Commentary Magazine

The New Egalitarianism and the Old

When I was an undergraduate in the 30's, we used to hoot at yokels who said that socialism meant that everyone would have the same income. Some of us were socialists, some weren't, but we knew the difference, we thought, between “scientific” and “utopian” socialism, and didn't suppose that the cure for America's problems consisted in organizing it like a kibbutz.

All of us, of course, were in favor of equality, and thought there were inexcusable inequalities in American life. Some people, to start with, were just too poor: they didn't have enough to eat. And beyond that, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, and from the Orient, were discriminated against; blacks, Jews, Irish, Italians didn't get jobs in the best law firms, banks, hospitals, universities; the children of workers, farmers, and the lower-middle classes didn't get a chance, most of them, to go to college unless they were lucky enough to live close to free municipal colleges. But our ideal of a just situation was simply one in which the obstacles to one's ascent, if one wanted to ascend, weren't rigid, and in which, though Jones might work for Smith all day, Jones chaired the political meeting which Smith attended in the evening. We weren't against ranking people; we were against ranking them rigidly in the same serial order in all circumstances of life. Simply put, we didn't want people born into categories within which they were boxed for life. We didn't suppose, however, that equality meant uniformity, and when anybody tried to say that it did we treated it as a cheap conservative canard—the kind of thing with which writers like Mencken frightened the booboisie.

The world has changed, or at least the university scene, as is illustrated by the sad story of what happened to Professor Richard Herrnstein of Harvard when he published an article in the Atlantic Monthly.1 He there delivered himself of a syllogism: “If differences in mental abilities are inherited, and if success requires these abilities, and if earnings and prestige depend on success, then social standing will be based to some extent on inherited differences among people.” Professor Herrnstein merely said “to some extent,” the data on which his article was based were drawn entirely from the study of whites, and the syllogism was sprinkled with “ifs,” but the sky fell in on him just the same. He was called a racist, elitist, and defender of human exploitation, and mobs have prevented him from speaking on a number of campuses.

The premise on which the most enthusiastic criticism of him is based is arresting. It is not that he was naive to take the model of a pure and efficient meritocracy so seriously as a factual possibility; nor is it that he showed more confidence than justified in the possibility of separating genetic from environmental factors in the determination of intelligence. It is that he made a mistake in social philosophy. He assumed that social stratification is inevitable, and that if it is based on ability it is fair. His Harvard colleague, F. C. Kafatos, professor of biology, said what he thought of this in the Harvard Crimson:

In the long term, Herrnstein's syllogism is relevant. But incorrect. Because, by premise, its vision is utterly limited to a society based on competition, “built around human inequalities.” . . . Herrnstein can only visualize social organization in terms of a “social ladder.” What if the next step in human evolution is a “social net” instead, an organization based on cooperation and altruism rather than a struggle for individual survival? What if we can build a society which emphasizes human diversity and not inequality, a classless society which appreciates all aspects of the human experience?

This idea of a noncompetitive appreciativeness toward all aspects of the human experience has had a variety of practical applications. Bill Moyers, in Listening to America, quotes the president of Antioch College as saying that if we really practice cultural pluralism we have to recognize that there are class differences in morality: whereas a middle-class person tries to avoid personal violence, a boy in the slums “confirms his morality by beating the hell out of somebody.” This means. says the college president, that “you've got a real problem under these circumstances in trying to define what's crime.” Another example is the emergent philosophy of “open admissions.” Time was when open admissions were conceived as a device for giving people a second chance, for enabling them to continue their education, and for finding talent smothered by bad primary and secondary education. No longer. In the minds of its more earnest supporters, it is now something much more ambitious—an open and unembarrassed assault on any institutions that have selective admissions policies.

Writing in the May 1972 issue of Change, Jerome Karabel, described as “a researcher for the American Council on Education,” says:

The first skirmish for open admissions, the fight to provide a place for all high-school graduates at some type of college, is waning, and the egalitarians seem to have won. . . . So the next item on the agenda is open admissions at currently selective colleges. The open-admissions movement has laid bare the political nature of deciding who shall be educated in a society which distributes its rewards through the educational system. . . . It has demonstrated that higher education, far from being an equalizing force, accentuates existing differences of background and ability. Finally, it has provided a philosophical basis for countering the ingrained elitism which holds that the higher education system should give special attention to the academically adept and ignore the less able.

