Our country suffers from a peculiar schizophrenia when it comes to the notion of equality. In idealistic moods we want to affirm it; in practice we often trounce it. We readily defer to the words of the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal,” but what this means exactly is not very clear. Is this some sort of inherent equality? Some invisible metaphysical dimension? Obviously the statement is not supported by empirical evidence. Or is this really an ethical principle—a guideline for how we should frame rights and duties—no special privileges based on class or wealth; no special access to the law? Men judged not by their wallet, ancestors or skin color, but by “the content of their character.” It’s that ‘judging’ business—equality erases differences; judging defines them.
Political equality is a concept with enough sentimental force to compel assent, and enough obscurity to guarantee controversy. The ideal was never articulated with all implications spelled out. Like a seed, it has required root and growth to take shape; and so the slow sequence of political awakenings in civil rights, universal suffrage, workers’ rights, child labor laws, environmental laws, etc. Justice means fair dealing. Equality is justice in practice.
And yet, a strong stripe of American character loves inequality; believes, in fact, that inequality is essential to the meaning of America. Continue reading