One of the more confused concepts making the rounds today, and one of the more obvious examples of weasel words, is that of “equality”. Plenty of muddied thinking and sloppy moralising surrounds this concept. People are making all sorts of claims and demands about equality, but often in a rather illogical and nonsensical fashion.
Many of our modern discrimination and inequality commissions and bodies are based on faulty notions of what constitutes equality. Indeed, radical activist minority groups, such as the militant homosexual lobby, are happy to carry on about equality and the like, and build their case for things like same-sex marriage by referring to “marriage equality”.
All over the Western world various anti-discrimination and equal opportunity bodies have been set up, not so much to address real issues concerning genuine inequality, but to push radical social engineering agendas. And often the push for special rights for homosexuals is at the top of the list.
In today’s Melbourne Age – not surprisingly – we have an opinion piece by the outgoing equal opportunity and human rights commissioner in Victoria, Helen Szoke. She came in under the previous Labor government, who along with the then Attorney General Rob Hulls unleashed a reign of terror, inflicting one radical social engineering program after another on hapless Victorians.
According to press accounts, she quit because the current Liberal government is “trashing some of her key achievements”. Thus she uses the PC Age today to boast about all her achievements – all in the name of equality of course. She also complains that much work remains to be done.
Of real interest, considering that this was in the uber-leftist Age, are the majority of comments appearing below her piece which are in fact critical of her and her organisation. Many of these commentators rightly point out the fallacies of these trendy notions of equality.
Consider just one comment: “When will people realise that not everyone IS equal? I mean seriously, even on a genetic or biological level, we are not equal. Treating everyone as equals only leads to the lowest common denominator being king – which is probably why Australia (and Melbourne, the nanny state) is run by idiots.”
What these critics are arguing is what many leading intellects have long known: false notions of equality will only result in harmful social situations occurring. One such intellect who has written about these themes for years is black American economist and social commentator Thomas Sowell.
He says so many important and commonsensical things about this topic that it is wisest for me simply to offer the reader a number of key quotes from Sowell. In his masterful 1999 volume, The Quest for Cosmic Justice he says this: “Equality, like justice, is one of the most fateful – and undefined – words of our times. Whole societies can be, and have been, jeopardised by the passionate pursuit of this elusive notion….
“There is nothing wrong with equality in itself. . . . But to equate the attractiveness of the concept with a mandate for public policy aimed at equality is to assume that politicizing inequality is free of costs and dangers, when in fact such politicization can have very high costs and very grave dangers….
“The abstract desirability of equality, like the abstract desirability of immortality, is beside the point when choosing what practical course of action to follow. What matters is what we are prepared to do, to risk, or to sacrifice, in pursuit of what can turn out to be a mirage.”
In a 2006 collection of essays (Ever Wonder Why?), he speaks about “Equality, inequality, and fate”. It is worth quoting at length: “One of the confusions that plagues discussions of equality and inequality is a confusion between the vagaries of fate and the sins of man. There are plenty of both but they need to be sharply distinguished from one another.
“The plain fact that there are large differences among individuals in incomes, occupations and whole ways of life dependent upon these things has been widely seen as ‘unfair,’ especially when the accident of birth has had much to do with these large economic and social differences.
“Life is unfair. There is no point denying it. Indeed, it is hard even to imagine how life could possibly be fair, given all the innumerable factors that go into individual success or failure – and how these factors vary greatly from one person to another, one group to another, and one nation or civilization to another.
“Whatever the potentialities with which anyone enters the world, the development of those potentialities into specific skills and abilities depends on each individual’s parents, schools, peers and the surrounding culture and its values. These are never the same for everyone. Eskimos no doubt have all the intelligence required to grow pineapples but they are unlikely to have the experience to do so. Nor are Hawaiians likely to know how to hunt seals in the Arctic.
“Children who grow up in homes where sports are discussed constantly, but science is not, are unlikely to have the same goals or careers as children who grow up in homes where the reverse is true. None of this is really anyone’s fault, not even that universal scapegoat, ‘society.’ These are simply the vagaries of fate.”
