The Idol of Equality

by Victor Davis Hanson
To put equality ahead of liberty is to war against human nature.

“There is, in fact, a manly and lawful passion for equality which excites men to wish all to be powerful and honored. This passion tends to elevate the humble to the rank of the great; but there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level, and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom.”

—Alexis de Tocqueville

In his famous admonition about the tyranny of the majority, Tocqueville went on to warn that “Liberty is not the chief and constant object of their desires; equality is their idol: they make rapid and sudden efforts to obtain liberty, and if they miss their aim resign themselves to their disappointment; but nothing can satisfy them except equality, and rather than lose it they resolve to perish.”

If we keep Tocqueville’s advice in mind, we can appreciate why and how the present war against personal liberty in service to mandated equality may become the greatest danger of the 21st century. The theaters of battle already extend to every segment of American life; and every weapon is employed, from government coercion to the progressive media to the Orwellian effort to change the meaning of language itself.

Millions of Americans have lost the liberty to select their own type of health insurance, purchased on their own volition to best match their own assessments of their particular needs. Obamacare — the federal government’s redistributive effort to equalize health care for all — sought to destroy the liberty of many millions in order to ensure a state-directed sameness in care for all. Note also how a redistributive plan that spiked costs, reduced care, and so far has taken away more health coverage than it has provided is named the “Affordable Care Act.” Better to call it the the “Unaffordable Uncaring Edict.”

Most initiatives that Obama has embraced are characterized by going after a suspect group or tradition — targeting particular businesses deemed not sufficiently socially sensitive to workers, focusing on legal gun owners, eroding the military tradition in infantry service of restricting women to non-combat roles, coercing schools that would discipline trouble-makers in class, promoting the suppression of interest rates by the Federal Reserve to reward the many who owe money and punish the fewer who saved some — all on the notion of helping the proverbial “people.” Such a thoroughgoing effort at enforcing ideas of fairness covers both the important and the trivial: The government renames terrorism “man-caused disasters”; the fight against it is merely “overseas contingency operations.” The Muslim Brotherhood is “largely secular.” If need be, we can jail an obscure video maker on trumped-up charges of parole violation to serve the larger need not to show bias against anyone.

The universities are probably society’s worst offenders. Under the guise of seeking race, class, and gender equity, they have denied free expression through “speech codes.” They have undermined traditional liberal-arts curricula on the grounds that they were not sufficiently sensitive to these same gender, race, and class issues. And they have placed their institutions — from the selection of graduation speakers, to the hiring and promotion of administrators and faculty, to the criteria for admitting students and the scale on which they are graded — in service not to academic excellence or even civil liberties, but to a perceived equality of result.

The effort to take away freedom, both violent and insidious, in order to ensure equality of result has a sad history, from the degeneration of Athenian democracy in the late fourth century b.c. to the French Revolution to, in the postwar era, the Sovietization of Eastern Europe, the destruction of civil societies in Africa and Latin America, the implosion of the European Union, the current mess in François Hollande’s France, and chaos in American cities like Detroit.

As the ancient poet Hesiod noted, there are two sorts of human jealousies: the positive one of a free society in which citizens are impressed by the singular works of some and thus redouble their efforts to match or exceed them (“She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbor, a rich man who hastens to plow and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbor vies with his neighbor as he hurries after wealth”), and a destructive envy (“foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face”) in which the many resent that the few have something they do not, and thus redouble their efforts to either destroy them or take away what they have acquired.

The problem with destroying liberty in service to mandated sameness is obvious, driven by Hesiod’s  second, destructive envy: It has never worked, because it is contrary to human nature — both man’s acquisitive habits and the fact that we are not all born into the world equal in every respect. Instead, forced equality erodes personal initiative, undermines the rule of law, ruins the honesty of language, and requires a degree of coercion antithetical to a free society.

Gun-control laws and the use of the bully pulpit and government protocols to prevent law-abiding citizens from obtaining traditional firearms did not curb the murder rate in Chicago or Detroit. It only drove up the price of bullets, created panic buying, and ultimately will result in more, not fewer, guns in the hands of citizens who are now angry that their government slanders them as quasi-criminals.

