The Leveling Spirit of Equality

Tocquevilleby Glenn Fairman  10/31/13
“The more alike men are, the weaker each feels in the face of all.” – Tocqueville  •  In a waning society where the burden of jagged truth can no longer be endured and whose preponderance of fools and functional illiterates tips steadily towards critical mass, questioning the sacred cattle of a people’s thoughts is tantamount to impiety; and the writer that does so stands a better than even chance of committing professional suicide by his own lack of discretion. To dare hold the sacred concept of Equality to the scrutiny of the Philosopher’s Stone carries the risk of not only being misunderstood, but of being branded as a traitor to an Age where the egalitarian spirit has eclipsed the Reign of Liberty in the luxurious West.

Every public and private virtue has contained within itself the possible seeds of its own destruction. Immoderate bravery yields recklessness and excessive charity can bring indiscriminate moral rot and financial ruin. The same can be held for political systems if they remain in abstraction – unqualified by moderation or wisdom. Democracy, the salvation of modern man, is illustrative of that double-edged rapier that has the capacity to both uplift and to cast down the character of the human condition and leave us infinitely richer or qualitatively impoverished.[pullquote]Every public and private virtue has contained within itself the possible seeds of its own destruction. Immoderate bravery yields recklessness and excessive charity can bring indiscriminate moral rot and financial ruin.[/pullquote]

While on the surface, the political equality of men in a society has an indisputably positive effect on the condition of human life, the flip side of what the ancients understood as “the rule of the poor” can produce corrosive effects on the culture and psychology of a people. As Aristotle postulated: “Democracy arose from mens’ thinking that if they are equal in any respect, they are equal in all things.” If this is so, the more a society retreats from its aristocratic founding, the less tolerable it is of any de facto distinctions or privileges due to merit, nature, or inheritance.

Having been imbued with such a psychology, it is a small step for a demagogue to use the political power of a democracy to enthrone new modes and orders, and to utilize this proclivity to bring political leveling to fruition, in spite of those natural or conventional distinctions. In the end, liberty — which was the motivating cause of the democratic impulse, falls victim as equality becomes ascendant in men’s minds. The precarious imbalance then of freedom in favor of equality brings degeneration to a society as the spirit that has learned to despise ordered self-rule begins its descent into despotism via the people’s thirst for an equality of result in a material sense. Such a road, unmarked by milestones or the appearance of dangers, is nevertheless gently sloping and calls little attention to itself until a people has proceeded too far. Thus, Aristotle’s famous paradox that “the worst form of inequality is to make unequal things equal” brings an injustice into society by the immoderate application of a positive human goal. In this way, the preoccupation with equality becomes the handmaid of both a softened servitude and an unqualified mediocrity; and both of these pave the way for unparalleled distortions in the character of a republic.

Civilizations and societies that become intoxicated with equality at the expense of liberty display a disposition towards cultural homogeneity and are dismissive of the past; since the past is the cruel depository of all manner of injustices by virtue of their embrace of the aristocratic horizon. We must remember that this novel egalitarian worldview is not wholly political in the classical sense, but includes proclivities for music, literature, morality, and religion: assets and institutions that are saturated with the premises and judgments that flow a priori from the currents of existence viewed through the hierarchical lens. In dispensing with the wicked stratifications of value and identity that imposed injustices between the historical classes and castes of humanity, the Western world has clearly advanced over the past. However, the continuum of cultural leveling that attends the democratic/egalitarian worldview leaves a culture markedly transformed – oftentimes to our detriment.[pullquote]The precarious imbalance then of freedom in favor of equality brings degeneration to a society as the spirit that has learned to despise ordered self-rule begins its descent into despotism via the people’s thirst for an equality of result in a material sense.[/pullquote]

One does not need to be a Tocqueville to reflect upon the hierarchies that comprise existence and a healthy society. The Biblical Yahweh created man to rule in wisdom over creation and instituted a natural authority in the family. Churches and governments rely heavily on the authority of hierarchies: although with the secular democratization of modern life, the expanding regime has more than opportunistically filled God’s vacuum and assisted in the project of top down leveling to feed its own venal agenda. As the fetish for equality grows in intensity within the character of a people, the spiritual propensity to direct one’s gaze upwards towards eternal things is countered by an even greater homogenizing gravity aimed at man’s temporal state. As a people aligns itself towards the lowest common denominator, the entire hierarchy of virtue and vice dissolves into an indiscriminate common mass that tolerance – equality’s ideological sister, uses in numbing our powers of discernment. Should it be surprising that with nothing to elevate our consciousness towards contemplating the beautiful or the true, a civilization’s aspirations increasingly turn to pleasure and the inordinate pursuit thereof?

Some might believe that the stability of a society that has ceased fixating on the excellent, the transcendent, and the sublime is more than compensated as the cultural valleys within society are backfilled through the egalitarian force inherent in education. But as the educational curriculum in America has been increasingly standardized, we find that the new mass of students (and there are always exceptions) have not attained qualitatively to the proficiency levels of their fathers. One does not have to be a sociologist to understand that the performance levels of content and comprehension that complement reading are inexorably on the wane as are the general society’s computational faculties. Whether this is a function of: educational bureaucracy, the double–edged technological phenomenon of computers, or merely a result of entertainment’s alluring diversions is perhaps only relevant in an academic sense. A leveled society addicted to pleasure and grown averse to the drudgery of learning will soon not possess either the requisite skills or the desire as a whole to move upward towards new summits; and as a result, it will in fact slip incrementally towards the abyss. And consequentially, the yawning gap that paradoxically accompanies a culture’s egalitarian leveling will eventually yield an even greater inequality as it stratifies into a dichotomy of masters and drones.[pullquote]…the preoccupation with equality becomes the handmaid of both a softened servitude and an unqualified mediocrity; and both of these pave the way for unparalleled distortions in the character of a republic.[/pullquote]