Mr. Karabel thinks statements in defense of academic standards to be inherently anti-democratic. ‘“The ideology of academic standards brilliantly reconciles two conflicting American values: equality and equality of opportunity.” Mr. Karabel doesn't think they can be reconciled, and, in the crunch, he opts for equality. A similar view has been adopted by Christopher Jencks and others: if, after standards are set, some people do better than others, change the standards; or at least, as Mr. Jencks suggests in his much publicized study of the relation of education to social equality, change the rewards and redistribute income to level differences off. Success or failure, he believes, is pretty much a matter of luck in any case, and the least a humane society can do for its members is to refuse to punish them invidiously for losing.

A new egalitarianism, in sum, is challenging an older and more familiar kind. The older kind I would call “corrective egalitarianism.” The newer kind I would call “redemptive egalitarianism.” At bottom it represents, I suggest, the transference of supernaturalistic perspectives to secular political problems.



Fortunately, we now have a book which allows us to study and appraise “redemptive egalitarianism” in its full philosophic form. It is John Rawls's A Theory of Justice.2 The attention the book has commanded is further evidence, if such is needed, that this form of egalitarianism strikes a deep and responsive vein in contemporary academic culture. No book in English has received more philosophical acclaim in the years since World War II, and it has won attention and admiration as well from economists, political scientists, lawyers, and students of jurisprudence. Plainly, the book is an event. Nor are the reasons hard to see. Although the book's exposition is convoluted, and although Mr. Rawls seems quite often simply to be trying to explain things to himself, for he makes little effort to formulate the questions that would be in his readers' minds and makes no compromise with the readers' powers of attention to minor points, it is, unchallengeably, a highly accomplished piece of philosophical argumentation. The professional competence of its author shines on every page. The majesty of its theme—social justice—and the dedication and humanity with which Mr. Rawls grapples with it are compelling. And the author's purpose—which is nothing less than to overturn two centuries of empirical, utilitarian, and positivistic philosophies and to produce a work in moral thought that goes back to Natural Law and social-contract theory, just as if David Hume had never lived—is breathtaking.

But it is something else—the mixture of three superficially disparate things—which most powerfully explains, I believe, the book's success. It employs highly sophisticated techniques of contemporary philosophy, economics, and decision-theory. Its fundamental ideas, nevertheless, are profoundly conservative, antedating Hegel, Marx, Freud, and the theory of evolution. And it uses this combination of new-fashioned intellectual machinery and old-fashioned moral wisdom to give support to a political point of view currently in the ascendant in avant-garde circles. Mr. Rawls concedes that, inevitably, his reasoning is “highly intuitive throughout,” but he seeks to develop “a kind of moral geometry with all the rigor which this name connotes.” His purpose, as he says, is to “set up an Archimedean point for assessing the social system without invoking a priori considerations,” or, for that matter, even considering the “existing wants and interests” of the people concerned. From this Archimedean point, as it turns out, the view that wins is one that flourishes these days in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What John Locke did for private property in the 17th century Mr. Rawls has done for the redemptive theory of equality in the 20th.

I shall make no attempt to summarize all the issues that Mr. Rawls's wide-ranging book covers or to examine his basic theses regarding the general theory of justice. I shall concentrate on what he has to say about equality, for no one, surely, has worked harder or, probably, succeeded better, in stating the basic rationale for the new egalitarianism. Mr. Rawls's position, to put it briefly, is that, whenever there are inequalities in society, these are justifiable if and only if they are to the long-term benefit of the least favored members of society. The general notion—held by people in many different moral traditions—that those who are better placed and educated owe it to others to be useful is not enough for Mr. Rawls. The question is to whom to be useful, and, in his belief, the person to be served is the individual who is worst off in the community.