But in the eyes of the left, any such inequalities are in fact a result of society, and it is the necessary job of the state to step in and correct all these inequalities. Of course to do so simply takes away individual liberties while adding ever more powers to the state. Sowell speaks to this as well.
In his important 1987 book, A Conflict of Visions, he notes that the ideological divide here is wide and unable to be bridged. The constrained, or conservative, vision sees life in a fallen world as being full of inequalities, and argues for constraint in what the state can do to rectify this.
The unconstrained, or leftist, vision sees all inequality as morally wrong, and something which the coercive power of the state must address. Says Sowell, “The crucial difference between the constrained and the unconstrained visions of man is not in their perceptions of people as they are. What fundamentally distinguishes the two visions is their respective perceptions of human potential. . . . It is not over the degree of equality that the two visions are in conflict, but over what it is that is to be equalized.”
Elsewhere he notes some practical implications of this: “While it is heartbreaking to think of the large differences in ability and behavior that can be created by the ways different parents raise their children, it is no less heartbreaking to think of other social differences that go back to the ways kids are brought up. For example, anyone who watches the television program Cops will see an endless succession of real losers who wreck their lives and the lives of others through sheer irresponsibility and lack of self-control.
“When one of these losers is being chased on the highway by a couple of police cars, and with a police helicopter overhead, you wonder why he doesn’t just stop and give it up before his crazy driving kills him or someone else. But you also have to wonder what his parents were doing while he was growing up that they couldn’t raise him to become a rational adult.
“A majority of the men in prison came from fatherless families. In some cosmic sense, it may not be entirely their fault that they took the wrong road. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was the wrong road – or make it any less dangerous to turn them loose.
“No doubt such concerns are behind efforts to ‘rehabilitate’ prisoners or substitute ‘crime prevention’ programs for incarceration. But magic words do not create magic realities. Innocent people have been killed by ‘rehabilitated’ criminals who had been set free. And ‘prevention’ programs do not prevent anything other than putting dangerous people behind bars. The pretense of having solutions can be more dangerous than the problem. Yet there are whole armies of shrinks and social workers whose jobs depend on pretending that they have answers, even when no one has answers.
“In terms of broader social policy, we need to make a sharp distinction between saying that some people are victims of a tragic fate and saying that they are victims of discrimination by employers, bias in the courts, or the sins of other individuals they encounter. Scapegoating other people is not likely to help – and it can distract attention from the real problems, which are too serious to misdiagnose.”
The simple truth is, all things are not equal. While we are all equal in terms of being made in God’s image, we differ tremendously in terms of abilities, talents, gifting, motivation, desires, and so on. Forcing unequal things to be equal simply results in new inequalities.
As I write in my forthcoming book on homosexuality, trying to make unequal things equal is fraught with danger: “To get married you must meet the qualifications of marriage. The primary qualification of course is to have two people, one from each gender. These restrictions apply equally to everyone, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Thus there is no discrimination here.
“When homosexuals try to circumvent these rules or ignore them altogether they are not endeavouring to get equal rights; they are attempting to get special rights. Indeed, what they claim ‘is a new right; the right to reconfigure the conditions of marriage in such a way as to change its very definition, while denying they are doing any such thing.’
“Indeed, what is being attempted here is to treat unequal things equally. But a basic purpose of justice is to ensure that equals are treated equally. If equals are being treated unequally, then charges of injustice can be made. But there is no injustice in recognising the obvious differences between a same-sex relationship and a heterosexual relationship. Sure, homosexuals, as individual human beings, are fully equal to heterosexuals. But while all people are equal, not all relationships are.”
Much more needs to be said about concepts such as equality, justice and the like. But the fuzzy thinking of the social engineers and radical left helps no one here. These faulty understandings of equality end up diminishing equality, along with basic liberty. The only beneficiary is the ever-expanding state.
For those who prefer watching a brief video clip rather than reading articles or books, this clip features both Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell helpfully discussing the concept of equality: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJBeuR0xEP8
19 Replies to “On Equality”
Sounds like a smart guy.