Over one hundred and fifty years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville offered a penetrating diagnosis on the American character – virtues and warts notwithstanding. The same voice having remarked that “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom,” also observed that “Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.” In disdaining the aristocratic hierarchy of the soul that seeks ordered liberty, the author of Democracy in America offers us a sobering prophesy as to what ultimately occurs to peoples who desire equality over liberty:

Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. It does not tyrannize but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Cultural disdain for the “High” by the “Low” is congenital in a culture democratized to the parceled out sound bite and a society whose dreams marinate in the erotic. Having acclimated our palate to what previous ages would have considered as the pursuit of the culturally vulgar and considering our tolerance of the moral decline exemplified in the subsequent character of our entertainments, Tocqueville offers his Cassandra warning to a civilization obsessed with the diminished face of equality, in all its permutations:

When the taste for physical gratifications among them has grown more rapidly than their education . . . the time will come when men are carried away and lose all self-restraint . . . . It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold. . . . they neglect their chief business which is to remain their own masters.

Glenn Fairman writes from Highland, Ca. He can be reached at • (1029 views)

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4 Responses to The Leveling Spirit of Equality

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    There are a number of interesting points here. I’ve thought for many years that the good and bad in any behavior or policy are connected in that each virtue has its related flaw. An example in policy is that gun rights lead to various atrocities, but also help people protect themselves (including, potentially, against tyranny). Privacy and civil liberties can benefit criminals (for example, when SCOTUS banned the FBI use of routine wiretapping without warrants about 45 years ago, it moved the US back a bit from the surveillance state, but it also allowed organized crime to conspire without the FBI overhearing them, leading to consequences such as the New England murder of someone running an independent craps game.

    As for democracy, my view is that government exists to loot the rulers’ constituency at the expense of those they don’t represent. Oligarchies of any sort thus lead to looting the public by the ruling class. The advantage of democracy is that the public at large is now part of the constituency. But, of course, this can lead to a different sort of looting, such as we see in the Europeanized welfare states (which the Democratic Party seeks to create here). The advantage of freedom as opposed to autocracy is that it can correct the mistakes of the rulers, but increasing executive power mitigates that advantage, particularly for natural dictators like Obama (who tend to rely as strongly on sycophants as actual dictators do).

    As for equality, the original notion of liberalism was that equality mean equal legal rights and a high degree of equal opportunity. (Pure equal opportunity is impossible because those who start off at the top will have better educational opportunities even if they have few other advantages.) The problem is that the same terminology can lead to the notion of equality of results, justified on the basis of a presumed equality of merit. Whether this can be prevented in the long run is unclear; most likely it could be if enough effort were made to do so, but it would probably have to be a persistent effort.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’ve never been one to take “equality” at face value. Equality under the law, yes. That’s a bedrock American principle, even if not always followed.

    But I think those who espouse “equality” are those who shrink back from life. Instead of tapping their own capabilities, they wish to pull others back to them. It’s a word for slackers.

    And “equality” is yet another way for people to take the property of others under a nice-sounding name.

    “Equality” is sometimes an appropriate goal. I say it’s suitable for Kindergarteners, for instance. But who wants to live in Kindergarten forever? At some point you have to just live with the fact that we all have different capabilities. Instead of feeding on envy, people should do what they can to make themselves productive and happy.

    Alas, the cancerous Left and Democrat Party have made grievance, envy, and victimhood fashionable. Instead of being ashamed for being a sponge, everyone has learned to play the victim and to be rewarded for it.

    “Equality” is also an expression of scientific socialism…aka our “secular” society. And Christians and Jews are in no way immune to this. In fact, many have brought this on board their religions.

    But the fact is, if one believes we have nothing more than this body, then one will quite naturally put one’s faith in science. And science is indeed very powerful in terms of making life better in terms of medicines and such.

    But this mode of life has the real potential to turn people into beasts, as Glenn outlined in Of Babes and Bio-Ethics. Think about how bizarre it is for a culture (Britain) to celebrate their National Health Service with pomp and banners as they did in the ceremonies for the Olympics. Ironically, a culture that can only relate to the material (even in regards to health care) is a sick culture.

    There’s also the “low information voter” aspect of equality. “Equality” has become a synonym with “fair” and being “fair” seems to be what this emasculated culture holds as a value above all else, even if they haven’t the slightest clue where this “fairness” will lead, in practice.

  3. Glenn Fairman Glenn Fairman says:

    In graduate school, I was unfortunate enough to have to plow through John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice” and his Justice as Fairness principle. Instead of a Socratic definition of Justice based on merit, Rawls invents a thought experiment rooted in game theory of an abstract State of Nature called the Original Position. Here, Rawls asks us to step behind the veil of our accomplishments, successes, and failures, and to postulate what sort of government would maximize our chances for success if we did not know our virtues or our economic status in life and we had to roll the dice. Rawls holds that a system that strove to guarantee more or less equal access to resources and outcomes would be our prudential bet where the liberal right trumps the good. It took hundreds of pages to flesh out this morass of convolution and many a libertarian, conservative , and liberal took turns at dynamiting its dream
    castle foundations. But it remains the last best hope for an egalitarianism of result for Socialists who are desperate for a rationale to pull a fast one.

    Democracy in America remains, even after 150 years, one of the most wonderfully revealing and prescient works of literature on the American political/moral character. I like to listen to it on audio book while walking and it always yields new nuggets, as all true things are wont to do.

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