Inflating the money supply, ending passbook interest as we knew it, and taking on enormous government debt did not lead to a robust recovery after the 2008–2009 recession; rather, it led to a permanent recessionary cycle in which over 90 million Americans are simply not looking for work. Most of them are now dependent on their legislators’ populist efforts to force government to take on more debt for their support.

Universities, after the radical changes in grading, admissions, hiring, administration, and curricula of the 1970s and 1980s, did not graduate superior students, offer more affordable tuition, increase diversity of thought, and guarantee a more competitive curriculum of excellence. Just the opposite occurred: more student debt, less trust in the sanctity of grades, more orthodoxy and restrictive speech codes, a far less instructive curriculum, more oppression of part-time and adjunct instructors in order to subsidize more race, class, and gender overseers, and a general diminution in the value of a college degree.

To ensure that the masses could be protected from perceived climate change, the president went after energy companies — to the degree that he could by restricting new leases of gas and oil on federal lands, and subsidizing companies deemed friends of the people because of their bumper-sticker allegiance to green wind and solar power. Chaos resulted, both through the bankruptcies of subsidized crony capitalist green firms and through less energy produced on federal lands.

Worse still, the elites who lead the war against liberty in favor of progressive notions of mandated equality are themselves usually exempt from the implications of their own ideology — a long American tradition, from FDR to the Kennedys to Al Gore.

Barack Obama brags about the increase in oil and gas production on his watch, as if he thought it a good thing and as if the public won’t notice that such increases came on private lands, and only because they were beyond his reach. Sidwell Friends, for all its liberal patina, would never allow disruptive students in its Advanced Placement classes, or predicate discipline decisions on notions of race — as the Obama administration is currently attempting to force the public schools to do. When California’s transgender law goes into full effect in the public schools, I doubt that the wealthy will wish to follow suit in their private academies and thus put their eight-year-old daughters in facilities shared with 14-year-old boys who deem themselves gender-ambiguous.

When Barack Obama swears that inequality is the greatest threat to American life, we do not expect him to yank his girls out Sidwell Friends to share the D.C. public-educational experience. We do not expect him in gestures of solidarity to cease playing at exclusive golf courses with crony capitalists, any more than we expect him to refuse huge campaign contributions from Goldman Sachs, or to pass on hiring revolving-door capitalists like Jack Lew or Peter Orszag. We do not assume he will decry the wildly disparate salaries in the NBA and NFL, much less sermonize to his Malibu supporters that their gardeners and nannies need union protection.

Obamacare is as likely to exempt favorite companies and unions as it is determined to cancel plans of those without influence. The pattern of the French Revolution’s grandees, the Soviet nomenklatura, and the EU elite has always been to force equality down the throats of free people while enjoying quite unequal lifestyles. Al Gore, after all, did not refuse to sell his near-bankrupt company to a fossil-fuel-producing Gulf sheikhdom on the grounds that its old energy was bad for the people. Instead he desperately sought to unload the money-losing concern guided by principles that were elite to the core: rush the sale through before higher capital-gains tax rates kicked in; ignore the illiberal traditions of Sunni authoritarian monarchies; worry not about the anti-American propaganda of Al Jazeera in reporting on American soldiers at war; and postpone talk of a post-petroleum world until the sale had cleared escrow and the petrodollars were safely in the Gore account.

Finally, the war to subordinate liberty is contrary to the idea of human freedom and thus always demands ever more coercion. The longer Obama remains well below a 50 percent approval rating, the more we will witness mandates by executive fiat, the selective enforcement of settled law, and controversial appointees selected on the basis of progressive ideology rather than proven competence and administrative expertise.

Historically the reaction to state-mandated equality is usually either flight — from the Soviet Union and the captive nations of Eastern Europe, from present-day France, from Detroit, from California — or a sort of psychological cocooning, in which citizens fearful that they are in the crosshairs of progressive government drop out, keep quiet, and hope their success can survive the taxman, the regulator, the popular press, and the fury of the mob.

The irony is that free people usually create far more wealth than the coerced, which makes the lower echelons better off, a fact that reminds “equality” is usually about empowering progressive elites rather than materially helping the poor. Moreover, in a free society, there are all sorts of forces — religion, constantly improving and ever cheaper technology, family pressures, honor, shame, philanthropy — that redistribute wealth either naturally or through the consent of the giver, and far more effectively than creating a huge government equalocracy that seeks power to bully others and exempt itself.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.