Democratic Equality 101

I reproduce here, with minor modifications, my reply to a multi-part inquiry from a serious Korean student about the meaning of equality, as that term is used in the context of democratic theory and practice. I have included a few of the student’s own questions (designated with “Q”) from our written exchange, as they form the context for my particular points of emphasis. 

My reply begins, on the student’s prompting, with an outline of the specific difference between aristocracy and democracy, as follows.

The various forms of regime are defined by who holds the political authority within the society. Who makes the laws? Who determines the goals? Who decides what counts as socially beneficial or harmful actions? Who sets the general standards of morality and the proper organization of society?

An aristocracy is a community in which the authority to answer these questions belongs to the aristoi, the “best men,” meaning the educated or cultured class — people who value virtue over wealth, leisure over labor, honor over comfort or low pleasures, and the beautiful over the useful. Now, that’s what aristocracy literally means. It does not follow that any actual government which calls itself an aristocracy is governed by the true “best men” (virtuous, honorable, educated). But that is the intention or meaning of the term.

By contrast, democracy — the rule of the demos, roughly “the people” — is a community in which the governing authority belongs to all the people collectively, which in practical reality means the rule of the majority (the winners of the vote). And this means power is controlled by the attitudes and goals of the current majority, which in turn means that the aims of the society as a whole, and the laws that will be passed, will be variable depending on the majority opinion at any given time. But in general, we can say (or at least Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would say) that since the majority of men, compared to the educated and virtuous minority, will always be less thoughtful, more materialistic and self-absorbed, and more likely to be moved by irrational fears and irrational desires, the result is that democracy (majority rule) will often lead down dangerous paths, and will tend to sacrifice reason and virtue for petty comfort and pleasure.

Thus, as the Greek philosophers believed, democracy is founded on the twin ideals of freedom and equality, but gradually, by the inevitable force of the rule of the irrational majority, freedom becomes redefined as randomness and pleasure-seeking, and equality becomes the primary goal in practice. And this leads to the serious problem which you have noticed.

Q: Sometimes, I feel confused about this idea of equity, because it seems like it is interpreted in a negative as well as positive way, depending on the context. Let me take an example. Democracy as a political system enables all people, whether rich or poor, upper class or lower class, smart or stupid, to participate in governance and their voices to be equally reflected. This inclusiveness has a negative aspect in that the decision of a majority is not always good nor right. Therefore, in this respect, equity does not seem reasonable.

I have quoted your full explanation of this negative side of democratic equality, because you have expressed the problem well. If all people, “smart or stupid,” have equal voices in the government of the society, won’t this necessarily lead to the rule of the stupid, if by “stupid” we mean less thoughtful, more obedient, more likely to follow others without understanding or questioning? And if this “stupid” majority has the most votes, then does this not lead to the danger of easy manipulation of the people by clever and dishonest men who wish to take advantage of the majority’s foolishness for their own advantage and power?

There is another problem with this “rule of the majority,” which is the materialism and lack of honor of the majority itself. In any normal economy, the majority will be poorer than the minority, of course. (Rich and poor are relative terms, so “the rich” will always be the smaller number.) But this easily leads to the condition of the poorer majority blaming the rich for their condition, and trying to pass laws to “equalize” the economy, which means to bring down the rich by redistributing their wealth for the benefit of the poor. In this case, we can easily see that the (poor) majority is ruling for its own benefit, at the expense of the (rich) minority. But a society in which the government uses its power to benefit part of the society at the expense of the other is unjust, because a proper government should govern for the good of the entire community, not just part of it.

So is there a positive side to this democratic emphasis on equality?

Q: But in the Declaration of Independence, it reads all men are created equal as a premise, and it seems this equity is regarded as self-evident and untouchable. I’m confused how I should understand that statement related to the discussion of hierarchy vs. equity, and Aristocracy vs. Democracy. In what way do the founding fathers think all men are equal? 