This is what lies behind Mr. Rawls's distinction between what he calls the “liberal” and the “democratic” conceptions of equality. The “liberal” conception of equality combines a belief in careers open to talent with a principle of fair competition.

Assuming that there is a distribution of natural assets, those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system, that is, irrespective of the income class into which they are born.

But “intuitively,” Mr. Rawls says, the liberal conception appears defective:

For one thing, even if it works to perfection in eliminating the influence of social contingencies, it still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be distributed by the natural distribution of abilities and talents. . . . Furthermore, the principle of fair opportunity can be only imperfectly carried out, at least as long as the institution of the family exists. . . . So . . . we cannot be satisfied short of the democratic conception. . . . The democratic interpretation . . . is arrived at by combining the principle of fair equality of opportunity with the difference principle. This principle . . . single[s] out a particular position from which the social and economic inequalities of the basic structure are to be judged. . . . The higher expectations of those better situated are just if and only if they work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society.


To be sure, the actual logical implications of Mr. Rawls's view are equivocal. From one standpoint he seems to be expressing only what the economist, Kenneth Arrow, calls “asset egalitarianism.” This is the presumption that, whatever talents and abilities each of us has, they are to be considered, from an economic point of view, as available to a common pool for whatever distribution justice dictates. As Arrow says, this presumption is the essential basis of all attempts to formalize welfare economics. From a moral point of view, it seems to me unexceptionable as well. I read nothing in the pulse-beat of the cosmos which gives anyone an a priori right to a free ride in the world. Nevertheless, this principle is compatible, in welfare economics, with quite substantial inequalities provided that they are socially efficient; and the same logic seems to apply to Mr. Rawls's general formula. Just as Locke's rationale for private property could be used by Proudhon and Marx to show that private property was a form of theft, so there is nothing in principle to prevent Mr. Rawls's argument from being used to justify great inequalities. All that would be needed is to show that, on some version of the trickle-down theory, the poor benefited from the advantages offered the rich.

It could be argued, for example, that sharply graduated rewards to Stakhanovites, entrepreneurs, or oil-well owners are the only way to increase productivity and make enough available for everyone. It could be argued, indeed, that social inequality is itself the principal incentive that makes people work in an affluent society. The individual's desire for mere material goods can be surfeited, but not his desire to move up in the world or to wear the stigmata of having arrived. Nor is the answer available, to one who takes a position such as that of Mr. Rawls, that the world's condition would be improved if people didn't work so hard. In Mr. Rawls's formula, the more fortunate owe something to the less fortunate (a point on which I agree), and as long as hundreds of millions of people have too little, the life styles of the comfortable should be so arranged that these people keep turning out more wealth than they themselves need. Thus, social inequality, it is at least possible, is society's chief instrument for making conditions at the bottom of the pile more decent. And “classlessness” is an ideal that may well rest on comfortable people's perception of the world—the rich man's poor man's paradise.

It could be argued, indeed, that in a benevolent aristocracy, with sharply marked class distinctions, the lowly gain more than in an equality-oriented society. They are given powerful protectors, models to admire, the sense of contributing to a meaningful social drama, and some knowledge of the difference between the noble and the ignoble. Self-respect, in Mr. Rawls's view, is one of the primary goods of life, as it is in mine. It is surprising that he doesn't give more attention to the possibility, which has, after all, been explored by philosophers, historians, sociologists, novelists, and playwrights, that an aristocracy, which assigns every man a place in the social procession, is better for self-respect than an egalitarian society that generates loneliness, anxiety, and identity crises. I would not myself wish to defend very hard any of the arguments for inequality I have given here, but Mr. Rawls's book seems to me notable for its abstemious disregard of all such arguments. It shuns specific analyses of actual cultures, eras, or types of social system, and it treats such possibilities as I have described with a remote eye, as though they were temptations which all decent men had long since learned to resist.

