All Commentary
Tuesday, September 1, 1964

The Equalitarian Dream and Democratic Reality


Many years ago, Karl Marx con­ceived a dream of human equality. Disillusioned by the social and economic injustice of the nine­teenth century, Marx closed his eyes, gave full play to emotion and imagination, and the dream began. But Karl Marx never again opened his eyes. The dream en­gulfed the man, took control of his mind and pen, and produced fantastic denials of human reality. Though Marx died long ago his utopian ideal still sparks the pas­sion of multitudes. And, like Karl Marx, contemporary dreamers sometimes allow the inherent fa­naticism of the heavenly vision to pervert its original beauty. They tend to lose sight of one sobering fact: there is a difference between idealism and attainable reality, but passion always obscures that difference.

What was Marx’s original dream? It is with each person from the first days of social awareness, at least with everyone who has known normal feeling and compassion. Many dedicate them­selves to the task of bringing the vision to life. Some use persua­sion; others employ force — all fail to transform the dream into reality. Men like Marx gird their idealism in economic theory and call it “communism,” a vague kind of economic and social equality. Others wrap it in spiritual rai­ment and look for paradise on earth. Many think of their dream simply as morality, a human dis­tinction which enables men to live peacefully together. Large num­bers label the idea as “socialism.” And in this nation some are even calling it “abolition of poverty, prejudice, and discrimination.” Whatever the title, the ideal re­mains only a dream of perfection.

Perfection is something we desire and ever struggle toward, but never attain.

The beautiful idea of universal brotherhood and equality — who does not desire it, this cure-all for social and economic afflictions? What person in this nation does not yearn for victory over poverty, greed, bigotry, or other diseases of humanity? This is the dream of all who are fully aware of their humanity. But are these defects not the natural products of human differences? Certainly they are, and it must be admitted that these very inequalities are the essence of a free society. It appears, there­fore, that a natural conflict exists between our idealism and demo­cratic realities.

Throughout the history of the United States, dissatisfaction with being “average” or equal has com­pelled above-average effort and achievement. The dissatisfied per­son whose ability matches his en­thusiasm rises to positions above the less capable and less enthu­siastic. It seems that down through the centuries of recorded history, men have remained un­equal in both ambition and ability. Both are human characteristics which give birth to the fact of human inequality. Both make the dream of perfect social harmony unattainable. The social and eco­nomic philosophy of a free society not only recognizes such inequal­ity, it promotes it and thrives on it.

Freedom to Develop One’s Talents

Aside from political equality, the democratic philosophy pro­poses two basic rights for all: the opportunity to develop one’s talent to the fullest extent, and equal freedom for all to pursue that op­portunity. No nation can guaran­tee that every person will develop his talent, or that each individual will compete successfully in gain­ing the opportunity he desires. In the first case, ambition is the nec­essary ingredient; in the latter, ability. In a free society success can never be a “right.” It is al­ways a privilege, and perhaps even a duty. And above all, suc­cess does not imply equality: that person succeeds who takes what ability he possesses and then satisfies himself that he has culti­vated it and is using it as best he possibly can. In no way does suc­cess imply material or intellectual parity.

Also, in a functioning democ­racy success is a relative thing, for as competition grows stiffer, a person may find himself ex­cluded from opportunities which could have been his at one time. Supply and demand create compe­tition, and the competitive process always reveals inequalities. Because of these individual differ­ences one person will win an op­portunity for which another has disqualified himself. As the quest for opportunities grows more com­petitive (higher education, for ex­ample) such inequalities become more apparent, if not more di­verse.

Thus, the reality remains: when full vent is given to the develop­ment of individual talent, men naturally become unequal. And from such inequality, based on in­dividual merit, the nation is moti­vated toward the dream of a bet­ter life for all.

The Problem of Poverty

An important part of that dream is the alleviation of the material poverty which seems al­ways to exist, and here again cer­tain democratic realities should not be forgotten. In recognizing the need of each individual for food, clothing, shelter, and medi­cal care, will this society continue in the awareness that such ma­terial provision is contingent upon individual achievement and moral consideration? And will we remain aware that poverty, like success, is a relative thing? These ques­tions deserve examination.

First, concerning individual achievement, we find ourselves back to the problem of ambition and ability. In a competitive sys­tem a deficiency of either brings material poverty. In fact, the lack of ambition and ability is, in it­self, a form of poverty. And will poverty of initiative and capacity prove an insurmountable and frus­trating barrier in the idealistic war against material poverty? This type of deficiency certainly will prove just as frustrating as the variability of material status in this nation.

