Riddle Me This: What Is Equality?

Riddler target
Nice try, Bat-Dan – YOU MISSED ME!

I’m encouraged to hear that Bat-Dan doesn’t consider himself a libertarian. However, given the arguments he’s making in our exchange over transfer programs, it’s hard for me to make out how that’s the case. I’d be interested to hear how he’d differentiate his position from libertarianism.

Dan argues that my support for “the existence of some transfer-type programs as circumstances permit” violates what he calls “the equality mandate” and therefore also excludes “the foundational concept that there are both prudential and jurisdictional limits on government authority.” He appeals to the Declaration of Independence’s declaration that “all men are created equal” and argues that my view is inconsistent with it.

The first problem with Dan’s argument is that he permits only two possible positions:

  1. Support for “the equality mandate” as he understands it.
  2. Opposition to all limits on government authority.

This seems odd to me, both in theory and empirically. On the theoretical side: Why can’t I support limits on government authority, just not the same ones Dan does? Suppose I believe government has the right to do whatever it wants, except that it must never pass laws against eating bananas, because bananas are sacred to Mongo the Martian Monkey God. Would I not then be rejecting the equality mandate, but supporting limits on government authority? On the empirical side: Does Dan think that the overwhelming majority of Americans who do support the existence of at least some transfer programs in some cases are opposed to all limits on government authority? Dan himself has described support for such programs as a moral consensus in contemporary America, so he must agree that it’s a large majority. Are Americans absolutists?

Come to think of it, none of the great political philosophers before the modern era supported “the equality mandate” as Dan interprets it, yet all of them (without exception) articulated a belief in some limits on government authority. Were they all confused? Deluded? Dishonest?

And so, today’s riddle: What is equality?

Let’s take the Declaration’s meaning of equality as the subject of our discussion. For the founders, is “equality” by itself an ultimate principle for limiting government action? Or do the founders invoke “equality” within a larger philosophical framework, such that the proper standard for limiting government is that larger framework, of which equality makes up only one component?

I think that should be obvious from their language:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

Here we have not just the stark, naked assertion of a single gaseous, abstract noun (“equality”) as the basis of all political philosophy, but numerous principles working together:

  • Political philosophy should begin with “self-evident” truths.
  • One such truth is that all men are created by God.
  • Another is that God has created them equal.
  • Another is that he has endowed them with rights.
  • Another is that these rights (or at least some of them) are inalienable.
  • Another is that one of these inalienable rights is to life.
  • Another is that a second of these inalienable rights is to liberty.
  • Another is that a third of these inalienable rights is to the pursuit of happiness.
  • Another is that governments are instituted.
  • Another is that it is men who institute governments.
  • Another is that securing these inalienable rights is the purpose for which men institute governments.
  • Another is that governments have just powers.
  • Another is that these just powers are derived from consent.
  • Another is that it is the governed whose consent these powers derive from.

It is this larger framework of ideas that gives meaning to the concept of equality. This is the answer to all those facile, shallow people who think they can dismiss the Declaration’s declarations on grounds that “people obviously aren’t equal – some are smarter, some are more virtuous,” etc. The Declaration is not declaring that people are equal in all and every respect. It is declaring that they are equal in one critically important respect. And the larger framework of ideas surrounding “equality” in the Declaration shows us what that respect is.

So what is it? Dan writes, offhandedly: “I don’t think you can derive wealth-transfer programs from the protection of life, liberty, and property (otherwise known as the pursuit of Happiness).” But he does not elaborate. This is odd, because in my original post I argued that the protection of the rights to life and liberty is precisely the ground on which my argument rests.

Government protection of the right to life implies a duty to rescue:

With Locke, I hold that the proper justification for government is the moral imperative (ultimately rooted in the divine ordering of the universe) to preserve human life…The imperative to preserve life implies a positive duty on the part of all people to rescue those in dire need. If we think we have no duty to rescue, we don’t really believe in an imperative to preserve life; we only believe in an imperative not to murder. And the imperative not to murder is insufficient to justify the existence of the state…

Government protection of the right to liberty implies a duty to rescue:

Denying the duty rescue implies absolutism. For if I can use my neighbor’s distress to offer him a choice between submission or starvation, there will be no stopping the introduction of enslavement.

The order in which the rights are mentioned represents a hierarchy of priorities for the founders – the right to life is primary, the right to liberty is derived from the right to life, and the right to property is derived from the right to liberty. So the second must be interpreted in light of the first, and the third must be interpreted in light of the first and second. I think this makes it hard to overcome my interpretation.

Dan has not, so far as I can see, offered any response to my case on these points. So, in essence, this post is really just a very long way of saying Dan has not yet engaged my argument.

Once he does, I think he will see that most of his other concerns are addressed in these points. For example, his argument that there is “no facial difference” between my formulation and that of Karl Marx will be revealed as an absurdity to anyone who sees that my case is grounded in rights-claims and, ultimately, the imago Dei and the divine intent in creation.

1 Thought.

  1. Pingback: The War Over Rights at TGC | Hang Together

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