First of all, the Declaration carefully states that all men are created equal, meaning that equality comes from God, or more broadly from the divine, the super-human. It is not a human decision, a legal choice, or a majority vote. Equality is God’s decree, meaning it is a fact of nature. That is the first premise stated in the Declaration, and it is important because it is intended to place the principle of equality outside of any considerations of human choice. Equality just exists in reality. The question of government is therefore how to protect or promote this natural equality.

And after stating that all men are created equal, the next part of the same sentence clearly explains what the Declaration means by this equality:

…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

So in the Declaration of Independence, the first founding document of the United States government (before the United States literally existed as a country), the principle is stated very clearly and carefully. Equality here means equal rights; these rights are not human choices or gifts from the government, but natural facts, created by God; and the most basic rights, which are therefore the foundation of all other legitimate rights, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The right to life means that every human being must, on God’s decree, have his physical existence as a living human being respected, and no one may violate that respect for his life.

The right to liberty follows directly from the right to life. To say that your life cannot be violated by anyone is to say that you own your life, which in practical terms means your living body, your time, your effort, and so on. You don’t belong by nature to anyone else, but only to yourself. And this is the basic meaning of liberty.

From the rights to life and liberty, one more essential point follows. Someone might ask, “Liberty to do what?” The Declaration’s direct answer: to pursue your own happiness. Notice that Thomas Jefferson (who wrote this document) was very careful and precise here. He did not say all men have the right to happiness. He said all men have the right to pursue happiness. In other words, there is no guaranteed outcome in nature, and therefore no government (including government by the people) has any authority to impose certain outcomes designed to “make everyone happy,” such as the poor taking wealth away from the rich by force.

Each person is naturally free to seek happiness to the best of his ability. But it will necessarily follow from this, given that humans are not all equal in ability, luck, or effort, that the practical outcomes of life will be unequal. This is no problem for Jefferson, because, as his wording states, our equal rights come from God, and those rights, in their basic form, are: to be allowed to live, to use our own life freely, and to use that freedom to pursue happiness as well as we can. God gives no guarantees of success, no minimum wage promises, no economic revenge against people who are more successful than we are. Just the natural right to try our best without having our lives forcibly stopped or controlled by anyone — including by the majority, and especially by the government.

So we have an interesting historical problem regarding this whole democratic love of equality. In ancient Athens, where democracy as we understand it began, almost all the philosophers were strongly opposed to it, partly because they saw that this notion of equality would be abused by majorities, or by dishonest leaders who would manipulate the foolish majority into destroying the minority through envy and hatred. In modern times, several great political philosophers tried to solve this danger by defining equality more precisely than it was defined in ancient Greece. Specifically, the moderns distinguished equality of outcomes from equality of natural rights, and strongly urged that only equal rights — God-given rights, not flexible or changeable according to human whims or trends — were the proper form of equality to apply to the development of governments.

The American Founding Fathers were greatly influenced by these modern philosophers, including most obviously John Locke, and developed the concept of government for their new country from these ideas. Sadly, over the centuries since they were active, the world (including even the United States itself) has gradually drifted away from this clear political definition of equality as the equality of natural rights based in the rights to life and liberty, and towards the disaster of equality of outcomes — except that we have done this cleverly, by adapting the modern language of natural rights to serve our unnatural purposes. Hence today, everything people think (or have been persuaded to believe) is desirable is claimed as a right. Thus, people today speak of the right to education, the right to health care, the right to a job, the right to a good income, the right to pleasure, the right to gender identity, the right to…. If we want it or think it is good, then we say we have a right to it and demand laws to enforce our supposed rights. In other words, we have changed the careful wording of the right to pursue happiness into the idea of a right to happiness, which in political practice means a right to have whatever you want.

