The Equalitarian Dream and Democratic Reality
SEPTEMBER 01, 1964 by DEAN BANKS
Mr. Banks is an Instructor in American History at Oklahoma State University.
Many years ago, Karl Marx conceived a dream of human equality. Disillusioned by the social and economic injustice of the nineteenth century, Marx closed his eyes, gave full play to emotion and imagination, and the dream began. But Karl Marx never again opened his eyes. The dream engulfed the man, took control of his mind and pen, and produced fantastic denials of human reality. Though Marx died long ago his utopian ideal still sparks the passion of multitudes. And, like Karl Marx, contemporary dreamers sometimes allow the inherent fanaticism of the heavenly vision to pervert its original beauty. They tend to lose sight of one sobering fact: there is a difference between idealism and attainable reality, but passion always obscures that difference.
What was Marx’s original dream? It is with each person from the first days of social awareness, at least with everyone who has known normal feeling and compassion. Many dedicate themselves to the task of bringing the vision to life. Some use persuasion; others employ force — all fail to transform the dream into reality. Men like Marx gird their idealism in economic theory and call it "communism," a vague kind of economic and social equality. Others wrap it in spiritual raiment and look for paradise on earth. Many think of their dream simply as morality, a human distinction which enables men to live peacefully together. Large numbers label the idea as "socialism." And in this nation some are even calling it "abolition of poverty, prejudice, and discrimination." Whatever the title, the ideal remains only a dream of perfection.
Perfection is something we desire and ever struggle toward, but never attain.
The beautiful idea of universal brotherhood and equality — who does not desire it, this cure-all for social and economic afflictions? What person in this nation does not yearn for victory over poverty, greed, bigotry, or other diseases of humanity? This is the dream of all who are fully aware of their humanity. But are these defects not the natural products of human differences? Certainly they are, and it must be admitted that these very inequalities are the essence of a free society. It appears, therefore, that a natural conflict exists between our idealism and democratic realities.
Throughout the history of the United States, dissatisfaction with being "average" or equal has compelled above-average effort and achievement. The dissatisfied person whose ability matches his enthusiasm rises to positions above the less capable and less enthusiastic. It seems that down through the centuries of recorded history, men have remained unequal in both ambition and ability. Both are human characteristics which give birth to the fact of human inequality. Both make the dream of perfect social harmony unattainable. The social and economic philosophy of a free society not only recognizes such inequality, it promotes it and thrives on it.
Freedom to Develop One’s Talents
Aside from political equality, the democratic philosophy proposes two basic rights for all: the opportunity to develop one’s talent to the fullest extent, and equal freedom for all to pursue that opportunity. No nation can guarantee that every person will develop his talent, or that each individual will compete successfully in gaining the opportunity he desires. In the first case, ambition is the necessary ingredient; in the latter, ability. In a free society success can never be a "right." It is always a privilege, and perhaps even a duty. And above all, success does not imply equality: that person succeeds who takes what ability he possesses and then satisfies himself that he has cultivated it and is using it as best he possibly can. In no way does success imply material or intellectual parity.
Also, in a functioning democracy success is a relative thing, for as competition grows stiffer, a person may find himself excluded from opportunities which could have been his at one time. Supply and demand create competition, and the competitive process always reveals inequalities. Because of these individual differences one person will win an opportunity for which another has disqualified himself. As the quest for opportunities grows more competitive (higher education, for example) such inequalities become more apparent, if not more diverse.
Thus, the reality remains: when full vent is given to the development of individual talent, men naturally become unequal. And from such inequality, based on individual merit, the nation is motivated toward the dream of a better life for all.
The Problem of Poverty
An important part of that dream is the alleviation of the material poverty which seems always to exist, and here again certain democratic realities should not be forgotten. In recognizing the need of each individual for food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, will this society continue in the awareness that such material provision is contingent upon individual achievement and moral consideration? And will we remain aware that poverty, like success, is a relative thing? These questions deserve examination.
