Written By: Leon Felkins
Web Page: "A Rational Life" at http://www.magnolia.net/~leonf/ratlife.html
A self-ordained professor's tongueI am amazed at the number of myths that adult, educated, sophisticated, civilized Americans live by. Yet, I am actually quite thankful as it provides me with a generous source of subjects to write about. Since -- as far as I know -- no major attempts have been made on my life for the other myths I have attacked on these pages, I might as well go after the big one, the myth that WE ARE ALL EQUAL.
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school
"Equality," I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now.
From Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages", 1964
And why not. Just a few short years ago, we were told that (at least some) women, in fact, like sex as much as men do, destroying a major myth that many of us were raised up to believe. In the '50s and '60s, we started to get an inkling that the politicians were not always acting in our best interests which was further confirmed by the writings of Buchanan, Tullock, and others which stated that, in reality, politicians practically never act except in their own best interests. Further we found that it is virtually impossible for anyone to do anything about it.
While we are happy that women really do like sex, it is quite distressing to find that politicians will do almost anything to get reelected -- including sending thousands of young men (and now women) into harm's way. But we learned to live with it just like we have learned to live with the recognition that maybe the existence of Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny is also doubtful.
But we still have our myths. Lots of them. No need to mention all of them in this brief note as myth busting usually requires some elaboration. Instead, I will just jump right on the biggest myth of all, the myth that we are all equal, or created equal, or equal under the eyes of the law -- whatever, they are all baloney! And for you meme students, the myth of equality may be the most powerful meme of all!
Actually, I am quite aware that most of you do not really believe the "equality" myth/meme but simply pay homage to it to stay out of trouble. I respect your decision to do so, but I believe such actions create more harm than good. So, I will proceed.
But before I do, let me make one comment on the meaning of "equality" (about which I will go into more detail later on). Like so many terms in common use by the press, the public, the academic crowd, and the government, it is not clear as to what it means! You should not be surprized at that revelation as people are routinely sent to prison as a result of some encounter with an ill defined term -- e.g. pornography and indecency! It is very unclear as to what we mean by equality and if that surprizes you then as an amusing exercise for yourself you might try to precisely define what our "Founding Fathers" meant when they said, "All men are created equal". Equal in what way? Opportunity? Capability? Good looks? Surrounding environment? or just equal with regard to legally based rights?
Following convention, however, I will use the term, "equal", throughout the rest of this essay as if we all knew exactly what it means -- with some elaboration later on on the different types of equality.
For any characteristic of interest, such as height, we find that no two ant hills are the same, just as there are no two humans the same. If you measure the height close enough, there will always be a difference -- between two humans or between two ant hills. The same goes for our temperament, our looks, our athletic ability, and even our intelligence.
So, in answer to the posed question, I say, "No, there is no characteristic of a human that is exactly equal to another human".
When God gave out brains,Nope, we don't get our share of pluses!. God (or gods, whatever suits you) is not making sure that a tally sheet of all the pluses and minuses for each human totals the same as for any other human. Folk wisdom has it that "We all have something special about us -- we just have to find it". Of course the purpose of that bit of nonsense is to make someone feel better about themselves. But it doesn't work and to hear it repeatedly only makes us feel worse. Each and every characteristic of a human is determined by the genes, the environment, and miscellaneous variations that insures that no two come out the same. That is, each characteristic will have a value that has a random distribution centered about some mean value -- mostly determined by the genes. For example, if our father and mother are tall, we are likely to be about the same height but there will be variation -- having a normal distribution -- about that mean caused by a number of factors, including the environment.
I thought He said trains,
and I caught one. - - Anonymous
And just because I am shorter than my friend Ignatius does not mean that I will be smarter. For all practical purposes, every characteristic is independent of all the rest. That is, I can be short and stupid too. You can also be female, blonde and intelligent.
There is a major and shocking (for some) conclusion that can be drawn from all this: There is a possibility that you could be a winner in all (or nearly all) the characteristics and there is a possibility that you could be a loser in everything! Just because you are below average in 15 characteristics, does not mean that you will be compensated by being a winner in the next 15. There is simply no such design in the universe. There is nothing to make it happen. That is, there is no overall "fairness" doctrine being enforced by the gods. While there may be some correlation or causative factor between some of your characteristics (e.g., you got stuck with poor parents and you have poor health), most are totally unrelated. Yep, to the contrary of folk wisdom, just because you were born a female, dealt a sexxy body and beautiful blonde hair, does not mean you will have to be stupid!