In the end, Mr. Rawls offers simply the assurance that, in societies in which people live up to the principles of justice as he defines them, income differences will just naturally tend to diminish. For such societies, as he says, have a quality of “close-knittedness,” which serves the harmonizing function in Mr. Rawls's system that “the invisible hand” did in 18th-century economics. There is that, indeed, about Mr. Rawls's argument which marks it, like Herbert Marcuse's, as pre- or post-Malthusian. He seems to me not seriously to believe in the insatiability of human demands, or the unavoidability of competition for scarce resources, or the irreducibility of differences about what, in particular cases, really is just. He takes harmony to be a natural condition of life, at any rate if people do what's right. A more selfish or malicious man than Mr. Rawls, armed with such a philosophy, could use it with perfect logic to justify degrees of inequality that not merely Mr. Rawls would disapprove but most of the rest of us as well. He would need merely to say that all evil would be seen to be good in the larger knit of things.

Nevertheless, however open to different practical interpretations Mr. Rawls's abstract formulas may be, there is little room for doubt as to just where his own sentiments lie. Inequality as such is in the defendant's seat. Equality comes to the bar with every presumption of innocence on its side. So complete is Mr. Rawls's commitment to this position that nowhere in his book does he seriously consider what is surely a more widespread intuition as to the nature of. justice than his own. This is the quite commonplace view that distinctions should be made among people, and rewards and burdens distributed, in proportion to individual efforts and achievements. I do not regard this principle as a basic axiom of morals, but in Mr. Rawls's book it is almost as though such a view didn't exist, and certainly as though no one felt strongly about the matter. He treats this position always as though it could make sense only as a pragmatic maxim, defensible simply insofar as incentives are needed to keep a society efficient—a kind of compromise with human nature, as it were, rather like a red-light district.


Now what is the logic of an approach to the question of social justice which takes it for granted that if income and wealth are equally distributed no questions need to be asked, but if there are inequalities the institutions of a society should be indicted and brought to trial? I find it puzzling. The first thing that is puzzling about it is that there is an inherent “antinomy” within the concept of equality itself, to which Mr. Rawls, for all the extraordinary scope and detail of his book, gives little direct attention.

Briefly, any statement that two or more persons are “equal” requires some standard—height, weight, IQ, constitutional rights, golf score—by which to compare them. And when we compare people by one standard the results are different from those we reach when we use other standards. The student who can get into Yale because he does well on College Boards takes the place of the student who rated high because his father was a rich alumnus. The victory of those who say that women cannot have equality so long as marriage, home, and family are perceived as their primary roles puts the young woman who wants just such roles at a psychological and educational disadvantage. Equalities make for inequalities. The question is not, Do you favor equality? It is, Which equality are you for, and what inequality are you willing to accept as its cost? This kind of issue has little place in Mr. Rawls's book. The presumption of a larger harmony in which such conflicts are transcended presides over the argument.

To be sure, Mr. Rawls does try to clear away the equivocations built into the notion of equality by introducing the basic concept of “primary goods.” However much people's goals in life may differ, their life-prospects depend in common, he points out, on certain “primary goods.” Some of these are “natural”—e.g., health, vigor, intelligence, and imagination. Others are “social” because they are “at the disposition of society.” The chief primary social goods are rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, income and wealth, and self-respect. Yet this concept, I believe, only obscures, but does not avoid, the difficulties I have mentioned. Are the opportunities Jones the plumber seeks to be put on the same scale as those which Smith the mathematician needs? Can we even begin to discuss this question without having some sense of the two men's common environment, the needs of their society, the resources available, and the like? Or more generally still, if there are scarcities, and some primary good must be reduced, the operative question is to decide which good, and whose, and how much. General rules to the effect that all should have equal powers or equal opportunities are not much help in solving this problem. We need further guidance which allows us to say that some things are unequal to other things—e.g., opportunities to kill oneself with cigarettes are less important than opportunities to kill oneself with overwork.

These are concrete, not only abstract, philosophical points. The most difficult problems of social choice, and the elements of arbitrariness (I do not say, caprice) that appear to be uneliminable from them, are not given anything like the attention by Mr. Rawls that he gives to his general formula. To take a simple illustration, the “natural” goods of which he speaks are not entirely out of reach of social control. If a society is willing to spend enough—our own is an example—it can keep large numbers of people going with rebuilt hearts, kidney machines, artificial limbs, repeated surgery, and expensive drugs. To what extent should such practices be continued or augmented? The material resources poured into them, after all, could be used to house the poor more adequately. Notions about the equal distribution of personal income tell us little here, for we are talking about the allocation of public funds in the interests of one or another social category.

