RE: Two Kinds of Equality

by Yuval Levin

Dan, bless you for the nourishing respite from breaking news about open marriages and effective tax rates. A great post on equal rights and equal abilities. And let’s not overlook Hobbes’s brilliant little joke in the passage you cite: When he argues that we know that reason is equally distributed because every man is satisfied with his own share, he’s saying that in fact it is vanity, not reason, that is equally distributed.  And it is the equal distribution of vanity that is at the heart of his liberal project—for good and for ill.


It’s also worth noting that the claim that reason is equally distributed and, as Hobbes suggests, prudence is merely a function of experience and learning “which equal time equally bestows on all men in those things they equally apply themselves unto” is actually an argument for social inequality, not for social equality. It suggest that those men who have more time to apply themselves to the study and practice of politics, for instance, will be better suited to rule—and in practice, the people who will have that kind of time are likely to be wealthy leisured people. That can’t be what the left in Britain intends, but it’s what they’re implying.


Edmund Burke made this case very explicitly, arguing that he believed that everyone had more or less the same natural potential but different people had different opportunities to develop their potential, and only those who had the most such opportunity should be trusted with government. In the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, Burke writes:

To be bred in a place of estimation; To see nothing low and sordid from one’s infancy; To be taught to respect one’s self; To be habituated to the censorial inspection of the public eye; To look early to public opinion; To stand upon such elevated ground as to be enabled to take a large view of the wide-spread and infinitely diversified combinations of men and affairs in a large society; To have leisure to read, to reflect, to converse; To be enabled to draw the court and attention of the wise and learned wherever they are to be found; To be habituated in armies to command and to obey; To be taught to despise danger in the pursuit of honor and duty; To be formed to the greatest degree of vigilance, foresight, and circumspection, in a state of things in which no fault is committed with impunity, and the slightest mistakes draw on the most ruinous consequences—To be led to a guarded and regulated conduct, from a sense that you are considered as an instructor of your fellow-citizens in their highest concerns, and that you act as a reconciler between God and man—To be employed as an administrator of law and justice, and to be thereby amongst the first benefactors to mankind—To be a professor of high science, or of liberal and ingenuous art—To be amongst rich traders, who from their success are presumed to have sharp and vigorous understandings, and to possess the virtues of diligence, order, constancy, and regularity, and to have cultivated an habitual regard to commutative justice—These are the circumstances of men, that form what I should call a natural aristocracy, without which there is no nation.
It is precisely the notion of natural equality that leads to a case for social inequality. (Here, as he so often does, Burke intentionally uses the term “natural” to mean artificial, since, as he puts it elsewhere, “art is man’s nature.”) Burke’s great nemesis, Thomas Paine, made the contrary case for social equality precisely by rejecting the premise of a natural equality of intelligence or ability. In Rights of Man, Paine writes:
It is impossible to control Nature in her distribution of mental powers. She gives them as she pleases. Whatever is the rule by which she, apparently to us, scatters them among mankind, that rule remains a secret to man. It would be as ridiculous to attempt to fix the hereditaryship of human beauty, as of wisdom. Whatever wisdom constituently is, it is like a seedless plant; it may be reared when it appears, but it cannot be voluntarily produced….As this is in the order of nature, the order of government must necessarily follow it, or government will, as we see it does, degenerate into ignorance. The hereditary system, therefore, is as repugnant to human wisdom as to human rights; and is as absurd as it is unjust. As the republic of letters brings forward the best literary productions, by giving to genius a fair and universal chance; so the representative system of government is calculated to produce the wisest laws, by collecting wisdom from where it can be found. I smile to myself when I contemplate the ridiculous insignificance into which literature and all the sciences would sink, were they made hereditary; and I carry the same idea into governments.
It’s hard to argue with Paine’s premise here, though I think he’s wrong to assume (as he seems to do implicitly) that government is just a matter of raw intellection. While Burke may be wrong in his assumption of equal natural ability, and so in his case for aristocracy, he is right to suggest that government, at least, is a function of prudence more than simple intellect.
When it comes to educational opportunity, though, this surely suggests that the British left has turned itself around. The premise that the opponents of Britain’s grammar schools begin from, which they think of as an egalitarian premise, actually points away from democratic forms, while the premise that natural differences of ability are unavoidable is the one that points toward more democratic forms—like those grammar schools. So shall we be egalitarians in the abstract but not in practice, or shall we take the reality of human differences for granted and try to help every citizen make the most of his abilities? Shall we construct a society to help the elites feel good about themselves, or to help the disadvantaged rise as high as they can?
Of course, the fact that it is not entirely “impossible to control Nature in her distribution of mental powers” complicates this a bit. It appears to be possible, at least to a degree, to influence that distribution by the intermarriage (or other intercoupling, shall we say) of similarly gifted parents—as our society is finding out. That is no small challenge to egalitarian institutions, but it argues even more forcefully, not less so, for ways up out of poverty, like those offered by the grammar schools.