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Nothing New Under the Sun

April 29th, 2009 - 10:36 am

The Same Old Equality of Result

Rather than nitpick about Obama’s envisioned brave new world, I think it wiser to see it in the larger context of age-old divides over the nature of Western democratic and liberal society. Nothing that we have seen proposed since January 20 is novel; everything is merely the promise of the past outfitted with a new snazzier veneer of hope and change.

Take his domestic policies. What overarching philosophy seems reflected in raising taxes, borrowing trillions to spend trillions more on new entitlements, creating a new health care bureaucracy, cap-and-trade, allotting trillions more for education, and the expectation of the appointment of more liberal judges?

It’s old…

In a word, it is adherence to the idea of equality of result rather than an equality of opportunity, the age-old debate that goes back to the Greeks. From Aristotle’s Politics and Plato Laws, we learn of the original dilemma: a stable city-state of roughly similar property owners, who vote as equals, and fight as comrades in the phalanx, tragically, but inevitably, soon becomes tragically  unequal.

Divide the land up equally to found the polis; give everyone an similarly-size plot (klêros); and then health, luck, brains, accident, strength, ambition, character, and a myriad of other factors, some understandable, some capricious, conspire to create inequality. I agree with Aristotle; I have seen it with families and communities in which equal inheritances soon led to radically different outcomes, as one sibling on rocky ground thrives, while another in deep loam starves; one town with abundant resources goes broke, while another without natural advantages thrives.

As Aristotle saw, some lose, some expand their original homesteads, and suddenly we have Hoi beltistoi and Hoi polloi-and the rallying cry that someone’s liberty to do as he pleases means that egalitarianism of the lowest common denominator becomes impossible.

American vs. French

The notion of freedom then butts up against equality, as if they are as often antithetical as symbiotic. (NB: note the French Revolutionary sloganeering of “fraternity” and “egalitarianism” versus the American Revolutionary emphasis on “Give me liberty, or give me death”, “Don’t Tread on Me!”, “All men are created equal” [by opportunity rather than by result]. And note Obama’s references to the French ideal.)

In response, the state has two choices to preserve its original ideal of equality (and we see elements of this further debate voiced in the Old Oligarch, Aristolte Plato, Hobbes, Hume, etc, as well as in histories of the middle and late Roman Republic).

One, the state and culture at large can be coercive to ensure a equality of result-in the modern liberal world by high redistributive taxes, generous means-tested entitlements, inflationary monetary policies to diminish the power of capital (in the ancient world by forbidding the alienability of land, mandating the maximum size of estates, coining cheap bronze/silver coated money in vast amounts, redistribution of property, cancellation of debt, etc.).

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