And that, of course, is one of the most difficult problems of all in Mr. Rawls's maxim that all social arrangements should be judged by their effect on the least fortunate members of society. It is not a quibble, and it is not insensitivity to human suffering but quite the reverse, to ask, Who are the least fortunate? The sick, or the healthy but unemployed poor? The old or the orphans? The criminals incarcerated in inhuman conditions or the mentally retarded? In dealing with such problems even in rich societies there are shortages—if not in money then in human resources of sympathy, patience, knowledge, and skill. Dividing these resources up equally may mean that no group receives the amounts needed to make a difference. It is such choices that any public authority must make; and I take it that it will have to make them even in a just society.

Indeed, public authority must sometimes ask as well, unless I am mistaken, whether the top priority should always be investment in the interests of the unfortunate. Should investment in the education of the gifted always be subordinated to investment in the education of the retarded? The response that to help the gifted is, in a just society, also to help the retarded is a dodge. It may be, but everyday experience doesn't suggest that it has to be. Is it to be maintained that society has no legitimate independent interest in encouraging musical genius or philosophical analysis? I cannot see why the consistent application of Mr. Rawls's “difference principle”—the principle of always favoring the unfavored—would not lead to the progressive pauperization of a society.


In the final analysis, I think, there is a fundamental premise on which his entire argument turns. It is also the premise on which the new “redemptive” egalitarianism essentially depends. Again and again, Mr. Rawls comes back to the same point: to distribute the burdens and benefits of social existence in accordance with people's abilities is “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” I take one typical statement, but there are scores of others.

Perhaps some will think that the person with greater natural endowments deserves those assets and the superior character that made their development possible. Because he is more worthy in this sense, he deserves the greater advantages that he could achieve with them. This view, however, is surely incorrect. It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one's initial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply to these cases.

From an Archimedean point of view, if I follow, from outside the world and not inside it, no one deserves to be treated better than anybody else. True. From such a point of view no one deserves anything. But the relevance of this proposition to problems of human justice I do not detect.

Yet it expresses the Weltanschauung of the new egalitarians. “Luck” is the principal actor in Christopher Jencks's account of the causes of inequality. “The natural lottery” is the phrase Mr. Rawls uses repeatedly as the label for the accidents that determine why Blanche is beautiful, Ursula ugly, Ruth loyal and persevering, Ramona flighty and deceitful. We are all creatures of “the arbitrariness found in nature,” all victims, and it isn't fair that some of us should be victimized more than others. Thus, equality, it is needed to wipe the slate clean, to save us from nature's in-justice, to restore the moral status quo ante just as though there were such a status quo ante.

But the argument, as an argument about human justice, falters. It may be that, from an “ultimate” point of view, no man “deserves the superior character that enables him to cultivate his abilities.” After all, before he was born he could hardly have done anything to merit such a reward! (Or was his soul already in existence?) But if we look at matters from a less remote perspective, the man of twenty, in possession of a superior character that enables him to cultivate his abilities, can usually be shown to have done something to produce this character. Has there been no hard work, inner discipline, lacerating struggle with his soul? Is it all the throw of the dice? Nor does the recognition that the social circumstances into which we are born affect our chances to cultivate our abilities turn the thrust of this point aside. Obviously, it is harder to develop one's abilities in an inner-city slum, and obviously social justice calls for the remedying of such conditions of poverty. But quite large numbers of people with superior characters come out of inner-city slums, and Scarsdale has been known to produce its quota of feckless types.

