Magazine | September 22, 2014, Issue

Whose Declaration? Which Equality?

Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, by Danielle Allen (Liveright, 320 pp., $27.95)

It has always been the fate of the Declaration of Independence to bounce back and forth between the political equivalents of foster homes and orphanages. This owes to its ambiguous status in American political life. It is generally, though not universally, revered. But it is usually contested. Both Mitt Romney and President Obama quoted the Declaration prominently during the 2012 campaign (and Obama returned to it in his second inaugural address), but for contrasting purposes. Its formal legal status is doubted. Although it appears at the beginning of the U.S. Statutes, it is seldom — except, notably, by Clarence Thomas — cited as a constitutional authority.

The ideological character of the Declaration is even more diffuse. Many liberals and many conservatives are not sure they like it. Conservatives, following Tocqueville, worry that the emphasis on equality has eaten up, or will eventually eat up, liberty. The appeal to abstract principles of right is the kind of thing that Edmund Burke (who sympathized with the American cause) wouldn’t approve. The ultimate insult from the right: It’s too French.

Liberals have greater difficulty with the Declaration, because it is a stumbling block, as Lincoln promised it would be, to certain modern liberal purposes. Some liberals take notice of Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding, and disdain the Declaration as sheer hypocrisy, or denigrate the Founders by supposing the claim of equal rights was limited to white, property-owning males. Liberals of a more philosophical bent dislike the invocation of “self-evident truth” and especially natural right — “the laws of nature and nature’s God” — because in this pillar of individual liberty is found the main justification for limited government. Hence Woodrow Wilson explicitly attacked the Declaration as obsolete. Wilson thought it best understood as a mere contract grievance against Great Britain: “If you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence,” he wrote, “do not repeat the preface.” Darwin and Hegel had overtaken Locke and Jefferson, Wilson thought, a view perfectly expressed in historian Carl Becker’s otherwise excellent 1922 book The Declaration of Independence: “To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question.” Franklin Roosevelt didn’t go as far as Wilson’s filial impiety, but he did find it necessary to argue for separating the philosophy of the Declaration from the Constitution in order to prepare the ground for the New Deal’s expansion of government to new and unknown places.

Danielle Allen has stepped into this tricky breach with an elegant book, deeply moving in many places, personal and conversational in style and yet also seriously philosophical and closely exegetical of the Declaration’s text. (She spends 32 pages explicating just the first sentence of the Declaration.) Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., is a liberal, but not a leftist. (Actually, she was once an intern at National Review.) Even if some of her central arguments deserve strong engagement and criticism, taken in full the book represents a thoughtful celebration of the Declaration that will profit all readers.

The subtitle — “A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality” — suggests the chief point of contention: What do we mean by equality, and does liberty inherently lead to unacceptable inequality? Allen treats the Declaration as “nothing less than a very short introduction to political philosophy,” rather than a mere political tract. She is correct in arguing that “political philosophers have generated the view that equality and freedom are necessarily in tension with each other.” In seeing equality and liberty as a tradeoff — a zero-sum game — Allen thinks “we have come, as a people, to choose liberty”: “Equality has always been the more frail twin. . . . Under the general influence of libertarianism, both parties have abandoned our Declaration; they have scorned our patrimony.”

It will surely come as news to libertarians to hear that the country is moving in a more libertarian direction (Obamacare, anyone?), and one might wonder whether reports of the rise of Elizabeth Warren, and of Obama’s recent emphasis on income inequality, have somehow failed to make the Princeton newspapers. But Allen is more interested in exploring how we understand the subtle relationship between equality and liberty in the Declaration than in compiling a balance sheet of current public policy or income distribution. Like the Declaration, her full argument requires some careful disentangling.

The strongest aspect of Allen’s argument is her implicit rejection of many left-liberal attacks on the Declaration, suggested in her title: “Our Declaration.” Without minimizing or excusing the obvious contradiction of slavery, Allen by an elegant parsing of the text (especially her careful treatment of Jefferson’s famous draft paragraph attacking slavery that was edited out by the Continental Congress) shows why the famous phrase “all men are created equal” meant everybody — not just property-owning white men. (Here she follows closely the understanding of Lincoln, who is largely absent from the book.)