First, concerning individual achievement, we find ourselves back to the problem of ambition and ability. In a competitive system a deficiency of either brings material poverty. In fact, the lack of ambition and ability is, in itself, a form of poverty. And will poverty of initiative and capacity prove an insurmountable and frustrating barrier in the idealistic war against material poverty? This type of deficiency certainly will prove just as frustrating as the variability of material status in this nation.
The problem of material inequality was expressed most concisely by Voltaire, over two hundred years ago. Surveying the problem as it existed in his lifetime, this well-known Enlightenment thinker concluded: "All men would be necessarily equal, if they were without needs…. It is not the inequality which is the real misfortune, it is the dependence."’ Human "dependence" will remain as long as human differences exist. A free society breeds dependency of various degrees. The problem is that today poverty and dependency tend to be equated in many minds. With material prosperity has come luxury, comparative poverty, and an abnormal passion for material equality. This thing of "keeping up with the Jones’s pace" has had a profound effect by creating senses of inequality all along the line of social status. We have grown dissatisfied with the old comparison between material deficiency and adequacy, and have become absorbed in the difference between adequacy and luxury, and even luxury and excess. Success and happiness seem to be found mainly in material equality, and many who fail to gain such parity through competition are sometimes prone to demand it as a human right. Thus, the luxuries of today may be demanded as tomorrow’s necessities, and the need is never satisfied except through equalitarian reform. This is the process by which individual moral consideration for human need is transformed into collective "legal" compulsion.
This transformation encompasses not only material equation, as discussed above, but psychological parity as well. Human differences create dependency and inequality which in turn produce feelings of inferiority and social antagonism. Prejudice, intolerance, and feelings of inadequacy evolve from human inequality and, like other forms of poverty, must be approached through moral example, moral persuasion, and human understanding and compassion. Psychological differences, or senses of inequality, can be lessened or soothed in this manner, but they will never be erased. This is a frustrating fact.
Eliminating the Human Quality
Psychological differences may be abolished, it seems, in only two ways: by doing away with all human inequality, or by rendering human beings void of feeling and emotion. Either method would necessitate the creation of mental robots, beings without initiative, individuality, and sensitivity —creatures no longer human. Such was the method finally attempted by many followers of Karl Marx. This enervating remedy has been applied in some nations, and still the idealistic ritual of sacrificing social and economic freedom on the altar of "the good of society" continues to gain momentum.
Certainly the equalitarian reform movement in America has grown out of the earnest attempt to realize the dignity of the individual. But demands are spreading through emotional and moral force to include things which are both humanly unrealistic and democratically impossible. Political rights and equality before the law no longer satisfy desires. Now psychological and material equality are being added to the list of human rights, a list which likely will never be complete. For strange as it may seem, the free society, which naturally creates all varieties of inequality, affords a fertile environment for equalitarian idealism. Any attempt at understanding the rights issue in America must include an examination of this strange reality.
Origins of Equalitarianism
If equality is humanly and democratically impossible, why are many in this nation striving so fervently to attain it? What are the origins of equalitarianism? Some have been mentioned previously, but the following appear most prominent.
The idea of human equality rises from the desire for social harmony and moral justice. Such desire has been transformed into numerous laws which are intended to enforce "humanity" among men. Thus, society safeguards itself, by limited equalitarian law, from common human instincts which would destroy social harmony and deprive its citizens of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and private possessions. But in a highly competitive society, law and law enforcement are very imperfect and create considerable frustration. At the same time, extremes of individual inequality abound. Only one conclusion seems possible. In a free society, the problems of social regulation and social diversity are accelerated and tend to provoke more extreme demands for reform. Due to prolonged frustration created by the natural disharmony of a free society (plus international pressures), many finally become receptive to the idea of applying a leveling process as the only solution. This same frustration and equalitarian solution can be noted in the histories of most major countries since the middle of the nineteenth century. Our experience is not unique; our problems are perhaps just more accented, more persistent, and considerably more diverse.