“The social system,” says Mr. Rawls, “is not an unchangeable order beyond human control, but a pattern of human action.” He is right. Clearly, Nature hands out its favors capriciously, and a humane social order will not aggravate, but will seek to reduce the impact of natural misfortune. It will protect the weak, save the foolish from derision and humiliation, offer avenues out of hereditary poverty, and ascribe certain common rights to all, whatever their “just moral deserts.” It will not invoke “the arbitrariness of nature” as an excuse for treating individuals cavalierly. But this is not at all the same thing as to say that it is morally wrong for a society to notice, approve, or reward outstanding gifts, particularly when the individuals who have these gifts have played some part in developing them. Organized society, by and large, can reach very few goals without engaging the voluntary cooperation of its members. And this involves its introducing moral and social rules under which, short of obvious excusing conditions like infancy or insanity, people are expected to take responsibility for what they do and for being the kind of people they are. Whether this also requires that large rewards be given to those of “superior character” is an empirical matter on which opinions may differ. But in drawing up a theory of justice for a society, rules for fixing responsibility pertinent not to souls facing their Maker in the final settlement of things, but to people making the actual choices of life, ought to be incorporated. At least to me it seems that a theory of justice which treats the individual as not an active participant in the determination of his fate, and which is guided by the model of life as a lottery, is unlikely to strengthen people's sense of personal responsibility. Is it not possible to feel compassion for those who, through no fault of their own, get the dirty end of things, without discarding the entire notion of “moral desert”?

We come, in the end, to that curious phrase of Mr. Rawls's—“morally arbitrary.” The word “arbitrary” when used in contexts of this sort has two possible meanings. It can mean that something has been done in violation of a moral rule; for example, a public official who acts unconstitutionally is behaving “arbitrarily.” Or it can mean that there is no relevant moral norm with respect to which the action is governed. In deciding whether to read a detective story or go out to the movies, I flip a coin: the result, in this sense, is “arbitrary.” Which is it that Mr. Rawls means when he speaks of the distribution of personal talents and defects as “morally arbitrary”? That some pertinent moral norm has been broken? If so, he presupposes a moral design in the Creation. He has Job's problem before Job acquired wisdom. But if he means only that no moral norm is properly assignable to the process by which cardinals are red and pigeons gray, he is simply uttering the irrefutable proposition that contingency is in the universe.

This is why the label “redemptive” seems to me the right one for the kind of egalitarianism Mr. Rawls's book espouses. It judges our world from a position putatively outside it. The certainty of a moral geometry is sought, not the probabilities of men and women limited by place, time, and mortality. An ultimate harmony of things is presumed, not the irreducibility of at least some conflicts or the idiosyncrasy of some tastes. And the issues are formulated, ultimately, in the classic redemptive style: we are for Equality or against it, for God's Justice or against it. The struggle is between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.

Most pertinent of all, the notion of moral responsibility on which this form of egalitarianism rests is one appropriate to an omnipotent God, wondering what went wrong with His creation, and not mortal beings whose perspectives have to be more limited. When God deals the cards, one man turns out to be Richard Nixon, another Jean-Paul Sartre, another Charles Manson. Facing this situation, God has only one of two options: He can take full responsibility for what He has done, and say that in His eyes none of us can claim any credit or take any blame, or He can leak some free will into the premises, and say that the defects in His creation are not His but His creatures'. In brief, He can hold us either entirely responsible for what we are or not responsible at all. But short of these heavenly horizons, surely there are reasonable distinctions to be made. The problem which the redemptive theory of equality is trying to solve, in the final analysis, is a version of the theological problem of evil: How could God, who loves all His children equally, have assigned so many of His children to hell? Redemptive egalitarianism is only indirectly concerned with removing specific inequities. Its deeper concern is to restore things to their original Design, to remove the blight of Accident from the world, and make obtuse Matter lie down and be obedient to God's plan.



Yet I would refuse to stop calling myself an egalitarian. So much in the foreground is this new egalitarianism that it is easy to forget that there is another form of egalitarianism with quite substantial credentials. It would be a tragedy if redemptive egalitarianism drove it from the field, for it incorporates, I think, most of our best values, politically and morally. It is a product not so much of religious and philosophical preoccupations as of the secular life of social democracies and the actual experience of democratic politics. It is represented in the tradition of liberal reformers like Brandeis and that of democratic socialists like Léon Blum or Willy Brandt. This “corrective egalitarianism” is composed of one part self-interested prudence, one part a special brand of courtesy, and one part ethical belief.