This demonstrates exactly why the moderns were so careful to distinguish the two kinds of equality. For these new rights that we have manufactured — the rights to have things — directly contradict the original natural rights as outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Think about it: If you have a right to a certain amount of money, for example, then what does this mean in practice? It means someone has to provide you with that amount of money. But this means the person who is obliged to provide you with that money is working for you. In other words, his own rights to life (self-ownership), liberty (self-determination with regard to his time and energy), and the pursuit of happiness (the attempt to fulfill human nature to the best of his understanding and ability) are being sacrificed to your right to take that money from him. In effect, you now own his life (his time, effort, and achievement) — although when we impose such an outcome through laws and popular elections, it looks like a democratic process, rather than what it really is. Or rather, when we go down this path of changing the natural right to live and try your best, into the manufactured “right” to have whatever you desire, then democracy once again becomes the great danger that the Greek philosophers were concerned about, namely the rule of the ignorant and vulgar over the best and most virtuous, the reduction of freedom to irrationality and randomness, and the collapse of equality into the manipulation of the many by demagogues seeking power.

The modern expression used to warn against this result is “the tyranny of the majority.” I believe that is exactly what democracy has become over the past century, step by step, although what this means in reality is just tyranny hiding behind the mask of majority will. For the majority has allowed itself to become merely a tool or instrument of certain individuals or groups who have learned the trick of manipulating the general public into believing they want what in truth no reasonable person, living in accordance with human nature, would ever wish for.

There is much more to say about all this, such as how the modern philosophers, and the U.S. Founders, tried to prevent the collapse into tyranny of the majority by developing a constitutional form of government that would provide permanent founding laws to restrict and balance the rule of the democratic majority. The United States and all other countries that have tried to emulate the American model (including Korea) are not pure democracies, but constitutional republics. However, when the people and their governing representatives forget (or deliberately ignore) what that means, or simply stop caring about those founding laws, then the so-called constitutional republic becomes more and more like a pure democracy in practice. Founding laws written in the hand of great men, and saved on beautiful paper, are wonderfully powerful things. But they are powerful as symbols. When their symbolic force decays, due to popular neglect or the criticism of lesser minds, they become as powerless as any random piece of paper that one leaves unread in a drawer.

Q: As far as I know, however, Americans, especially the ones who lived in the southern part of America, possessed black people as slaves, and after the Declaration, the Civil War broke out, didn’t it? 

Not especially, but exclusively the ones who lived in the South. Yes the southerners did own slaves, and many of the Founding Fathers themselves, including even Thomas Jefferson, owned them, which contradicts the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

What we can say about this, however, unlike the current attitude of rejecting people on the basis of our new “progressive” superiority, is that all men are imperfect. We all live in the fog, and are somewhat trapped in our own present times. When you live in an age in which certain behaviors or practices are common and generally accepted, it is always difficult to see your own hypocrisies and contradictions. Or even if you see them, it is difficult to overcome them completely in your own life and heart. Thomas Jefferson, for certain, understood this contradiction in his life, and he struggled with it. It was also his belief, along with many of the other Founders, that the institutions of government that they were developing, based on natural rights and “all men created equal,” would eventually break down the tradition of slavery. They hoped it would gradually become less accepted as people saw the inconsistency between the moral premises of their country and the existence of that anti-equality institution. In fact, in the North slavery was widely seen as a national embarrassment, and despised. The change did happen, but it took a long time, and required a horrible war between North and South.

And contrary to today’s politically correct attitudes, which make all moral issues simplistic and “black and white” — the truth, for progressives, is always relative, except when it comes to their own moralizing attitudes, which are always treated as absolute and certain truths — the fact is that the South of those earlier times had many lovely things about it, including, arguably, a much less materialistic and more gentlemanly way of life. A more aristocratic air, if you will. However, it also had this impossible incompatibility with the modern concept of a free and equal society in its heart, just as every era and every society has its inconsistencies and incompatibilities. Practical life is forever imperfect, because practical humans are permanently imperfectible.

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