The word “equal” is a biggie in the American political landscape. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote “all men are created equal,” and explained his meaning by asserting that each of us has “certain unalienable Rights.” Unalienable is an antiquated word that simply means those rights can neither be taken nor given away. It’s the basis of a government dedicated to preserving the rights and promoting the happiness of individuals, regardless of their station or heredity.

Unfortunately, it took nearly two centuries for the American government to actually get with the program on equality. Obviously, I’m referring to the nation’s racism, as first evinced by slavery, and later by the institutionalized discrimination of the Jim Crow era. The Civil Rights movement, whose crowning achievement was the Act in 1964, finally knocked down the institutionalized inequality that had existed since the nation’s founding.

Funny word, “institutionalized.” It is soft, in a way that has allowed people to impose variations of meaning that suit their opinions, agendas, and advocacies. In this discussion, it refers to the collection of laws that required people to behave in racist ways, to maintain “separate but equal” things like water fountains, schools, restaurants, and seating spaces on buses. Today, however, with those laws relegated to the dustbin of history, people conflate it with “systemic,” as in our society is so fundamentally bigoted that people of certain identity groups encounter substantially different treatment, on average, than those of other identity groups. Without comment on the validity of the latter assertion, it must be understood that “institutionalized” and “systemic” are very different.

This is the underpinning for the question at the head of this essay: the meaning of the word “equal” in the context of discrimination, civil rights, and identity markers. It is also a source of insight into the deep philosophical differences between today’s progressives, liberals, and socialists, and their counterparts on the Right and in libertarian circles.

The debate distilled down to “undo the wrongs” vs “fix the wrongs.”

The former, the American ideal, rests on the notion of getting government out of the way, other than to erase laws that discriminate (as the Jim Crow laws did). It rests on a premise that it’s not the government’s job to force people to behave a certain way, or to ensure certain outcomes. The government’s job is simply to keep racism and bigotry out of the rule book.

The latter rests on the notion that government is obligated to actively combat racist and bigoted attitudes that some citizens harbor.

The latter won, back in the 1960s. The Civil Rights act went beyond undoing the Jim Crow laws, and included (and birthed) measures that actively prohibited discrimination in the private sector. As I’ve blogged on many occasions, this violated individual rights, but it served as a good and welcome offset to the more egregious violations that the Jim Crow laws imposed, and thus was a way to more rapidly undo that discrimination.

That victory should not, however, have become the permanent baseline. It should have been have been an intermediate step towards the former, a stepping stone to the ideal: a society that does not discriminate. This ideal was voiced by Martin Luther King:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Unfortunately, the laws and mechanisms installed to undo both institutionalized and systemic discrimination have, like any tool in a toolbox, enabled those who don’t share that ideal to misuse them for selfish ends. Since “those” includes the liberal press, the progressive movement, and a whole lot of politicians, as well as many who’ve simply been miseducated as to the founding principles of our nation and the role of its government, that selfish leverage is now considered more noble, enlightened, and proper than a true fealty to equality.

So, the various tools created for the pursuit of equality are now used to bestow active benefit to some at the expense of others. This includes affirmative action, it includes discrimination against groups that are perceived as doing “better” than others (ask Harvard about its treatment of applicants of Asian ethnicity), it includes the concepts of “white privilege,” “toxic masculinity,” etc, and it has become so ingrained into culture that those who dare speak of actual equality are considered sneaky bigoted liars who use phrases like “color blind” as code for some hidden racist agenda.

Three quotes by the great Thomas Sowell address the degeneration of the meaning of “equality” today:

Civil rights used to be about treating everyone the same. But today some people are so used to special treatment that equal treatment is considered to be discrimination.

 

In an entitlement context, all sorts of ‘gaps’ and ‘disparities’ automatically become ‘inequities,’ and a reason for lashing out at others, instead of improving yourself.

 

Racism is not dead, but it is on life support – kept alive by politicians, race hustlers and people who get a sense of superiority by denouncing others as ‘racists.’

