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Monday, November 20, 2017

Equality–Political Fiction, Social Idealism, And Historical Illiteracy

John Adams, one of the most influential of the Founding Fathers was dismissive of the idea of social equality.
Regarding the egalitarian’s dream regarding “the natural equality” of all human beings, Adams is dismissive. In a letter to his friend, turned adversary, turned friend again, Thomas Jefferson, Adams is blunt: “Jus cuique, the golden rule, is all the equality that can be supported or defended by reason or common sense.”
In his correspondence with John Taylor, Adams writes: “That all men are born to equal rights is clear. Every being has a right to his own, as moral, as sacred, as any other has. This,” he says, “is as indubitable as a moral government in the universe.” However, as for the egalitarian fiction that was taking his world by storm, “for honor’s sake,” and “for truth and virtue’s sake, let American philosophers and politicians despise it.” 
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Adams remarks: “But to teach that all men are born with equal powers and faculties, to equal influence in society, to equal property and advantages through life, is as gross a fraud, as glaring an imposition on the credulity of the people, as ever was practiced by monks, by Druids, by Brahmins, by priests of the immortal Lama, or by the self-styled philosophers of the French Revolution.” (Jack Kerwick, The New American). 
Adams and his colleagues, although they may have differed on human endowments and the relative importance of nature and nurture, all agreed on the principle of equal opportunity.  No matter what God’s gifts, each individual should be able to use them to the fullest. 

The idea of innate inequality has not surprisingly come under attack in recent years.  If one believes, as progressives do, that human nature is not ineluctable nor totally determining of human activity, then social progress is indeed possible.  The environment can be modified in a way to better suit the aspirations of the many, to facilitate a movement towards a more equitable, just, and socially harmonious world, and to provide the favorable context in which humanity’s best instincts can be encouraged.

Conservatives, intellectual inheritors of John Adams’ legacy, content the opposite.  Men have been created unequal, and the only purpose of government is to encourage that social, political, and economic environment within which each individual can prosper and contribute to the commonweal.
An assumption of absolute, innate equality is dangerous and infectious.   A truly just and equal society must be homogeneously inclusive and must in fact erase any reference to relative importance, rank, or status. 

Of course this inclusivity lowers all standards.  If the signal abilities of a dynamic, entrepreneurial society –intelligence, cognitive ability, mental discipline, insight, creativity, and vision –are included only as part of neutral spectrum and not raised to a rank of higher importance, then they cease to be the ideal qualities that all civilizations have valued. 

While not all can be Einstein, Mozart, Kant, or Michelangelo, reaching for their particular and unique brilliance is a good thing.  While they may have been specially endowed and on the high end of human intellectual ability, the individual and collective ambition and effort to be like them is the energy for lesser but by no means less important achievement.

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While it may not be surprising to see the extent to which the philosophy of progressive inclusivity and social equality has gone, it is surprising to see how easily history has been forgotten.

Every civilization – whether Ancient Greece and Rome, Persepolis, China, Imperial Japan, or the British Empire -  has honored and valued the same principles, attributes, traits and abilities.  The intellectual, artistic, architectural, and scientific achievements of these societies were remarkably similar although culturally distinct; and the enterprise which enabled them was even more predictable.  Each civilization had elites, a historically-repeated acknowledgement of the fundamental social and individual inequality that characterizes all human societies.

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It is no surprise that nationalism is re-emerging throughout the world.  China, Japan, Russia, and Turkey are the most openly committed to reviving their imperial pasts – or at least reaffirming their essential values.  While often criticized as xenophobic and reactionary, these countries are nothing of the kind.  They do not see cultural pluralism in the same way as the liberal West.  For them it represents the erosion of millennia-old beliefs, traditions, and values. 

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Countries like the United States without a firm, universally-respected, moral, historical, and philosophical center cannot survive and will split apart under the pressure of factionalism and selfish individualism.

Imperial states were created by aristocratic elites but enabled if not supported by the masses.  They were unabashedly unequal societies.

Alexander Hamilton was very wary of the masses and argued with Jefferson over the danger of populist rule.
All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are rich and well born; the other, the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second; and as they cannot receive any advantage by change, they will therefore maintain good government.
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Hamilton would be appalled if he were to see 21st century America, a nation riven by sectorial and parochial interests, divided as never before into identity and interest groups; with such a venal and self-serving Congress; a near complete dismantling of those private and public institutions which served as moral anchors for society; and worst of all an abandonment of the idea of the inherent sanctity of a nation. 

His worst fears have been realized.  Pluralistic populism has replaced enlightened, principled leadership.  Aristocratic elites – always the caretakers of the nation’s patrimony – exist no longer, replaced by technocrats, financiers, and entrepreneurs.

There is no way for a country to become or remain strong unless it has a clear cultural and moral center – a purpose which goes beyond procedure (democracy, civil rights, freedom) and is derived from religious tradition and the highest expression of intellectual enterprise.

As long as identity is valued over universal values; as long as individual demands are respected more than compromise; and as long as we remain slavish to an outdated and increasingly ragged notion of ‘democracy’, America will continue to lose ground to those countries which wish to restore their historical legacy.

It is a mistake to look at Russia and Turkey as autocratic, reactionary countries.  While the excesses of their leaders may be eventually trimmed, their intentions to restore the more foundational period of their history should be respected.

America in fact would do well to restore the values and principles of the Founding Fathers.

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