The Moral Tradition
A second origin of reform zeal is found in the moral tradition of this society, and especially in the inherent idealism of its religious institutions. The desire for heavenly perfection is good and beautiful, and no body of thought has contributed to social progress as much as that found between the covers of our Bibles. In today’s world the Church’s responsibilities and influence surpass those of any other organization. But it may be far better that the Church ignore its duties than for it to lose its sense of reality in supporting the attempt to impose a heavenly dream world on this earth of human imperfection; for in the process it may destroy economic and social freedoms essential to democracy. The danger is that the Church, like other groups, may be trying to enact moral obligation into legal compulsion. An admonition by John Locke, written in 1689, covered the issue bluntly, but very well: "It is absurd," he noted, "that things should be enjoined by laws which are not in men’s power to perform."2 Prejudice, discrimination, and compassion are among such "things."
Locke’s statement summarizes the trend of moral idealism, and also leads us to the last, and most comprehensive, origin of equalitarianism; for, basically, the unrestrained demand for legalized absolute equality is little more than disregard for the limitations of law. Religious or secular passion may effect such neglect, as discussed previously. However, the problem in this society involves not only the driving emotion which obscures legal limitations, but also the lack of rigid, permanently defined laws covering various matters. This is, of course, necessary in a dynamic society; much of the law must be flexible for interpretation under varying conditions.
Thus, our predecessors established in 1787 certain fundamental guidelines by which the social, political, and economic activity of this nation would thereafter be regulated. Some of this fundamental law is inflexible, not subject to evolutionary interpretation; other parts are quite broad and have been interpreted time and again by the Supreme Court in an effort to adapt them to changing conditions of society. This combination of static and flexible law has produced the most stable and progressive nation in world history. Yet, this dual nature of the Constitution contains an inherent danger which has begun materializing.
Reforms and Crusades
The constant interpretation of the more elastic Constitutional provisions seems to produce an atmosphere of reform which, under conditions noted above, creates demands for alteration of the permanent guarantees of fundamental law. This influence manifests itself, for example, in debate over definition of "public services," or "public accommodations." This question, one affecting the economic vitality of a free society, occupies a central position in the current rights crusade. Its examination will provide the best example of equalitarian Constitutional modification.
What constitutes a public service? Under what circumstances may private property be so defined and thus regulated for the "common good"? In attempting to summarize the problem one must, of course, remember that "public accommodation" is only a more refined title for public service — for that which accommodates also serves.
"Public Service" Defined
Some will suggest that public services are those organizations established at public expense; such services, publicly owned, serve the general tax-paying citizenry. Few would deny the validity of this definition. At the other extreme stands the more idealistic group which identifies as public services all establishments openly engaging in business with human beings. In a free society founded on guarantees of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and right of private ownership, which of the two standpoints can be adopted as both functional and recognizing human dignity? What has the Supreme Court of this nation decided on the matter?
In 1877 the highest Federal Court attempted for the first time to deal with the problem. In Munn v. Illinois the Court reviewed an Illinois law regulating private grain warehouses which had combined to fix charges for elevator and warehouse services. The key sentences in the majority decision, which upheld the Illinois law, definitely ruled against the active use of property in a manner which would unnecessarily injure another: the "social compact… does not confer power upon the whole people to control rights which are purely and exclusively private… but it does authorize the establishment of laws requiring each citizen to so conduct himself, and so use his own property, as not unnecessarily to injure another."3
The Munn v. Illinois decision was not unanimous. In fact, the dissenting opinion of Justice Stephen J. Field overshadows the majority view by its critical analysis of the problem: "The defendants were no more public warehousemen, as justly observed by counsel, than the merchant who sells his merchandise to the public is a public merchant… and it was a strange notion that by calling them so they would be brought under legislative control."-4 Justice Field declared, "But it would seem from its opinion that the court holds that property loses something of its private character when employed in such a way as to be generally useful. "5 "If this be sound law," he continued, "if there be no protection, either in the principles upon which our republican government is founded, or in the prohibitions of the Constitution against such invasion of private rights, all property and all business in the state are held at the mercy of a majority of its legislature…. Indeed, there is hardly an enterprise or business engaging the attention and labor of any considerable portion of the community, in which the public has not an interest in the sense in which that term is used by the court in its opinion."6
A Confusion of Concepts
Since 1877 an indiscriminate fusion of entirely different social concepts has occurred: moral right has been equated with legal right, while public service has become synonymous with private service. The merging of these four concepts can be seen by examining two well-known Supreme Court cases, plus current developments.
In Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, the Court upheld a Louisiana law which provided for segregated, "separate but equal accommodations" in transportation facilities. The decision later was applied to public educational facilities. In concluding its opinion the majority noted the difference between moral and legal rights: "The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the Negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits and a voluntary consent of individuals…. Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation."7
Justice John M. Harlan, dissenting in Plessy v. Ferguson, could not admit a distinction between moral and legal right: "The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution…. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds."8
A half century and a half-dozen cases later, the Court concluded that "in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place."9 This decision, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 1954, was based on the finding that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" due to the creation of a psychological sense of inferiority "which affects the motivation of a child to learn."¹º
When an Exception Becomes the Rule
What conclusions can be drawn from the changes occurring between Munn v. Illinois, 1877, and the present, but that certain concepts have become equated in meaning? From the original attempt to restrict practices of monopoly, legal regulation of private property is being expanded to include all private facilities engaging in business with the public. This movement has received much of its force from the 1954 case, which definitely applied only to public educational facilities (those established by the public). The fusion of moral and legal right in the Brown case requires no comment, and certainly, as public facilities, the schools fall within this ruling. Personal bias and intolerance create psychological senses of inferiority and cannot be allowed to dictate policy in public services. But application of this principle to privately owned services raises definite questions of Constitutional legality; such an attempt would constitute nothing less than an effort to alter permanent guarantees of fundamental law. If this happens, it may be the beginning, rather than the end, of equalitarian trends. Any human difference tends to create a psychological sense of inadequacy. The possibilities for protest and demand are limitless, unless "public service" and other ambiguous slogans are kept within the limitations of the inflexible safeguards of fundamental law. Moral fervor finds justification, however unrealistic, for satisfying all human needs. It has happened in many parts of the world, areas in which initiative and ability are still being sacrificed on the altar of "the common good."
Regardless of geographical setting, however, the leveling process of equalitarian reform always begins with that beautiful dream of social and economic paradise, an earthly heaven in which there will be no prejudice, no discrimination, no material poverty or poverty of ambition and ability. Few will deny that this dream springs from earnest human desire. But desire for the ideal society sometimes rises to blinding emotion, and this intensity of feeling, which finds a natural environment in a free society, tragically obscures the vital differences between the equalitarian dream and the realities of the democratic society.
1 Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, 1750; quoted in Crane Brinton, ed., The Age of Reason Reader (New York: Viking Press, 1956), p. 268.
2 Quoted in John H. Randall, The Making of the Modern Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1926), p. 375.
³ Major court decisions of this type may be found in any government textbook, but one of the most convenient collections of such documents is available in the following, from which these quotations were taken: Richard Hofstadter, Great Issues in American History, vol. II (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 139.
4 Ibid., p. 143.
5 Ibid., p. 144.
6 Ibid., p. 145.
7 Ibid., p. 57.
8 Ibid., p. 58.
9 Ibid., p. 63.
The Haves versus the Have-Nots
Our political leaders have recently declared war against poverty. They have promised an all-out effort to abolish it here in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere. The tactics they are using for this campaign are necessarily determined by the nature of government itself. That is, since any government is by definition always the collective organization of the supreme apparatus of power based on physical violence, the tactics used by the government in this "national effort" must necessarily involve more compulsions, prohibitions, and other controls over its citizens in their peaceful economic affairs. For no government at war (be it a campaign against poverty, religion, or an invading army) has ever fought the war by exercising fewer controls over its citizens.
I have never heard of an exception to that principle of government in action. Perhaps that explains why our governmental leaders have realistically used military terminology and organization in their plans to mobilize the nation’s manpower and resources for the coming battle.