Ours is an egalitarian age. Well, in theory. Well, in very bad faith. That occurred to me during a debate with Rachel Lu, my sister, a philosopher, about “classical education” (a new, niche movement in education: don’t ask me about it, I don’t really know, but see here), remarked that “the classical education is unapologetic about claiming that certain places and times in history have been particularly influential, and that some have been more successful than others at fostering human excellence.” Now, this statement is so obvious that it was odd that it was made at all, let alone “unapologetically.” It’s as if someone were to leap up on a table and shout, “I may be hated, I may be denounced for it, but I shall continue boldly and fearlessly to proclaim against the testimony of the entire world that a dog is not the same animal as a cat.”
It occurred to me afterwards, however, that there may really be a certain prevailing mentality in our times that would make this trivial truism strike some people as surprising, novel, and provocative. It could perhaps be called moral relativism but I’ll call it egalitarianism because I want to connect it with a larger system of ideas and attitudes which I think explains it and gives it its force. The sources of this idea includes Jefferson’s dictum in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and the political fact that modern democracies practice the rule of “one person, one vote,” which suggests, even if it by no means logically implies, that we have made a collective judgment that everyone’s opinion is of equal value. I seem to recall (though it was years since I read it) Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the word “democracy” was used to mean social egalitarianism as much as, or more than, elections, and that he made certain claims about democracy and dictatorship that would seem nonsensical today. For example, if I were to suggest that democratic countries tend to be ruled by dictators because only in aristocratic countries is the wealth and influence of civil society concentrated in few enough hands that resistance to the usurpations of a tyrant can be coordinated, the claim would seem not so much historically questionable as mere nonsense. Today, a dictatorship cannot be democratic, by definition. Democracy just means that the government’s power is limited, by elections if nothing else, by freedoms of speech, press, and association if elections are to be free and fair as genuine democracy requires, and usually by division of powers between the legislature and judiciary, and by constitutions, etc. It might be, of course, that socially egalitarian countries tend to be dictatorships: possibly the Soviet bloc countries are an example. My point here, however, is simply to distinguish democracy from egalitarianism, on the one hand, but to point out that there is at least a suggestive connection between the two. A person might conclude that since they get one vote, just like the wealthy and famous and high-born and learned, so their opinions must be just as worthy of a hearing, their tastes just as creditable, even, perhaps, their beliefs just as true, as anyone else’s. And if one tries to extend this egalitarian ethos to the interpretation of history, one might conclude that every person in history is equally important, or, if one is a very sloppy thinker, even that every culture is equally valuable. One might even get to moral relativism this way, by thinking no one has a right to consider their morals “better” than anyone else’s, but I’ll put that to one side, because moral relativism in the crude form which this suggests is self-evidently absurd (it implies that a remorseless killer, if he is really remorseless, has done nothing wrong), and while I think there are more sophisticated forms of moral relativism, I don’t know enough about them to comment.
Egalitarianism seems to be a rather pervasive norm in contemporary moral philosophy and political discourse. In fact, it may be easier to approach the idea abstractly than at a more practical level. Thus, consider the meta-ethics (by “meta-ethics” I mean notions of what lies behind ethics, abstract ideas about what makes right and wrong from which particular rules can be derived) of Rawls. Rawls would place us behind a “veil of ignorance” what our place will be in the world, and have us decide from there– freed from any bias due to self-interest– what kind of society we want. He goes on to advocate the “difference principle,” that we should maximize the welfare of the least well-off, which is prima facie stupid since it assumes, surely wrongly, that people are infinitely risk-averse, but never mind that: the point here is that Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” setup is egalitarian, it puts everyone in the same position. We can distinguish Rawls from Bentham in that, since Bentham wanted to maximize “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” or as an economist would prefer to put it, “total utility” (though the concept of “total utility” is not robust because utility functions derived from revealed preference have only ordinal, not cardinal values, and are not interpersonally comparable… but never mind), Bentham would presumably have embraced the veil of ignorance concept but rejected the difference principle. But a Benthamite revision of Rawls would be egalitarian too. It would put less emphasis on equality of outcomes, preferring to raise the average, but in calculating that average, every individual would be given equal weight. If a king were to say, “Yeah, the way I rule is bad for my subjects, but it’s good for me, and I value my happiness most,” Bentham would reject the argument contemptuously. Kant’s “categorical imperative” is egalitarian too: he says one should live by maxims one wills to be universal, i.e., apply the same rules to yourself that you would impose on others, i.e., treat everyone the same. And the political spectrum in the United States tends to range from conservatives who stress equality of opportunity to liberals who stress equality of condition. Everyone is egalitarian.
Now, prima facie this pervasive egalitarianism should favor open borders. De facto, I think it has the opposite effect. Continue reading “Immigration and Egalitarianism” »