Equality has been redefined. It no longer connects to Jefferson’s unalienable rights of the individual. Instead, it is about bestowing advantages (via that instrument of force known as government) upon some, and (obviously) denying those advantages to others. This is born out of a presumption of disadvantages so deeply ingrained that we are to presume there’s no chance of them ever being overcome. This is the argument that merely being born white makes one a racist. The proponents of this view will deny they think that, but there’s no other conclusion – in their world, simply treating everyone else equally is not enough, because someone else might treat some unequally, and each of us is obligated to counterbalance the scale. Therefore, to treat others equally, you must grant them preferential treatment.

In the last chapter of Animal Farm, Orwell’s pigs replaced the Seven Commandments of Animalism with one:

All Animals Are Equal, But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.

Orwell’s prescience gets further validated with each passing day, especially when we contemplate that those animals that are “more equal” are the ones in power, and the ones that those in power rely on to maintain their power.

Thus, the anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action, public accommodation theory, disparate impact theory (which purports that race-neutral rules and laws are racist if they don’t produce race-neutral results), and the like have themselves become weapons of discrimination, used in the pursuit of comparative advantage and power. These forms of discrimination have become institutionalized, in the name of equality. Thus, we’ve abandoned the ideal of “equality of opportunity” in favor of a stated ideal “equality of outcome,” that in practice becomes the granting of benefits to favored groups.

Thus, while one might suppose that the opposite of unequal treatment under the law is equal treatment under the law, we find that the actual opposite, as far as many are concerned, is the unequal treatment under the law, but in a preferred direction. We’ve decided inequality is OK, if it’s the correct sort.

This is the inevitable outcome of past successes. Advocates rarely pack their bags and go home when they’ve achieved their original goals. Those that do leave behind a structure, mechanism, legacy, and good-will that gets co-opted and leveraged by the more radical, who are as often as not enamored with and motivated by the power of the movement, rather than its goals. George Santayana observed:

Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.

That forgotten aim is equality, real equality. Instead, it’s become the pursuit of advantage, and their blindness to that shift has brought us to the point where, as Sowell put it, “equal treatment is considered to be discrimination.”

All this spawned the social justice movement, the concepts of intersectionality, “woke,” privilege, and white guilt, and the notion that, rather than judging people by the content of their character, we must take note of and react to the color of their skin (as well as a long list of other identity markers).

Does this sound “equal” to you?

Or, do you continue to assert that any differences in outcome must be presumed to be the result of continued, systemic racism, and therefore justification for unequal treatment under the law? That the continued existence of some racists in our society remains justification for the institutionalized infringement of others’ rights? The logical conclusion of this view is that this will never be an equal society, and therefore institutionalized inequality is a Good Thing, necessary in perpetuity.

This is Some Animals Are More Equal, taken from cautionary parable to present-day reality, and it’s what creates the context of entitlement that Sowell refers to. It is the opposite of the idea that we are all equal, and government should not treat us any differently because of demographic markers. It rests on the equality of outcome premise that has motivated the Left for some time, as opposed to the equality of opportunity that the Civil Rights movement and other anti discrimination/acceptance movements have been, ideally, about. It says “if things don’t work out for me as they have for those who look different than me, then the State must remedy that imbalance by giving to me,” rather than “erase the laws that get in my way, so that I can have the same field of play as others.” It declares that equality is not possible, so it’s proper and fair that the State take from some to give to others.

What does that last bit sound like?

If your first thought is “socialism,” you can give yourself a cookie. This is indeed the notion of socialism, which purports to aspire to equality through the use of government force.

This explains the head-scratching resurrection of socialism in today’s society, despite the stacks of corpses, ruined lives, and wrecked societies it has left in its wake. This embrace of the bizarro, doublethink, Animal Farm meaning of “equal” is what has convinced young dunderheads like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that socialism, prettied up with the word “democratic,” is an idea to be embraced rather than shunned in horror.

In throwing out the proper meaning of “equal” and its association with individuals, today’s young, earnest, social justice, and socialist types threaten to destroy the tenets of this nation’s fonduing, themselves born of the Age of Enlightenment, and resurrect arguably the most unequal form of government ever created, one where the haves wield absolute power over anyone they don’t like, and where the State is a thing to be constantly feared. That they do so by leveraging accusations of racism makes it both doubly contemptible and extremely dangerous.

If we let the meaning of “equal” be hijacked, we sow the seeds of our own downfall.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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