Reflecting, some years ago, on the condition of public hospitals in the United States, A. J. Liebling wrote:

If the wife of a wealthy Rhode Islander fell ill he would send her to a place like Butler or the Hartford Retreat or Chestnut Lodge. This is cheaper, for a large taxpayer, than paying a proportionate share of the upkeep of an adequate hospital system. . . .

I often wonder what would have happened if all men of military age hadn't been compelled to go into the same public armed forces during the most recent war, and if there had been a nice private auxiliary army available for the sons of large taxpayers. I believe that rations, clothing, medical attention, and pay would have been lousy in the ranks of the public army. To compensate for these drawbacks, discipline would have been much more severe, and the newspapers would have been full of editorials against coddling public soldiers.

There was no attempt to run war on that system, and I sometimes doubt that we should run peace that way.

This perfectly expresses the prudential element in corrective egalitarianism. It is the less powerful man's insurance policy. If severe burdens are going to be imposed—conscription, food shortages—let them be equally distributed or, if that is impossible, let them fall by lot on the great and the lowly alike. “Equality,” so conceived, is a principle for the distribution of hardships. Thus, traditional egalitarians did not oppose the situation in which the rich could go to their own universities, provided that they paid enough in taxes to support adequate universities for others, and didn't steal all the best people away. This toleration reflected the judgment that not being able to go to Harvard, though undoubtedly a misfortune in the eyes of the Lord, is still not an acute hardship. The same principle is at the base of the constitutional political tradition, Greek and modern. The political equalities affirmed by conservatives like Madison—e.g., the basic individual rights, the applicability of the laws to governors and governed alike—express the elementary wariness that lies at the source of more general forms of egalitarianism.

Rousseau went only one step farther when, in The Social Contract, he defined “equality” in economic and social terms: “By equality, we should understand not that the degree of power and riches be absolutely identical for everybody, but that . . . no citizen be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to sell himself.” Rousseau was also the progenitor of more “redemptive” forms of egalitarianism, but here he perfectly expresses the “corrective” notion of equality. Spinoza's words catch the same idea: “It is certain that if equality of conditions be once laid aside, liberty perishes.” In this tradition, equality is to be understood, in other words, in relative terms. It is defined in relation always to a specific imbalance, perceived to be dangerous to important values, and therefore to be prevented, reduced, or removed. So approached, there are no answers to the general questions, What is equality?, or, Why equality? There are only answers specific to definite problems.


But this older egalitarianism is, of course, more than only a concern for self-protection. It is a manner, a cultural style. In an egalitarian climate a man's background, education, or social position don't appear to be the main things on other people's minds when they meet and treat with him. Cultures differ strongly in this regard. The Greek Odysseus, returning to Ithaca after twenty years, climbs happily into a peasant's cart to ride the last mile to his palace. The English King Arthur, riding with a peasant, throbs with anxiety that he may not be acting like a man of royal breed. To be an egalitarian is to prefer the former ambience to the latter.

It is, of course, a difference in degree, not in kind. There are no cultures that are perfectly egalitarian, and few which make rank and hierarchy dominant considerations under every condition. And insofar as egalitarianism is a style or a code of courtesy, it is the seeming that counts. It can in fact make a great difference. French courtesy, non-deferential, egalitarian, contributes to an image of fact which clashes with the divisive inequalities in French life, and almost certainly has something to do with French political tensions. The difference between an egalitarian and inegalitarian climate may be “merely” a matter of surface, but it is an objective and palpable difference, as anyone who has lived in France and in Sweden can testify. And this is so even though the economic inequalities in the egalitarian country may be sharper than in the inegalitarian one.

However, since manners don't usually exist in the void, egalitarianism, it need hardly be said, has also been an ethical outlook. We misstate it when we formulate it in terms of the great swinging abstractions, much loved by philosophers, clergymen, and politicians on the stump, such as that each person, having the capacity to be moral, shall be treated as the moral equal of every other. These make it sound either thin or impenetrable. But we know what egalitarianism has been: we need look no farther than representative figures of the “common man” or the “little man” like Lincoln, Huck Finn, and Charlie Chaplin.

