Okay, that title is a bit clickbait-y. I like Thomas Jefferson. He was a redhead, like me. I even read once that his nickname was the “Red-Haired Wonder”. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’d like it to be. He had some other nice qualities, too, beyond the red hair. But those are less important.
However, there is one accomplishment of his I’d like to discuss. The Declaration of Independence. I’ll admit, I love the Declaration. I once got to see an early draft of the Declaration handwritten by Jefferson himself at the New York Public Library. It brought tears to my eyes. Apparently I find the handwriting of some old guy who’s been dead for two-and-a-half centuries particularly moving.
In any case, there is one line in the Declaration that stands out among the rest, one line we all know well.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It is a powerful statement. Even typing it now gave me goosebumps. But, if we are being honest with ourselves, we know the statement is a lie. No one—NO ONE—is created equal. Not completely.
Let me clarify what I mean. There are different kinds of equality. The libertarian thinker von Hayeck discusses these in his book The Constitution of Liberty. There is the legal equality we are all familiar with, the notion that “Lady Justice is blind” and we will all be treated equally before the law. There is the material equality socialists yearn for—the idea we’ll all make $50,000, have cookie-cutter homes, and own televisions, or something like that.
And then there is factual equality. The number (2) and the number (1 + 1) are factually equal. One millennium and 525,600,000 minutes are factually equal. Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift are factually equal. (That’s a joke. Team Taylor all the way.) But you and me? We are not factually equal. I’m six feet tall, dotted with freckles, not particularly good at basketball, and completely incapable of tanning. Doubtful all of those traits also apply to you.
This is an inevitability of life. From the very moment of conception, that nefarious force of biology sets out to make us unequal. It’s the driving force of natural selection, of Evolution. Mutation, variation, anomaly—“Let’s throw a bunch of shit at the fan and see what works!” Says Evolution.
Of course, there is the ongoing debate of Nature vs. Nurture. How much of ourselves is attributed to our environment? How much can we blame our parents for? Whatever the ratio is, the basic fact remains: our biology dictates our capability to some degree.
This uniqueness helps us each thrive in different ways. It’s what helped Michael Jordan become a tremendous basketball player and Steven Hawking a brilliant scientist. It’s also what made Stevie Wonder a bad driver and Hellen Keller a not-so-great listener. Just like these folks, we are all born with varying levels of intelligence, athleticism, and aesthetic appeal. We are not created equal.
“We get it, Gray. Thomas Jefferson told a little fib. So what?” Well, I’ll tell you. There is a consequence to the inherent inequality of individuals. If people are born factually unequal, it stands to reason that they will also die factually unequal. Furthermore, that factual inequality is bound to produce other kinds of inequality. And the only way to “balance the scales” is to treat people unequally.
Do you see the paradox?
The only way to eliminate inequality is to treat people unequally.
This is where something like Affirmative Action comes into play. Initiatives that fall into this category are boldly discriminatory. They purposefully treat people differently based on immutable characteristics in an effort to create greater equality. Treat people unequally now in the hopes of greater equality later, that’s the idea.
Back to those three strains of equality I mentioned before—Legal, Material, and Factual. What’s important about these kinds of equality? What’s important is that they are at odds with each other. They don’t like each other very much. Putting them in the same room together is a BAD idea. In fact, it’s basically impossible. And it’s all Factual Equality’s fault.
See, Factual Equality says that we’re all inherently unequal from the beginning. We just are. Material Equality doesn’t like this very much. It wants nothing more than to make us totally equal, by any means necessary. Material Equality is ready and willing to sacrifice both Legal Equality and Liberty in order to get what it wants. It is more than happy to wield the law to tax and treat people unequally, all in an effort for greater material equality.
The point I’m driving at here is that Legal Equality (along with Liberty) is fundamentally opposed to Material Equality. A progressive tax structure, for example, does not treat people equally before the law, but it does help create greater material equality. Whether this is good or bad is a matter of perspective.
Equality is the drum beat of our time. Equal, equal, equal. But what no one stops to consider is that some kinds of equality are at odds with each other. If we want everyone to have a great job, great house, and great retirement plan, we’ll need to sacrifice some legal equality. And if we want everyone to have greater liberty and equality before the law, we must be willing to sacrifice some material equality. We cannot have our cake and eat it too.