Heredity deals the cards; environment plays the hand. -- Brewer, Charles L.When you are born, you have -- in effect -- been dealt a suite of characteristics somewhat like a hand in the game of poker. There are many cards and there could be some good ones and some bad ones or they could be all bad or all good. The other people sitting around the table may have better hands or worse -- it is all a matter of the luck of the draw. You are stuck with the hand you drew. But there is some room for hope: how you play the hand still may give you some chance of winning -- or at least not losing badly.
But let us be careful as there is one thing worse than getting a bad deal in life and that is having false hopes. You can be dealt a hand that is simply so bad that there is little chance of you winning -- no matter what you do. In that case you simply try to minimize your losses. Here, an analogy with another card game is worthwhile -- Blackjack. In Blackjack, a good hand is two cards totalling 21 or something close to it. Since you have an option of drawing more cards, a low count is also not so bad. But if you draw a 14 or 15 or 16, you are in deep doodoo. No matter what you do, you will most likely lose if you are dealt those numbers. The best you can do is to try to minimize the probability of a loss but, nevertheless, you are still likely to lose.
Being born is the same kind of thing. You could have been born to rich parents or to parents living in the ghetto. You didn't have any choice about it. You could have lots of high quality brain cells or a head full of mush. You could be healthy or terribly deformed or diseased. Or any combination of the above. It is just the luck of the draw. In spite of what our Declaration of Independence so nobly proclaims to be self-evident, we are not created equal.
Not only are we not created equal but we are not developed equally by the passage of time and the environment around us either. There is great amount of randomness in our developing lives. A chance encounter with another individual, a chance exposure to some "words of wisdom", a chance employment, a chance gain or loss of money, etc., may cause a major rederection of our individual life path. I can think of many events in my own life that would have caused my life path to be completely different. There were times that I could have been killed or badly hurt if I had been a few feet to the left or right of where I was. There were several instances where it was pure luck that I happen to meet a person that greatly made my life much better than it could have been.
Even if we were created equal -- as the Declaration of Independence says -- we do not develop equally. We do not have the same environment of opportunities surrounding us. Even if by some means, we could be brought to equality at some instant of time, we would quickly drift apart again, with some becoming very blessed and some becoming miserably poor due to just sheer luck.
The Constitution provides us with a good example of the difficulties we are mired in with respect to the idea of equality. For if we are born equal, why is it necessary to compensate some of us later on?
How much money we have determines where we live and how we dress. Those factors, in turn, will have some impact on how we are treated as citizens. There is no doubt that the color of our skin also has some impact on the chance that we may be accused of some crime. Don't dismiss the accusation by saying, "no problem, we will always have our day in court". To be accused is to be punished. Many innocent people have had their life savings wiped out and their property taken as a result of being accused and then defending themselves against that accusation.
I think it is reasonable to conclude that the protection of the law and the benefits of the law do vary somewhat depending on where you live, your race, your sex, and -- most of all -- how much wealth your have.
As one further example, our president, Bill Clinton, recently assured us that any citizen has the right to an audience with him -- as long as he has a few hundred thousand dollars to contribute to the campaign coffers! Not exactly equality, it would seem to me.
Basically, what we really mean when we say we are equal under the law is that the written law does not explicitly state that there will be special treatment because of race, sex, religion, etc. That is laws, in general, do not specifically identify special treatment for our citizens based on their race, sex or religion. So, directly, the laws or neutral. Indirectly, and practically, we are treated differently by the law depending on the characteristics and especially how wealthy we are.
So, let us check the dictionary. Here is what I found -- nine choices for the verb form:
- 1. as great as; the same as (often fol. by to or with ) : "The velocity of sound is not equal to that of light."
- 2. like or alike in quantity, degree, value, etc.; of the same rank, ability, merit, etc.
- 3. evenly proportioned or balanced
- 4. uniform in operation or effect
- 5. adequate or sufficient in quantity or degree
- 6. having adequate powers, ability, or means: "He was equal to the task."
- 8. tranquil or undisturbed
- 9. impartial or equitable
It is easy to see why there could be confusion in what is meant by the statement, "All men are created equal". The dictionary comes closest with definition number six, "having adequate powers, ability, or means". Yet the example given is not appropriate for the "All men are created equal" phrase! We have to conclude that the statement must have a meaning not in the dictionary. Most likely the statement is saying that we are to be treated equally. Too bad that it didn't say that. Then, as I questioned above, are we talking about equality under the law, equal opportunity, economically equal, equal end results, or what? (See Pojman's essay, mentioned above for a detailed discussion on the varieties of equality). Let us look at this somewhat incomplete list of forms of "equality" in common usage:
The Law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich, as well as the poor, to sleep under the bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. -- Anatole FranceAs discussed above, we can certainly make sure that the law books never mention any of the factors that are usually brought up when equality is discussed. But, surely we agree that just doing that does not really make us equal under the law. Certainly, we can agree that such factors as wealth and race impact how a person will be treated by our legal system. Would it be possible to write a set of laws that eliminate those biases? Not if we still want to live in a relatively free country!
