Commentary Magazine


A Note on the New Equality

Dorothy Sayers, in her book The Mind of the Maker, quotes a memorable passage from a lecture by L.P. Jacks, given in the 1920’s:

I am informed by philologists that the rise to power of these two words, “problem” and “solution,” as the dominating terms of public debate is an affair of the last two centuries, and especially of the 19th, having synchronized, so they say, with a parallel rise to power of the word “happiness.”. . . On the whole, the influence of these words is malign, and becomes increasingly so. They have deluded poor men with Messianic expectations, which are fatal to steadfast persistence in good workmanship and to well-doing in general. Let the valiant citizen never be ashamed to confess that he has “no solution to the social problem” to offer his fellow-men. Let him offer them rather the service of his skill, his vigilance, his fortitude, and his probity. For the matter in question is not primarily a problem, nor the answer to it a solution.

The words “problem” and “solution” still beset public debate and inquiry. Task forces to identify and define problems are the mark of government at every level, and also of business and of institutions and organizations. “Problem-solving” is a national preoccupation. But if problem-solving is still associated with “happiness,” it has also come to be associated with a word of comparable, if not greater, significance and influence in social, political, and economic thought today. That word, of course, is “equality.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, wrote of the powerful appeal and danger of the idea of equality in a democratic society. He wrote also of its potential for demagoguery. I would be less concerned about the rise to popularity of the word, and the idea, if I thought it the result of conscious intention to elicit political support—that is, if those who made the appeal knew that they were being demagogic. I fear, however, that the use of the word is not intentionally demagogic. It seems to approach the automatic “It is good” justification that George Orwell described as characterizing the world order of 1984.

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In his inaugural address President Carter said: “We have already found a high degree of personal liberty, and we are now struggling to enhance equality of opportunity.” One may well question the President’s language. Liberty was a goal of the American Revolution. We have it in this country not because we “found” it but rather as a result of our having declared it a political and social goal and then achieving it in some measure. As to the President’s second point, that “we are now struggling to enhance equality of opportunity,” such language does not clearly describe the concept of “equality” as it is applied today. Economic, educational, political, and cultural equality—and not equality of opportunity, “enhanced” or otherwise—is the goal in the new application.

Economic equality is in this new conception to be achieved primarily through equalizing income. Equalization of wealth—that is, of wealth already accumulated—may come later. Economic equality is not conceived as a base upon which differences may then build, but as an average. One state governor occasionally asks if it might be better if people doing unpleasant work were paid as much as or more than those whose work is culturally and physically preferable.

Political economists have developed the notion of a negative income tax as the basis for tax reform. Essentially the idea is this: that everyone should have enough income to pay taxes at the beginning or threshold rate, and that if one does not have enough income to reach that level, something should be done to make up for the deficiency. Where the idea came from, or how the taxable level of income was chosen as the absolute standard for relative judgments and adjustments, is not clear. It seems that the tax base is to be accepted as a first principle upon which we are to build. It is an axiom, rather like “I think, therefore I am.” One could as well arbitrarily assert that everyone should, for the good of the commonwealth, pay $100 in income taxes, and then proceed through measures of redistribution to raise all incomes to the level at which everyone would have to pay $100 in taxes.

The idea of a negative income tax is appealing. Professors of political economics can diagram its operation. Ideas that can be diagrammed, especially in economics and in political science, are very popular. It is easier to teach with a diagram or chart. A diagram conveys an impression of certainty. Thus the business-cycle theory of economics was popular because the charting of the cycle gave the appearance of scientific order in a confused discipline. Prosperity was followed by recession, and that in turn by depression, after which the cycle swung up through recovery back to prosperity. The theory seemed to have the certainty of the seasons or of the phases of the moon—until the economic moon went down in 1929 and did not come up.

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The second area in which the new concept of equality is being applied is in politics and government. The principle of one-person-one-vote was formally recognized in a Supreme Court ruling affecting defined political jurisdictions. The court did not in its ruling extend the principle to relationships among jurisdictions. The ruling simply said that, within given units of government, each vote should be equal to every other vote. Thus, since the Constitution provides for direct election of the House of Representatives on the basis of population, the rule requires that each congressional district have roughly the same number of persons.

