Saturday, September 26, 2015

Equality

It occurred to me that the word "equality," which I occasionally use on this blog, is far more ambiguous than it may seem at first, so I thought that I'd take a brief look at what it means in the context in which I generally apply it. In common usage, when it refers to people, it carries the political connotation that, particularly in a democratic form of government, all citizens are to be treated the same with respect to the law. This means that if one type of adult is generally allowed to do something, every other type of adult should generally be allowed to do it too, and the same applies regarding various government protections and benefits. Since the concept has been phased in through steps in a legal context, the emphasis has shifted over many years from racial equality to women's rights to gay rights, in each instance legally guaranteeing certain rights to a specific group that had previously been treated unfairly. Under the Constitution, the general concept needs to be spelled out specifically for each group covered, which confuses the question by perpetuating the segmentation of society and never producing a blanket law that would, in one fell swoop, cover all citizens in all groups. In a way this legal process encourages people to continue thinking in the unacceptable terms that previously divided society, and it is certainly not the most efficient method for addressing the perceived ills. "Equality" is also used in the sense of economic equality, which focuses more on financial status than on legal status, and since that is more straightforward I won't specifically address it here. Economic inequality, for my purposes, is a special case of inequality that stems directly from capitalism and could theoretically cease to exist in an ideal post-capitalist society.

Perhaps the greatest confusion over "equality" has to do with its misinterpretation as "sameness." This may be because in ordinary usage "equality" means that people are entitled to the same treatment under law, but it does not mean that they are the same in any sense independent of this. Probably some of the thinking underlying the extreme political correctness that I find absurd is a result of this fallacy. I get the impression that on some college campuses, if a Maa-speaking Masai tribesman entered a room accompanied by a mute Inuit who communicated in Greenlandic Sign Language, the American students would make every effort to see them as identical and avoid all references to their obvious differences. The problem here may be the taking of the concept "person" and inappropriately applying it so rigidly and abstractly to all humans that any differences between people noted may be construed as a form of discrimination, since all people are the same according to their definition. Thus, if the Masai and the Inuit were asked "Do either of you speak English?'' there might be someone in the room who would interpret that as an unacceptable racial slur or as an insult to handicapped people, since the statement might give priority to spoken English over other languages and suggest that those who are unable to speak it are inferior, or that spoken language is superior to sign language. A pathological politically correct person such as this would be attempting to see people as equal in a sense that makes any public recognition of differences unacceptable.

When I write about equality, I am thinking of it mainly in a legal sense. I believe that all people should be treated equally under the law and base this not on legal theory or democratic principles, but on my acceptance of the idea that we are a eusocial species and, as such, we unconsciously tend to favor a legal framework that supports equality. It is a little tricky to pursue this argument from a biological standpoint, because biologically there is also evidence supporting the idea of the inevitability of war, genocide, murder, etc., but in this case I simply call upon science to adjudicate whether we as a species are essentially altruistic, cooperative and eusocial. I am willing to leave it at that, because in the long run I believe that humans do, by both reason and instinct, favor cooperation over conflict. Conflict has often been a last resort when cooperation hasn't worked, and there is no reason in principle why the rule of law could not one day eliminate any need for it. Thus, for me, equality is part of a legal superstructure that is necessary to impart order and cooperation on mankind by reducing the need for any subgroup or individual to do harm to or take advantage of others.

Where I depart from liberalism is in my skepticism about leaving the responsibility for reaching and maintaining a state of equality up to a democratic political system. In my view, the political system in the U.S. barely works and is still permissive regarding inequality. Here I think some history may be relevant. Democracies, rather than promoting the kind of universal equality that Western liberalism now seems to favor, have tended to promote equality only within elite groups. The authors of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution included slave owners, for example. An altered but similar system exists today which only disguises the actual control by what might be construed as a ruling class. Today the U.S. cannot honestly be called a democracy, in which each voter has equal say, because moneyed interests manipulate government policies by controlling who gets elected. There may be some elements of a true populist democracy in the mix, but it would be more accurate to describe the current U.S. government as a plutocracy, with little sign of an emerging increase in equality.

One of the central confusions of liberalism today is that is has adopted the market thinking, hence the capitalistic theology, of previous conservative governments. For example, the rhetoric that emanates from Barack Obama's mouth is a reworking of the rhetoric that emanated from Bill Clinton's mouth, which was a reworking of the rhetoric that emanated from Ronald Reagan's mouth. In all three instances, the gist is that free-market capitalism is a panacea; as Obama likes to say, if poor, unemployed people could just get better educations, everything would be fine. It won't be fine, because as, Thomas Piketty has shown, the current economic system promotes inequality. I oppose free-market capitalism because, among other reasons, it is unlikely to solve the problem of inequality on its own, and there is currently little to prevent its adherents from continuing to manipulate democratic governments in the pursuit of plutocratic interests.

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