal

James Fenimore Cooper also commented on the question of equal­ity in this era. Though Cooper was suspicious of much of the hubbub of day-to-day politics, he gave thought­ful considerations to the place of equality in the reform movements of that day. He made it clear that equality meant neither reducing all men to the lowest level of mediocrity nor raising all men to the highest level of superiority. Democracy, a much discussed topic at the time, meant an equal right to participate in community affairs. Equality was a matter of civil and political rights in his view; not an equality of talent or property. In short, Cooper em­braced a view of equality like that of the Founders.¹6

Benjamin Franklin had pointed out long before that there was an incon­sistency between the claims of the Declaration and a system that ex­tended freedom and equality to only part of the human race. This incon­sistency came to haunt American society in the early decades of thelife of the new nation. The fact that slaves in America were black was convenient for those who wished to avoid extending freedom and equal opportunity to them, for it could be argued that it was their color that made them different, thus a rationale for enslavement. But this argument merely put off the day when American society would have to face up to the inherent inconsis­tency that Franklin had pointed out. The fact is, however, that the deeply held commitment of Americans to equality of opportunity was the basis for the Abolition Movement that was so prominent in the life of the new nation. In time, the inequal­ity of opportunity for Blacks became a principal political issue in the life of the nation, leading to the Civil War and the Emancipation Procla­mation.

Lincoln, though believing that Negroes were inferior in some ways, found a way to explain why they should not be slaves. The writers of the Declaration of Independence meant, he said, to include all men in their declaration of human equality, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say that they were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This they said and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth that all were then enjoy­ing that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had not power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforce­ment of it might follow as fast as circum­stances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and re­vered by all; constantly looked to, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated."

He spoke of the same problem in one of his debates with Douglas when he stated:

I agree with Judge Douglas that he is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man. . . . If the Negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that "all men are created equal," and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.¹ 8

Here Lincoln tied the issue of equal­ity to the traditional view of natural rights, as expressed in the Declara­tion. Next he proposed equality of opportunity as an integral part of his argument, applying both of these to the question of slavery. Typically, Lincoln gave evidence of thinking clearly about a question that few others saw very well.

Equality in Post-Civil War America

In the years after the Civil War the dominant intellectual change was in the direction of acceptance of the Darwinian assumptions about the nature of man and society. On the one hand, the descent of man implied a common origin, in a way that the Creation account had not. On the other hand, the claim that the fit survive seemed to support an emphasis upon inequalities, indeed, that inequality was a law of nature. Evolutionary views valued superior­ity more than they did equality; the strong and the weak were unequal, and nature intended it that way. And there was, in the evolutionary mind, a great emphasis upon na­ture; devices, such as government programs which altered nature’s ways were viewed with suspicion. Huxley wrote, "Men are not all equal under whatever aspect they are contemplated, and the assump­tion that they ought to be considered equal has no sort of a priori founda­tion."¹9

There was a sense in this era that a proper understanding of equality was at last possible. Wrote William Graham Sumner, "The doctrine that all men are equal is gradually being dropped, for its inherent absurdity." Nicholas Murray Butler’s True and False Democracy stated that the "cornerstone of democracy is natural inequality, its ideal the selection of the most fit." Barrett Wendell ar­gued that the doctrine of equality was alien to the American tradition and derived from the untrustworthy philosophic "vagaries of Eigh­teenth-Century France." Lothrop Stoddard stated that "the idea of natural equality is one of the most pernicious delusions that has ever afflicted mankind." Further, he said, "Nature knows no equality. The most cursory examination of natural phenomena reveals the pre­sence of a Law of Inequality as univ­ersal and inflexible as the Law of Gravity."²º

These writers did not intend to deny completely the notion of equal­ity as stated in the Declaration. Rather, they intended to emphasize equality of opportunity as opposed to equality of condition. True equality, said Sumner, "sets each man on his feet and gives him leave to run." It would be a mistake to go beyond this conception, he argued. Lester Frank Ward agreed when he suggested that "equality of opportunity is the only means of determining the de­gree of merit" among individuals.2¹ Equality of opportunity must be viewed in practical functional terms, they believed. Equality at law, equality in voting, and equality of economic opportunity were the principal concerns of these commentators.