The problem of material ine­quality was expressed most con­cisely by Voltaire, over two hun­dred years ago. Surveying the problem as it existed in his life­time, this well-known Enlighten­ment thinker concluded: “All men would be necessarily equal, if they were without needs…. It is not the inequality which is the real misfortune, it is the dependence.”’ Human “dependence” will remain as long as human differences exist. A free society breeds dependency of various degrees. The problem is that today poverty and dependency tend to be equated in many minds. With material prosperity has come luxury, comparative poverty, and an abnormal passion for ma­terial equality. This thing of “keeping up with the Jones’s pace” has had a profound effect by creating senses of inequality all along the line of social status. We have grown dissatisfied with the old comparison between material deficiency and adequacy, and have become absorbed in the difference between adequacy and luxury, and even luxury and excess. Success and happiness seem to be found mainly in material equality, and many who fail to gain such parity through competition are some­times prone to demand it as a human right. Thus, the luxuries of today may be demanded as to­morrow’s necessities, and the need is never satisfied except through equalitarian reform. This is the process by which individual moral consideration for human need is transformed into collective “legal” compulsion.

This transformation encom­passes not only material equation, as discussed above, but psycho­logical parity as well. Human dif­ferences create dependency and in­equality which in turn produce feelings of inferiority and social antagonism. Prejudice, intoler­ance, and feelings of inadequacy evolve from human inequality and, like other forms of poverty, must be approached through moral ex­ample, moral persuasion, and hu­man understanding and compas­sion. Psychological differences, or senses of inequality, can be less­ened or soothed in this manner, but they will never be erased. This is a frustrating fact.

Eliminating the Human Quality

Psychological differences may be abolished, it seems, in only two ways: by doing away with all hu­man inequality, or by rendering human beings void of feeling and emotion. Either method would necessitate the creation of mental robots, beings without initiative, individuality, and sensitivity —creatures no longer human. Such was the method finally attempted by many followers of Karl Marx. This enervating remedy has been applied in some nations, and still the idealistic ritual of sacrificing social and economic freedom on the altar of “the good of society” continues to gain momentum.

Certainly the equalitarian re­form movement in America has grown out of the earnest attempt to realize the dignity of the in­dividual. But demands are spread­ing through emotional and moral force to include things which are both humanly unrealistic and dem­ocratically impossible. Political rights and equality before the law no longer satisfy desires. Now psychological and material equal­ity are being added to the list of human rights, a list which likely will never be complete. For strange as it may seem, the free society, which naturally creates all varieties of inequality, affords a fertile environment for equalitar­ian idealism. Any attempt at un­derstanding the rights issue in America must include an examina­tion of this strange reality.

Origins of Equalitarianism

If equality is humanly and dem­ocratically impossible, why are many in this nation striving so fervently to attain it? What are the origins of equalitarianism? Some have been mentioned pre­viously, but the following appear most prominent.

The idea of human equality rises from the desire for social harmony and moral justice. Such desire has been transformed into numerous laws which are intended to enforce “humanity” among men. Thus, society safeguards it­self, by limited equalitarian law, from common human instincts which would destroy social har­mony and deprive its citizens of life, liberty, the pursuit of hap­piness, and private possessions. But in a highly competitive so­ciety, law and law enforcement are very imperfect and create con­siderable frustration. At the same time, extremes of individual in­equality abound. Only one conclu­sion seems possible. In a free so­ciety, the problems of social regu­lation and social diversity are ac­celerated and tend to provoke more extreme demands for re­form. Due to prolonged frustra­tion created by the natural dis­harmony of a free society (plus international pressures), many finally become receptive to the idea of applying a leveling process as the only solution. This same frus­tration and equalitarian solution can be noted in the histories of most major countries since the middle of the nineteenth century. Our experience is not unique; our problems are perhaps just more accented, more persistent, and considerably more diverse.