#page#Neither does Allen give much aid and comfort to simple-minded egalitarianism, or condone the modern liberal impulse to subsume individual rights under a general right to be made equal. She grasps that “equal” does not mean “same,” and that still less should equality be measured by wealth: “It does not mean equal in all respects. It does not mean equal in wealth.” Once again she derives these conclusions from a careful consideration of the text rather than through an imposition of her own preferences. From this careful reading she lays out five meanings of equality, several of which are recognizable but stated in contemporary language with an ever-so-slight liberal tinge. The first four are “freedom from domination, equality of opportunity to use the tools of government, the use of egalitarian methods to generate collective intelligence, and equality of agency achieved through practices of reciprocity.”

While her textual constructions of these four understandings of equality are well-argued and plausible, the fifth and final one is where the mischief creeps in: “Equality as co-creation and co-ownership of our shared world.” Allen derives this understanding from a less persuasive reading of the Declaration’s closing passage, in which the signers mutually pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” “Each thereby claimed an equal ownership share,” Allen writes.

Would this justify Krugmanesque 90 percent income-tax rates on the rich today? That conclusion would not square with, for example, James Madison’s argument in the famous Federalist 10 that the first object of a government based on equal rights is to protect the unequal faculties of acquiring property. Allen goes nowhere near Krugmanland, however, and one of the virtues of her book is the complete absence of any Rawlsian turgidity about the mandates of egalitarianism.

In fact, her one specific suggestion for reducing inequality highlights a lingering confusion that the book does not resolve: “Perhaps the single most important thing we could do to reverse inequalities that abound in our society would be to repeal zoning laws and other measures that dramatically segregate people by income and ethnicity.” The irony here is that most serious advocates of abolishing zoning and similar discriminatory regulation (such as restrictive occupational licensing) have been the libertarians Allen discounts. The one major American city without typical zoning — Houston — probably has the most social mixing and mobility of the kind Allen wants. It certainly has the greatest housing and job opportunities for lower-income minorities.

As the example of municipal regulation shows, the accumulation of more political power typically undermines both liberty and equality. Allen is on the verge of grasping this, noting briefly the recent empirical work of Larry Bartels, Benjamin Page, and Jason Seawright, currently very hot in political science, that finds that the richest Americans are dominating the political process and enjoying the most success in securing their public-policy goals, which differ from the preferences of the majority. Is this result purely because of wealth, or does the growth of government — and the flourishing of “crony capitalism” — explain some of it? Shouldn’t it give egalitarians pause that five of the ten richest counties in America are clustered around Washington, D.C.? In this regard it is worth noting that Allen lingers only briefly on the complaint against King George III in the Declaration that perhaps best applies to our circumstances today: “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”

Allen, fortunately, doesn’t venture into some of the usual prescriptions — e.g., campaign-finance reform — that are intended to equalize the playing field but in fact only centralize political power further in the hands of the bureaucratic class. This is to her credit, as she wants us to approach the Declaration as citizens rather than as policy wonks. If she isn’t wholly successful or persuasive in harmonizing liberty and equality as they appear in the Declaration, it is chiefly because we shall never stop contesting the meaning of equality. By averting her gaze from the Founders’ view that the harmony of liberty and equality requires strong limits on government power, Allen ends up framing her larger argument within the dichotomy she sets out to resist, leaving us still baffled by the problem.

But this is the book’s only arguable major defect. I have dwelt on it at length here because it is central to the title and to the beginning and ending of her book, and it happens to be of most relevance to our current debate on inequality. She is not wrong to lament that our public discourse on equality is impoverished. There is much else in this book of great charm and substance. Her larger point that the Declaration is something every American should cherish is refreshing to hear from elite academia today. This is an uncommon book for an uncommon document, and it contains many fine and fresh insights.

– Mr. Hayward is the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy.

Steven F. Hayward is a visiting professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a fellow of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. He writes daily at

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