There are other difficulties. Every job has its own suite of physical and mental characteristics that would be useful. If you are applying for a job at Hooters to wait on customers, it would seem reasonable that they require you to be female, generally attractive, and have ample mammary glands. On the other hand, if you are applying for a job as a helicopter operator, you will need special physical skills as well as mental skills but we don't care too much what you look like. How would it be possible to ensure that everyone has an equal chance of getting these vastly different jobs? It simply is not possible. So much for equal opportunity.
There is some redistribution of wealth in almost every major country. Some say it is not enough and some say it is two much. There is no logical defence for any particular value, it is just an equilibrium between the opposing forces that want complete economic equality and those who want none. There is reasonable arguments and research that state that a complete redistribution of wealth would just leave all of us in a state of poverty. Further, even if all the wealth were taken from the rich and redistributed among the poor, it would only take a short time until essentially all of the former poor would be poor again for it takes talent that many do not have to manage and retain some wealth.
A further problem is "do you limit the redistribution of wealth to just your own country or do you include the whole world?" If you limit it to your own country, your reasons are likely to be inconsistent with your reasons for wanting to redistribute the wealth in the first place -- namely, your "compassion".
Different people value different possessions differently. Money is not enough to ensure equality. What if I want a rare painting in my home like Mr. Trump no doubt has? What if it is not available. What if I want controlling stock in Microsoft like Mr. Gates probably has? If wealth is measured by possessions as well as money, we have a real mess when it comes to redistributing it!
It was not their irritating assumption of equality that annoyed Nicholai so much as their cultural confusions. The Americans seemed to confuse standard of living with quality of life, equal opportunity with institutionalized mediocrity, bravery with courage, machismo with manhood, liberty with freedom, wordiness with articulation, fun with pleasure -- in short, all of the misconceptions common to those who assume that justice implies equality for all, rather than equality for equals.For every form of equality that is usually addressed -- "equal opportunity", "equal pay for equal work", "equality under law", etc. -- there are serious problems in implementation. On further reflection, it seems that these problems result from the piecemeal approach. What we really want is Equality of End Results -- right?. That is, the measures we take really should be based on achieving an equality of outcome of end results for each individual. This is the apparent basis for the government insisting on allowing certain "minorities" to be accepted to schools and jobs with lessor test and performance scores than the "majority" -- presumably, white males. You cannot argue with the logic. To achieve real equality, measures must be taken to achieve equality of final status.
Trevanian from the novel "Shibumi"
This is not easy, of course. Actually, for all practical purposes, it is impossible! To achieve equality of outcome requires that every aspect of our lives be put on some sort of numerical scale. Then -- somehow -- all these values would be combined in such a way that there would be this real equality. This requires judgment by human beings which is always subject to abuse and fraud. It requires an evaluation impossible to compute.
So, we have a paradox: the only real "equality" is equality of end results and that is impossible to define and to implement!
Further, a massive government agency would be necessary to make sure everyone was in fact equal. As I discussed above, this would require some very complex evaluations and judgments. Do we really want to go down that path? History tells us emphatically, that such efforts have always been a disaster.
Public policy, in the end, must comply with human nature. If people are basically selfish -- and they are -- then asking them to work hard yet earn no more than their unproductive neighbor is asking more than they'll readily give. But we already know that; communism has failed. --- Robert Wright 1994 _The Moral Animal_It appears to me that forced equality is just another name for Communism. But wait, has not Communism failed? Should we blindly proceed down that path when it has failed so badly for other countries? Should we not accept that when you force "equality" on humans, there is a major loss of enthusiasm for producing anything? Why follow such a path of tragedy? Are we Americans so conceited that we can learn nothing from others?
Instead, we should accept that we are all different -- by any measurable characteristic of ourselves and our environment -- and try to make the most of what each of us has. As much as I enjoy music, I accept that I will never be a great musician. Or a great mathematician. Or a great writer.
But, still I get some pleasure out of plunking on my guitar for an audience consisting of just me, experimenting with financial simulations on my computer, and jotting down such words that you have been reading.
2. "Affirmative action" programs being a possible exception.
3. Since it is a continuous function, there are only two points that can be logically defended: none and absolute equality. All other distributions are purely arbitrary and the amounts cannot be logically defended. See my essays on "Vagueness".
4. See "Income redistribution: An international perspective": Public Choice 89:305-323. 1996, for a discussion of the ramifications of trying to bring everyone in the world up to some minimum level of income.