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Obama and His “Most Evident” Right: Equality


In his second inaugural address, Barack Obama quoted the Declaration of Independence and hailed “the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal.” Obama never explained why “created equal” was more evident than the right to liberty. He understands that he can capture far more power by invoking equality than he could by promising to respect Americans’ liberty.

For thousands of years demagogues have sown and exploited confusion between equal rights and a right to equality. Equal legal rights are the foundation of a free society. Equal rights mean that government must treat all people equally — it must not discriminate on the basis of status, income, class, or race. Equal rights are the antithesis of politicians’ right to forcibly equalize different citizens or groups.

Equal rights ensure that each person is entitled to the fruits of his labor; a right to equality demands that each receive the same portion, regardless of the amount or value of his labor. Equal rights allow each sovereignty over his own action; the right to equality requires that government continually intervene and direct individual action to ensure equal results. Equal rights allow each to be his own master, for good or ill; a right to equality requires that the community control all its members to ensure and preserve their equality. Equal rights allow each to prosper as chance and skill decide; a right to equality demands “affirmative action,” “reverse discrimination,” and continual expropriation to benefit the least successful. Equal rights mean that each can succeed or fail under a set of general rules; a right to equality means that no rule can be tolerated that fails to provide equal results.

In the modern world, no one did more to make equality the supreme political value than French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. He recognized two types of inequality:

One, which I call natural or physical, because it is established by nature, and consists in a difference of age, health, bodily strength, and the qualities of the mind or the soul; and another, which may be called moral or political inequality, because it depends on a kind of convention, and is established, or at least authorized, by the consent of men. This latter consists of the different privileges which some men enjoy to the prejudice of others, such as that of being more rich, more honored, more powerful, or even in a position to exact obedience.

Rousseau conceded that men were not equal, but insisted that “society” treated them more unequally than they actually were. He sought not perfect equality, but inequalities acceptable to his moral sentiments. Lenin said, “Freedom is a precious commodity, so precious that it needs to be rationed”; and most egalitarians feel the same way about equality. It is not equality, but government certified and regulated inequalities that egalitarians seek. The inequalities will sometimes be more and sometimes less than what now exist, but the important thing is that benevolent administrators will control all inequalities to ensure their fairness.

Marx’s supposed utopia was based on the “withering away of the state” — the assumption that once reform was completed, the new social system would perpetuate itself without the need for continual supervision and coercion. But in every equalization attempt, there is a perpetual, increasing need for government coercion. As long as the state continues to aggress, there can be no equality between private citizens and government czars. But when the state reduces its oppression, the natural inequalities of talent and ambition quickly reappear and wreak havoc on intellectuals’ social blueprints.

Obama declared in his inaugural address that “our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.” And who is to determine their deserts? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been legendary for using an iron fist to pick winners and losers. The EEOC has epitomized the arbitrary approach that is consistent only in giving itself maximum pretexts to dictate to businesses, universities, and anyone else who falls under its sway. The EEOC has also epitomized the deceit at the core of equalization, since the agency has perpetually denied that it is mandating quotas at the same time that it threatens to destroy companies with the wrong percentage of minorities or women in each job category.  

The equalized and the equalizers

In recent decades many liberals have become far more attached to equality than to democracy. Ronald Dworkin, one of the most respected legal philosophers of the past half century, declared, “A more equal society is a better society even if the citizens prefer more inequality.” Cornell University political scientist Andrew Hacker concurred: “Citizens should be given the blessings of equality whether they want them or not.”

This has been especially evident in education policy, where activists and professors have found one pretext after another to seize control over schooling in the name of equality. Forced busing was one of the clearest examples of this mania, and its nature was especially stark in the cradle of contemporary liberalism. In 1974 Boston residents voted 15 to 1 against busing schoolchildren to achieve racial integration. A month later, federal judge Arthur Garrity ignored the popular vote and made himself czar of Boston schools. He effectively decreed that, because the schools were supposedly unconstitutionally segregated, neither parents nor students nor anyone else had any rights. Garrity ordered the speedy imposition of a “Master Plan” that he later admitted he had not bothered to read.

Forced busing was the equivalent of throwing a bomb into a classroom. Under Garrity’s decree schools in Roxbury, a low-income black area, and South Boston, a poor white Irish area, were merged. The National Guard was called out to restore order after violent public protests and racial clashes near the schools; even the 82nd Airborne Division was put on alert for Boston duty. Garrity responded by banning all public meetings in South Boston.

Forced busing exemplified the local dictatorship of the Best and the Brightest. There was far more enthusiasm among Boston elites for iron-fisted equalizing than for democracy. Harvard’s Center for Law and Education was co-counsel for the case that spurred Garrity’s power grab. The vast majority of college presidents in the Boston area embraced his takeover of the schools. Professors rushed to enlist in the Brain Trust to centrally micro-manage every classroom. Social scientists moved children around a chess board with the same alacrity that generals choose regiments for suicide charges. At the same time, most of the equalizers made sure their own kids were not pulled into the vortex.

In the coming years Boston’s forced busing would be a prototype for more government interventions across the land. There is little recognition among much of the political elite of the havoc that has been inflicted in the name of equality in many areas of modern life. Obama’s inaugural theme, for instance, spurred jubilation among liberals. The Washington Post headlined its report on Obama’s speech, “Obama Calls for Greater Equality for All.”

Unlike Obama, the Founding Fathers would never have placed equality at the pinnacle of rights — especially since they recognized how its pursuit could unleash rulers. This was a common saying in 18th-century America: “The restraint of government is the true liberty and freedom of the people.” But in Obama’s vision, freedom arises after government extends its domain deeper into people’s lives. He declared, “We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few…. The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us.” Obama’s rhetoric rings hollow to anyone who has ever filled out federal income-tax forms or been forced to pay a 15 percent “self-employment tax” for Social Security. Social Security and Medicare have vastly increased citizens’ dependency on their rulers and on arbitrary decrees by Congress and federal

Social Security was supposedly launched to ensure that old folks had a basic minimum. As time went on, politicians and bureaucrats found one pretext after another to extend their control to more of people’s lives. But paternalism is the antithesis of equality, as it assumes that some are so capable and others are so incompetent that the former must commandeer the latter.

Obama believes that equality provides him the ultimate political trump card. But differences among people’s circumstances do not entitle politicians to take over their lives. Coercing people to make them unequal would be as much a violation of their liberty as coercing them to make them equal. If people are to be free, they must be free to be unequal. To insist that all use their freedom in an equal manner inevitably destroys that freedom.

Equality is the great red herring of our time. Few people actually desire equality, yet it is the standard for measuring almost every moral, political, and economic proposal. In almost all cases, the goal is not equality, but a different arrangement of inequalities. As long as society is divided into the equalizers and the equalized, there will be no equality.

This article was originally published in the April 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.