He is. One might even say brilliant. One of my favourite authors.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Thank you for your thoughts on equality, Bill.
The Nobel prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek, in his classic work The Constitution of Liberty (1960), made a very useful distinction between types of equality.
He upheld the important principal that government and the law should treat all citizens equally, even though the result must inevitably be somewhat unequal outcomes.
If instead the government tries to achieve equality of outcomes, it will end up treating different groups of society very unequally and resort to methods of discriminatory coercion, Hayek warned.
John Ballantyne, Melbourne
Yes quite right – conservative thinkers have long differentiated between equality of opportunity (a good thing) and equality of outcome (a decidedly bad thing). The rule of law is meant to ensure the former but not the latter. I seek to spell this out a bit more here:
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Another excellent article Bill.
My major concern is that Helen Szoke is now moving to the Australian Human Rights Commission and with the current Attorney-General and his push for Human Rights this is worrying. The AHRC is full of ‘gender’ obsessed people who do not represent the majority of people within society.
Australia is fast becoming a socialist country.
God help Australia.
It seems to me that the very thing that these “equal activists” are trying to do is actually making more inequality. Can’t they see the big picture or are they too blinded by their own selfish desires and wants?
Actually, and unfortunately, I believe they do in fact see the big picture. They know what they are doing and what they are seeking to accomplish. In this case, they are happy to apply the sentiment found in Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
The Vic Coalition government has been a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t at all sure that Ted Baillieu wasn’t going to be another Malcolm Turnbull or David Cameron: leftist in conservative clothing.
Jonathan Sarfati, US
Yes the Liberal/National government is a welcome relief to the former Labor government, and they are doing some good things, like reviewing the Charter of Rights, etc. But unfortunately Baillieu is still perhaps closer to a Kennett than a Howard. He is not necessarily a cultural conservative, as many of his colleagues would be.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
John raised the issue that I thought.
In my view, equality before the law is the only sort of equality that government should be concerned with. And from that perspective, I don’t think the arguments for homosexual marriage are totally without merit (though I still don’t agree with them).
Tim Wilson from the Institute of Public Affairs, a centre-Right free market think tank, wrote an article recently on homosexual marriage which I found stimulating, even though I ‘m not sure I agree with all his conclusions. He discusses equality before the law without turning it into a trojan horse for eliminating opposition to homosexuality based on religious conviction, something the Left is wont to do.
He also points out, I think correctly, that de-facto marriage has done more to damage the cultural place marriage has in society, which is something I don’t politically-minded Christians discuss enough (his article is the first I think I have ever read that has brought it up in a substantial way).
The truth is, the IPA is more of a libertarian body today than anything else. And I know a bit about this, having worked for them some years ago. Today they are pushing all the wrong agendas, such as the legalisation of drugs and same-sex marriage. They have even had militant homosexual activists appear on their pages, making their case.
Yes equality before the law is a vital conservative theme. But you are confusing issues here. While all individuals are equal before the law, not all relationships are, nor should they be. But I have argued this at length elsewhere, including in my soon-to-be released book. So if you want more on this, I suggest you buy the book!
Thus the IPA can hardly be described as being conservative in any meaningful sense of the term, and I am far from impressed with the directions they have been taking of late.
And of course the legalisation of de facto relationships has been a real blow to marriage, and was solidly opposed by many of us at the time. Indeed, we argued it would be the slippery slope: de factos today, homosexual unions tomorrow. We were savagely mocked and scorned for making such warnings, but we of course have been proved to be exactly right.
But if we buy into this false and mischievous notion of all relationships being equal, then we have to also argue for the legal recognition of polygamous relationships, incestuous relationships, even bestiality. But of course I am now being mocked and scorned for suggesting this as well. But it all goes together, and is logically consistent. To argue for the one is to argue for all the others.
This is why real conservatives and real biblical Christians had better start thinking straight and carefully about these matters here, and not get hijacked into pushing the wrong agendas. The mushy pseudo-conservatism being pushed by the IPA today is simply handing the radical activists their agenda on a silver platter. I will have nothing to do with such harmful moves.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Equality is one of those PC notions that has bugged me for a while. It removes relevant distinctions. Like the notion of marriage equality for same sex relationships. Thanks, for your thoughts Bill.