The Constitution also provides that each state, no matter what its size, shall have two Senators. Thus the citizen of a small state gets proportionally more of a vote than the resident of a large state. The Constitution further provides that the President shall be elected through the Electoral College, on a state-by-state basis, thus weighting the votes of smaller states favorably as against those cast in larger states. The drive now is to eliminate that weighting by abolishing the Electoral College and instituting direct popular election of the President. No proposal has yet been made to reduce senatorial representation to a strict population base.

The principle of equality is also applied through the Federal Election Campaign Act, which attempts to equalize the non-voting influence of citizens on candidates for political office. The present law limits the size of contributions to a political candidate in any one campaign to $1,000 per contributor. This is considered a transitional phase to a time when all campaigns will be publicly financed. The argument for the limitation is that the larger the contribution, the greater the influence a contributor has on the officeholder and the more time he gets to spend with the officeholder. Theoretically, with public financing, every taxpayer will have made an equal contribution and will be entitled to as much time with the officeholder as any other taxpayer. What time non-taxpayers will get has not yet been determined by the reformers. Despite the $1,000 limit on contributions in the last national elections, and the fact that the presidential campaigns were financed principally through federal grants, within a few days of the election President-elect Carter flew to St. Simon’s Island, the domain of the Reynolds family, and President Ford went to Palm Springs—presumably to speak to the average citizens who dwell in those precincts.

It does not take much imagination to foresee a time when citizens might go to court, charging that they were discriminated against because their calls were not taken in presidential telethons and transmitted to the President for his attention. A full practical application of this principle would argue for an equal right to speak or otherwise communicate with all officeholders, even removing the personal screening of Walter Cronkite.

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The objective of equalizing communications and influence on officeholders is also sought in efforts to control lobbyists. Proposals generally recommend more thorough regulation of lobbyists, limits on their expenditures, and public disclosure not only of expenditures but also of meetings and communications with officeholders.

It will not be surprising if someone suggests having lobbyists provided at government expense, so as to insulate them from the undue influence of their principals, in somewhat the same way that officeholders are to be insulated from their constituencies. Under this arrangement, anyone who had a case to make to the government would apply for a lobbyist who would be assigned from a pool in the way that public defenders are assigned by the courts. There could be classes of lobbyists (Number 1, Number 2, etc.) who would be assigned by a commission according to the seriousness or difficulty of the case to be made to the government. This procedure would establish a second level of purity and of detachment. A third and fourth might be added in pursuit of that absolute certainty and safety sought by the animal in Franz Kafka’s story, “The Burrow.”

The new concept of equality is also applied in government and government-influenced employment practices, in what has been labeled the “quota system.” The rationale of the quota system is that, since not every person can be hired, we should have within each employed group a representation or sampling of the total employable work force. Selection currently is on the basis of physiological characteristics of age, sex, and race. There are some obvious historical reasons as to why these standards are being tried. There are also some obvious difficulties in their application, especially if one attempts to extend the principle—as will surely be done—to other racial and ethnic groups, or to groups less easily defined in terms of psychological and cultural differences.

A similar drive to realize the new idea of equality has marked educational development in recent years. The standardized curriculum, quota admissions, open admissions, and free college education are all manifestations of this drive. Full application of the principle could lead to compulsory college education, with the level of education so reduced that all who enter do so with assurance of successful graduation. With no possible abandonment of hope at any point, they could look forward to something like the judgment of the Dodo after the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”

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What are the dangers in this drive to a newly conceived equality? I see a danger first in the inevitable weakening of those institutions that are expected to give form and direction to society, such as professional and educational institutions, and which have traditionally been treated as having an identity separate from politically-controlled areas of society.

I see it also as significantly affecting the individual’s conception of his place in society. Most persons cannot stand either physical or cultural isolation, and will seek a base of some certainty in a community of persons and in a cultural complex. The cultural security of Americans traditionally has been found in a society of some tension, but a society in which a balance between individual freedom and liberty on the one side and the social good on the other could be achieved. The alternative now offered, the security of equalization, is depersonalizing. It is a deceptively angelistic conception of man in society. It is one which cannot be sustained. It will in all likelihood move persons in search of security, if not identity, to accept greater and greater socialization in politics, in economics, and in culture.

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