What is the ethical outlook of egalitarianism as most of us grew up recognizing it? It was a conviction that there are people of power and feeling hidden away in all sectors of society, and that life would be richer if they were found. It was the suspicion that there is nothing like being on top to make a man a windbag, and that it does everybody a world of good to see him slip on a banana peel. It was the knowledge that the rich and powerful, not necessarily through malice but simply as a reflex of who they were and what they had, would have a natural tendency to try to form a closed club and keep others out. A balanced distribution of power and resources was desirable, therefore, if the individual was to count for more than social class.

But what is most striking is the moral framework within which these judgments were made. The ideal of equality, historically speaking, took its meaning, and its limits, from a larger scheme of values in which it was only one element. What is it that Lincoln, Huck, and Charlie represent? They represent virtues that democratic egalitarianism has traditionally thought ultimately important in a person: chivalry, loyalty, generosity, at least a rough courtesy, self-reliance and self-discipline, an eagerness to improve oneself but also a sense of amusement at oneself, respect for an honest day's work and getting one's hands dirty, a capacity to tell the genuine article from the fake, and a certain earthiness and imperviousness to gentility. It was because Nigger Jim had these qualities that Huck refused to do what his conscience told him and turn Jim in.


Egalitarianism, in the past, represented the moral hope that such qualities would triumph in the world. It was not “non-judgmental,” and neither was it “meritocratic.” Behind the roles that men performed and the positions they occupied, it saw them in terms of their general traits of character. It was not primitivist either, not part of the cult of the honest peasant. (“Don't talk to me about peasant virtues,” Chekhov once said. “I have peasant blood in my veins.”) And it is a caricature to think of it as “middle class.” The virtues it admired were drawn from the traditions and experiences of all classes. And while it espoused equality, it did so in recognition of the value of other things which create differences, partisan feelings, and stratification in society—parental and personal affections, voluntary association and friendship, the desire of people to join with others with common experiences and tastes, and, not least, the need in every society to give public recognition to things noble and excellent lest everything in the society's culture be regarded as disposable. These are all considerations that set some limits upon the proper range of the principle of equality. They do not subvert it; they merely keep it sane.

When philosophers treat moral systems as though they were geometrical deductions from basic premises, they mislead us as to both the actualities and the possibilities of moral reasoning. We don't start from scratch in developing our moral attitudes, we begin in medias res, with the attitudes, memories, affections, aversions that we happen to have in all their disorder. And when one or another value, or group of values, becomes dominant in our minds—for example, equality—when, in order to clarify choices or stabilize social policy, we formulate this value as a basic regulative principle, it remains a principle in a setting, an ideal with a home. It takes its meaning, and has its limits defined, by the larger system of values to which it belongs. The fallacies of the new egalitarianism come largely from having ripped the notion of equality loose from its context. The result is to turn it into a principle vagrant and homeless, and identifiable in fact only if a quasi-theological context is unconsciously imported.

I think it unlikely that there will ever be a day when men will be satisfied with the inequalities they experience, or with the equalities. Equality and inequality are surely one of the perennial themes of politics. My own strong, and I should like to think reasoned, sympathies are with the egalitarians. But it is with the egalitarians who see equality not as a first principle but as a member of a family of principles, and not as a truth brought down from on high but as a complaint expressed from below. I should be surprised if I could demonstrate the Tightness of my view by deducing it from transcendent principles. I comfort myself with the thought, however, that justice is not found by geometric formula, but by a humbler process in which we correct our prejudice by seriously considering other people's. And when we reflect on the antinomies inherent in the idea of equality, we know that, even when we think that we have found justice, we can be fairly sure that what we have found will have only a temporary validity.


1 September 1971. See also his article, “On Challenging an Orthodoxy,” in the April 1973 COMMENTARY.

2 Harvard University Press (1971), 607 pp., $15.00; also available in paperback ($3.95).

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