The Moral Tradition

A second origin of reform zeal is found in the moral tradition of this society, and especially in the inherent idealism of its religious institutions. The desire for heavenly perfection is good and beautiful, and no body of thought has contributed to social progress as much as that found between the covers of our Bibles. In to­day’s world the Church’s responsi­bilities and influence surpass those of any other organization. But it may be far better that the Church ignore its duties than for it to lose its sense of reality in sup­porting the attempt to impose a heavenly dream world on this earth of human imperfection; for in the process it may destroy eco­nomic and social freedoms essential to democracy. The danger is that the Church, like other groups, may be trying to enact moral ob­ligation into legal compulsion. An admonition by John Locke, writ­ten in 1689, covered the issue bluntly, but very well: “It is ab­surd,” he noted, “that things should be enjoined by laws which are not in men’s power to per­form.”2 Prejudice, discrimination, and compassion are among such “things.”

Locke’s statement summarizes the trend of moral idealism, and also leads us to the last, and most comprehensive, origin of equali­tarianism; for, basically, the un­restrained demand for legalized absolute equality is little more than disregard for the limitations of law. Religious or secular pas­sion may effect such neglect, as discussed previously. However, the problem in this society involves not only the driving emotion which obscures legal limitations, but also the lack of rigid, perma­nently defined laws covering vari­ous matters. This is, of course, necessary in a dynamic society; much of the law must be flexible for interpretation under varying conditions.

Thus, our predecessors estab­lished in 1787 certain fundamental guidelines by which the social, political, and economic activity of this nation would thereafter be regulated. Some of this funda­mental law is inflexible, not sub­ject to evolutionary interpreta­tion; other parts are quite broad and have been interpreted time and again by the Supreme Court in an effort to adapt them to changing conditions of society. This combination of static and flexible law has produced the most stable and progressive nation in world history. Yet, this dual na­ture of the Constitution contains an inherent danger which has be­gun materializing.

Reforms and Crusades

The constant interpretation of the more elastic Constitutional provisions seems to produce an atmosphere of reform which, un­der conditions noted above, creates demands for alteration of the per­manent guarantees of fundamen­tal law. This influence manifests itself, for example, in debate over definition of “public services,” or “public accommodations.” This question, one affecting the eco­nomic vitality of a free society, occupies a central position in the current rights crusade. Its ex­amination will provide the best example of equalitarian Constitu­tional modification.

What constitutes a public service? Under what circumstances may private property be so de­fined and thus regulated for the “common good”? In attempting to summarize the problem one must, of course, remember that “public accommodation” is only a more re­fined title for public service — for that which accommodates also serves.

“Public Service” Defined

Some will suggest that public services are those organizations established at public expense; such services, publicly owned, serve the general tax-paying citizenry. Few would deny the validity of this definition. At the other extreme stands the more idealistic group which identifies as public services all establish­ments openly engaging in business with human beings. In a free so­ciety founded on guarantees of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and right of private ownership, which of the two standpoints can be adopted as both functional and recognizing human dignity? What has the Supreme Court of this na­tion decided on the matter?

In 1877 the highest Federal Court attempted for the first time to deal with the problem. In Munn v. Illinois the Court reviewed an Illinois law regulating private grain warehouses which had com­bined to fix charges for elevator and warehouse services. The key sentences in the majority decision, which upheld the Illinois law, defi­nitely ruled against the active use of property in a manner which would unnecessarily injure an­other: the “social compact… does not confer power upon the whole people to control rights which are purely and exclusively private… but it does authorize the establishment of laws requir­ing each citizen to so conduct him­self, and so use his own property, as not unnecessarily to injure an­other.”3

The Munn v. Illinois decision was not unanimous. In fact, the dissenting opinion of Justice Stephen J. Field overshadows the majority view by its critical analysis of the problem: “The de­fendants were no more public warehousemen, as justly observed by counsel, than the merchant who sells his merchandise to the public is a public merchant… and it was a strange notion that by call­ing them so they would be brought under legislative control.”-4 Justice Field declared, “But it would seem from its opinion that the court holds that property loses some­thing of its private character when employed in such a way as to be generally useful. “5 “If this be sound law,” he continued, “if there be no protection, either in the principles upon which our re­publican government is founded, or in the prohibitions of the Con­stitution against such invasion of private rights, all property and all business in the state are held at the mercy of a majority of its legislature…. Indeed, there is hardly an enterprise or business engaging the attention and labor of any considerable portion of the community, in which the public has not an interest in the sense in which that term is used by the court in its opinion.”6

A Confusion of Concepts

Since 1877 an indiscriminate fusion of entirely different social concepts has occurred: moral right has been equated with legal right, while public service has become synonymous with private service. The merging of these four con­cepts can be seen by examining two well-known Supreme Court cases, plus current developments.

In Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, the Court upheld a Louisiana law which provided for segregated, “separate but equal accommoda­tions” in transportation facilities. The decision later was applied to public educational facilities. In concluding its opinion the major­ity noted the difference between moral and legal rights: “The ar­gument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the Negro except by an enforced commin­gling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the re­sult of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits and a voluntary consent of indi­viduals…. Legislation is power­less to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the at­tempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation.”7

Justice John M. Harlan, dissent­ing in Plessy v. Ferguson, could not admit a distinction between moral and legal right: “The arbi­trary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution…. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds.”8

A half century and a half-dozen cases later, the Court concluded that “in the field of public educa­tion the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”9 This deci­sion, in Brown v. Board of Educa­tion of Topeka, 1954, was based on the finding that “separate edu­cational facilities are inherently unequal” due to the creation of a psychological sense of inferiority “which affects the motivation of a child to learn.”¹º

When an Exception Becomes the Rule

What conclusions can be drawn from the changes occurring be­tween Munn v. Illinois, 1877, and the present, but that certain con­cepts have become equated in meaning? From the original at­tempt to restrict practices of mo­nopoly, legal regulation of pri­vate property is being expanded to include all private facilities en­gaging in business with the pub­lic. This movement has received much of its force from the 1954 case, which definitely applied only to public educational facilities (those established by the public). The fusion of moral and legal right in the Brown case requires no comment, and certainly, as pub­lic facilities, the schools fall with­in this ruling. Personal bias and intolerance create psychological senses of inferiority and cannot be allowed to dictate policy in pub­lic services. But application of this principle to privately owned services raises definite questions of Constitutional legality; such an attempt would constitute noth­ing less than an effort to alter per­manent guarantees of fundamen­tal law. If this happens, it may be the beginning, rather than the end, of equalitarian trends. Any human difference tends to create a psychological sense of inade­quacy. The possibilities for protest and demand are limitless, unless “public service” and other ambig­uous slogans are kept within the limitations of the inflexible safe­guards of fundamental law. Moral fervor finds justification, however unrealistic, for satisfying all hu­man needs. It has happened in many parts of the world, areas in which initiative and ability are still being sacrificed on the altar of “the common good.”

Regardless of geographical set­ting, however, the leveling proc­ess of equalitarian reform always begins with that beautiful dream of social and economic paradise, an earthly heaven in which there will be no prejudice, no discrimi­nation, no material poverty or poverty of ambition and ability. Few will deny that this dream springs from earnest human de­sire. But desire for the ideal soci­ety sometimes rises to blinding emotion, and this intensity of feel­ing, which finds a natural environ­ment in a free society, tragically obscures the vital differences be­tween the equalitarian dream and the realities of the democratic society.

 

—FOOTNOTES—

1  Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, 1750; quoted in Crane Brinton, ed., The Age of Reason Reader (New York: Vik­ing Press, 1956), p. 268.

2 Quoted in John H. Randall, The Making of the Modern Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1926), p. 375.

³ Major court decisions of this type may be found in any government text­book, but one of the most convenient collections of such documents is avail­able in the following, from which these quotations were taken: Richard Hof­stadter, Great Issues in American His­tory, vol. II (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 139.

4  Ibid., p. 143.

5 Ibid., p. 144.

6 Ibid., p. 145.

7 Ibid., p. 57.

8 Ibid., p. 58.

9 Ibid., p. 63.

10  Ibid.

 

***

The Haves versus the Have-Nots

Our political leaders have recently declared war against pov­erty. They have promised an all-out effort to abolish it here in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere. The tactics they are using for this campaign are necessarily determined by the na­ture of government itself. That is, since any government is by definition always the collective organization of the supreme ap­paratus of power based on physical violence, the tactics used by the government in this “national effort” must necessarily in­volve more compulsions, prohibitions, and other controls over its citizens in their peaceful economic affairs. For no government at war (be it a campaign against poverty, religion, or an in­vading army) has ever fought the war by exercising fewer controls over its citizens.

I have never heard of an exception to that principle of gov­ernment in action. Perhaps that explains why our governmental leaders have realistically used military terminology and organi­zation in their plans to mobilize the nation’s manpower and re­sources for the coming battle.

DEAN RUSSELL 


  • Mr. Banks is an Instructor in American His­tory at Oklahoma State University.