Peter Sanderson, Adelaide
Well said Bill I have been waiting a long time to see who will have the guts to come out and declare in no uncertain terms there is no such thing as equality. It has been a myth perpetuated by some for their own interest. A person with one leg cannot possibly be equal to a person with two legs no matter how much you try, unfortunate though that might be. But there are those who persist under a delusion of equality and come up with all kinds of idiotic propositions.
Patrick Brahams is a little too sweeping in his dismissal of the notion of equality.
He says, “A person with one leg cannot possibly be equal to a person with two legs no matter how much you try.”
While it is true that a one-legged person is not physically equivalent to someone fortunate enough to have the use of two legs, there are other ways in which he is equal.
He deserves to be treated equally by the law and not made a second-class citizen. Whatever his physical shortcomings, he is equal in dignity with other human beings and should not be subjected to ridicule. Most important, he is valued and loved by God, who has no favourites.
When we turn our back on appreciating the sacredness of each human life, we end up with what we have today: doctors encouraging mothers to abort babies who may fall short of physical perfection, and the pro-euthanasia lobby calling for the killing of the elderly and chronically sick because they are supposedly a “burden” on society.
Yes, the term “equality” can indeed be misused as a pretext for social engineering and the futile pursuit of equal outcomes.
But let’s not forget the correct understanding of equality: that, as individuals, we deserve to be treated equally by the law; and that each of us is made in God’s image.
John Ballantyne, Melbourne
I would agree that the IPA isn’t a conservative organisation, thought it is a commendable attitude that although they might disagree with conservatives, they won’t try to squeeze them out of the public sphere.
I guess the actual test of that would be to see if the editors of the IPA Review, for example, would allow articles arguing the opposing views to their libertarian stances on things like SSM, drug legalisation, and so on.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
In many ways this also relates to an article in American thinker on child discipline.
Not all children nor their parents are equal in abilities and aspirations. It is instructive to ponder where the drive for equality will eventually lead us.
Gerry Van Hees
I’m not sure allowing contrary articles in the IPA Review is the right sort of litmus test for whether the IPA is supportive of free speech. I doubt they would but I don’t see that as an issue. What really matters is if they try to shut down debate either by their rhetoric or by their actions. In that homosexual marriage article, Tim Wilson makes a couple of suggestions that allow for Christians (amongst others) to discriminate against homosexual marriage within the context of marriages conducted by churches. Implicit in that suggestion is that Christian opposition to homosexual marriage comes from legitimate theological concerns and the state has no place in forcing Christians to act against their good conscience.
You would never see the Greens (and their ilk) making such concessions. To those types, all opposition comes from homophobia and bigotry and it is the state’s duty to force them to comply to their ‘norms’.
Real free speech isn’t that I will provide a platform for opposing views; it is that I will tolerate views that I find abhorrent and advocate for the freedom of others to publish what they like (as per Voltaire’s famous quote).
I imagine that you would regard that view as rubbish if someone came to you and said that you aren’t a real supporter of free speech because your blog doesn’t have articles supportive of homosexual marriage, et al.
I always thought it was reasonably simple to work out the differences in equality in things we have no influence over such as colour race language background etc, as opposed to equality in the things we do, such as sexual preference etc. It should be clearer at least for Christians that Jesus must be the Lord of our actions, though I agree, it sometimes leads us into conflict with how we feel. But our feelings surely can’t be our masters. Jesus said he would reward us according to what we have done, not according to how we feel about things
Bill, I like the way you describe the differences in “equality”. Another way of looking at it maybe could be that fruit, though they are all fruit and therefore have the same value as fruit, are individually different. An apple is not an orange and banana is not a peach, but all are valued as fruit and adding nourishment to our bodies.
And of course Paul describes it beautifully in Romans 12 how those parts of the body which are weaker or more sensitive should receive more loving protection such as those earlier described with disabilities.