"Looking Backward"

In this age there were dissenters from this view, namely, that equal­ity meant equality of opportunity. Some, like Edward Bellamy, author of the best selling Looking Back­ward, argued for equality of condi­tion. In this, Bellamy may be viewed as taking the first step in the cre­ation of "New Style" Progressivism. Bellamy wrote in his novel Equality (1897) that he intended to prove that "equality is the vital principle of democracy," of American society. "What is an equal right to life, but a right to the equal material basis for it?" he asked as narrator in the book. "The cornerstone of our state is economic equality, and is not that the obvious, necessary, and only adequate pledge of these three birthrights—life, liberty, and hap­piness?" In this Bellamy was giving equality a new meaning. In fact, he was arguing for equality of condi­tion. All men, he thought, should have an equal state in life’s race. They must be provided with cloth­ing, shelter, food, health, education, and all else necessary to life. Then men would really have an equal opportunity, argued Bellamy.22

We have argued that equality in America has traditionally meant equality of opportunity in the sense that the men of the Revolution viewed it. We noted, further, that due to a growing influence of the En­lightenment tradition, equality has now come to mean equality of condi­tion, that is, that everyone must live in conditions that are as nearly equal as is possible. Yet, we miss much of the meaning if we do not realize that equality of condition has become a "goal" of reformers in our time, and realize that they intend to achieve this goal through the "agency" of governmental power.

Is this not what is taking place with programs such as Affirmative Action and OSHA? All too obviously such programs are based upon the massive power of the government for the achievement of their goals. Are not the goals of such programs aimed at achieving "equality of con­dition"? Surely, Affirmative Action seeks to level society into one in which all citizens are as nearly equal as is possible. Surely such a program is a classic example of the reform tradition which believes that the good life will be achieved only through the use of governmental power to insure equality of condi­tion. But what happens to freedom in this scheme of reform? Where are the rights and liberties which the Founding Fathers fought for and sought to preserve in the Constitu­tion? Can anyone doubt the fact that these freedoms are seriously eroded by programs of reform that have equality of condition as their goal?

What is the future of American society when it continues to be dri­ven by the philosophy of reform which advocates equality of condi­tion achieved through the agency of government? Where will it lead? Americans should ponder the possi­bility that following this plan we can arrive at conditions which George Orwell described in his Animal Farm when he said "All animals are equal, but some are "more equal than others." Who are the ones in society who are "more equal than others"? We cannot avoid the conclusion that this class of people is the well-intentioned em­ployees of the government who de­sign and enforce government pro­grams aimed at establishing equal­ity of conditions.23

The Alternative

There is an alternative to the con­tinued growth of government pro­grams aimed at creating conditions of equality. The American people still have the means to arrest this process. They can object to their Congressmen. They can protest against government programs in the Courts. They can complain about government intrusion into their lives in the public press. Most im­portant, however, Americans can re­turn to their senses and realize that most of these programs are the re­sult of an alien perspective, alien to the tradition of the Founders.

The Founders spoke of limited government and of freedom because they thought and acted in the Reformation tradition. In this tradi­tion, men know that all conditions of life cannot be changed, much less changed by the power of govern­ment. In this tradition, men know that some conditions can be changed only when there is a change in the hearts and minds of people. Kier­kegaard had this in mind when he said of equality:

Leveling, after all, was only the final phase of a long and ill-conceived effort to solve in worldly ways problems which could only really be approached reli­giously.24

Without an appreciation of this view, without an appreciation of the tradition of the Founding Fathers, it will, no doubt, not be long before the drive to achieve equality of condi­tion in America results in the cre­ation of a brave new world in the country that once was the land of the free and the home of the brave.



¹Sanford A. Lakoff, Equality in Political Phi­losophy (Cambridge, 1964), p. 89.

²George L. Abernethy, The Idea of Equality: An Anthology (Atlanta, 1959), p. 137.

³Ibid., p. 138.

4Russel B. Nye, The Almost Chosen People: Essays in the History of American Ideas (East Lansing, 1966), includes a chapter entitled "American Society and the Idea of Equality," which is most provocative. I am indebted to Professor Nye for this discussion of colonial influence on the idea of equality in America. See pp. 312ff.

‘Ibid., p. 312.

6L. John Van Til, Liberty of Conscience: The History of a Puritan Idea (Philadelphia, 1972), p. 58.

p. 86.

°Nye, p. 316.

‘Adrienne Koch, Power, Morals, and the Founding Fathers: Essays in the Interpretation of the American Enlightenment (Ithaca, 1961), p. 26.

¹ºNye, p. 317.

"Ibid., p. 318.

¹²Douglas T. Miller, Jacksonian Aristocracy: Class and Democracy in New York 1830-1860 (New York, 1967), pp. vii-x.

p. ix.

"Ibid., p. 19.

"Nye, p. 319.

"Ibid., pp. 322-323.

"Ibid., p. 332.

"Thomas Henry Huxley, "On the Natural Inequality of Man," Nineteenth Century CXLV (Jan. 1890), p. 8.

²ºNye, p. 334.

²²Ibid., pp. 336-337.

"L. John Van Til, The Promise of American Life Revisited: An Essay (Grove City, 1976), p. 6.

²4Lakoff, p. 177.


May 1978

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December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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Economics in One Lesson (full text)


The full text of Hazlitt's famed primer on economic principles: read this first!


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Leonard Read took the lessons of entrepreneurship with him when he started his ideological venture.


No one knows how to make a pencil: Leonard Read's classic (Audio, HTML, and PDF)