… that all men are created equal.
This seemingly simple phrase is arguably the best known in the American collective unconscious. To be American is to be equal – seems obvious enough, right?
However, it all depends on how one defines “equal.”
In a country divided by warring opinions regarding just about everything these days, it may seem simplistic to attempt to hang all her problems on one concept, but let me try. In every argument regarding rights and equality, it really boils down to whether the arguers advocate equality of opportunity or equality of results. One is the epitome of the American ideal; one runs against the grain of the Constitution and all that is American.
When Thomas Jefferson penned “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, the equality to which he referred was the equality of rights, or equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity and rights levels the playing field, removing barriers that are beyond the control of the individual. This idea is as American as apple pie or the American dream. Unlike Europe, where people were expected to take their parents’ place in the stable social strata, Americans had the liberty to rise or fall based upon their own merits – talent, skill, knowledge, ability, work ethic, etc.
Obviously men could not be equal in every way – a falsehood argued by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. However, as John Adams, who was in France at the time, outlined it, all men are born to equal rights, the protection of which is chief among the government’s duties:
That all men are born to equal rights is true. Every being has a right to his own, as clear, as moral, as sacred, as any other being has… 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.
Now, what does Adams mean by “rights”?
Every American should have basic rights secured that the Founders called “unalienable” – rights that secured to the individual the basic principle of choice: life (since being killed pretty much ends that person’s choices), liberty (the ability to act as an independent agent), property (since if you can’t keep what you earn, why earn in the first place), speech, religion, conscience, assembly, etc.
While mulling over this topic for the last several weeks, my mind keeps returning to a scenario in Christian theology, known as the war in heaven. While most Christian theology has some aspect of the war, a more detailed account is given in books regarded by the Latter-day Saints as scripture. Regardless of whether you are religious, atheist, or anything in between, please dig into the principles behind the anecdote.
Millenia ago, before the world was, there was a Council in Heaven in which God outlined His plan for men on earth. In this Council, the point of discussion was not what the plan was but who should execute it – the plan being that men would live upon the earth as independent agents, acting as they may, and reaping the consequences of those actions. A set of laws and ordinances would be provided to guide them back to their heavenly home, and a Savior would be provided as a means of bridging the gap where men fell short of perfect obedience to God’s laws. However, this absolving power could be accessed only as men and women sought it. The key to perfection was available to all, but whether they rose or fell was based completely upon their choices and actions.
In other words, all had equal opportunities, but not all would have equal results. One’s eternal reward hinged upon one’s willingness to follow God’s plan.
One in attendance voiced his own plan, however. The Bible refers to the fall of Lucifer, as he became Satan; in LDS theology, this fall takes place because Lucifer, in opposition to God’s known plan, proposes to “redeem ALL mankind, that one soul shall not be lost” by “destroy[ing] the agency of man,” making men “captive at his will.” All men would be like puppets, unable to act for themselves or to make decisions. Of course, the result in that is that every person to walk the earth would return after their mortal sojourn into God’s presence. But it would be based on no merits or decisions of their own – it would instead be the result of no choices or actions.
In other words, equality of results.
Today there is a strong push to equalize the results of Americans through a redistribution of wealth. While it sounds lovely for every American to have certain material goods – after all, who’s going to say the poor should receive no healthcare, for example – the reality is downright chilling and fundamentally un-American.
As Alexander Hamilton said, “Inequality would exist as long as liberty existed… It would unavoidably result from that very liberty itself.”
Liberty inherently leads to inequality in results, as not all men will make the same choices. Not all have the same abilities, nor do they have the same work ethic to rise to the top of any given arena. Nor should they. To guarantee equal results, that everyone gets the same things, regardless of the effort they put in, is to strip away incentive to excel or innovate whilst trampling others’ rights to keep what they produce.
Samuel Adams agreed:
The utopian schemes of leveling [redistribution of the wealth], and a community of goods [central ownership of all the means of production and distribution], are as visionary and impracticable as those which vest all properties in the Crown. [These ideas] are arbitrary, despotic, and, in our government, unconstitutional.
Well, they were, at least – even as recently as 1936, when the Supreme Court ruled in United States vs. Butler that giving taxes collected on processors of farm products to other farmers who would decrease their output to receive subsidies – so, in essence, redistribution of wealth – was unconstitutional. As they declared,
The legislature, therefore, had no authority to make an act divesting one citizen of his freehold, and vesting it in another, without a just compensation. It is inconsistent with the principles of reason, justice and moral rectitude; it is incompatible with the comfort, peace and happiness of mankind; it is contrary to the principles of social alliance in every free government; and lastly, it is contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution.
However, playing Robin Hood by redistributing wealth is at the forefront of the current administration’s focus. Google “Obama redistribution wealth,” and you’ll find more than four million results – everything from mainstream publications like the Washington Post, Boston Globe and Christian Science Monitor to blogs on both sides of the political spectrum.
I worry at what our nation is becoming – and what we will further become – as incentives give way to handouts. Anne Frank hit the nail on the head when she said, “Laziness may appear attractive, but work gives satisfaction.” There is a spiritual element to work, something about which I’ve blogged in my personal writings and may revisit here. Work is more than an a+b=c equation. Its output expands beyond the task that is performed to enlightenment, growth, self-worth, etc. that are necessary to becoming men and women of worth. There is an independence that is irresistible as one realizes his or her abilities – and, furthermore, when one sees that capacity stretch and grow. There needs to be some reason to push one’s self, however. Incentives are critical to growth, both on an individual and a corporate scale, be they money, success, awards, reputation, etc. There needs to be a carrot in front of the nose to get us to push ourselves.
In an equality-of-results society, however, there is no incentive. Regardless of whether you work hard or coast along, you’ll receive the same result at the end of the day – so why innovate? Why stretch? Why work when you’re going to wind up at the end of the day with the same reward as your neighbor who’s chosen to be lazy . As nice as it is in theory to think of people giving their all for the good of the collective society, it’s completely and totally impracticable. Human nature is human nature; people will always tend toward a minimal output for the maximum result. If that result isn’t based on one’s efforts, then why make the effort at all?
And, sadly, that is very much the case with the welfare state about which Euripides blogged recently. Without incentives, we will become a weakened country – not only in economic terms, but in character. Commitment, intelligence and fortitude take a backseat to skin color (about which, I’d like to point out, NO ONE has ANY control!) and other external factors. The burden of providing for the many gets placed upon the backs of the few who, at the end of a hard day’s work, keep merely a fraction of what they’ve worked to produce, all the while being maligned as greedy and selfish by the masses merely for working to achieve.
So, yes, all men are created equal – not in specific strengths, but in their validity as human beings with a capacity for action. While our current administration and its followers advocate equal results for all, I hope and pray that people will open their eyes to the detriments of a free ride, the cost of which is independence of action. The freedom to choose is one of the most vital freedoms to not only material success but to our spiritual/mental/emotional capacities. If we are not free to choose, to determine our own success or failure based upon our blood, sweat and tears, then we are not free.
After all, as this classic Wendy’s commercial reminds us, choice is always a good thing.