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America’s Persistent Problem with Equality

One of the most significant developments of the late modern period (post–1750) has been the replacement of ordered hierarchy as a social and political value by equality. Equality can take two different basic forms: equality of opportunity, or competitive equality; and equality of condition.

The major ideological struggles of the last two centuries have revolved around these two types of equality, which are intertwined with ideas about liberty and independence. If individuals are free to pursue their own competitive advantage, some will advance and some will fall behind. To the extent that they are to be maintained in equal conditions, government must intervene to suppress the free actions of individuals or to redistribute the benefits of these actions.

The problem with the second type of equality is that it tends toward an authoritarian denial of individual liberty. The problem with the first is that it assumes a basic equality of condition as a starting point and sees inequality as the result of competition. Even if we could all begin to compete from the same place, the results would put us, and our family and social connections, in unequal places for the future. Changing economies also reshape the nature of the game. In some economies, there are lots of prizes to be won and in others very few.

Competitive Equality and Natural Aristocrats

In the US, the question of how to balance competitive equality with equality of condition has been with us from the beginning. In his magisterial 1969 classic The Creation of the American Republic, Gordon Wood observes that the ideal of equality was a formative part of early American culture. For Wood, this ideal grew out of the unsettling experience of the Revolution, the severing of ties to the English hierarchy, and the rise to political and social power of new individuals, during the bitter struggle for separation from Britain.

American beliefs and concerns about equality coalesced at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the phrase natural aristocracy. The concept of the natural aristocrat was one of the most widely accepted notions in early social and political thinking about the creation of the American nation. In the Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith attributes the American struggle to the desire of “the leading men, the natural aristocracy” of the colonies to manage public affairs.

One of the most important discussions of the concept of natural aristocracy and the emerging ideal of equality can be found in the letters between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, written in the fall of 1813, a year after the two political rivals finally renewed their friendship. In the letters, Adams takes a highly critical view of social inequality resulting from individual efforts, even though he regards it as inevitable. When the most able and energetic individuals are able to amass wealth and extend their influence, Adams maintains, they may use these in their own interest and in the interests of their families and associates. Because families pass on social position over generations, natural aristocracy can soon take on a hereditary character. Adams therefore favored setting up institutions that could control and direct the influence of the supposedly best people.

In his reply, Jefferson distinguishes between an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, and a natural aristocracy, founded on virtue and talents. The willingness to free the natural aristocrats from constraints was the result of a belief that their superiority stemmed from their personal qualities. Part of Jefferson’s optimism about the power of the natural aristocrats was clearly due to the type of political system he favored. Among independent individual yeomen, even political leadership by people of superior talents would not subordinate the general citizenry because government would be limited and localized.

From Self-Made Men to Corporations

In the years that have followed this interchange, Americans have tended to lean toward the Jeffersonian approach whenever they have seen a wide opening for virtues and talents, especially since opportunity became a greater part of the national understanding of the meaning of equality. The term natural aristocracy fell out of use over the course of the nineteenth century. Rapid territorial expansion provided new opportunities for landownership and helped spur economic growth. Even increasing tensions over slavery—an institution that obviously contradicted any ideal of equality—were connected to a kind of competition for equality between whites in slave states, since the westward expansion of slavery meant a growth in the slave trade. In this setting, the term self-made man came to dominate American ideas of equality as free competition between individuals. As Alexis de Tocqueville observes in Democracy in America, most Americans (and de Tocqueville himself) believed that self-made men would not create an elite class—because of constant churning, i.e. continual upward and downward social mobility.

Adams’ view that competitive equality can undermine itself arose again in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the face of a distinctly un-Jeffersonian political and economic consolidation. The expansion of federal authority required for the prosecution of the Civil War, as well as the fact that the war had been fought by the victors in the name of a union, encouraged political consolidation and a larger, more centralized government. These were accompanied by economic consolidation, stimulated by war spending, which promoted the development of railroads, the steel industry and big finance.

In a 1905 study, John W. Davis describes the growth of large corporate entities as the most distinctive characteristic of his time. The anti-monopoly movement of the end of the nineteenth century and the social reform movements of the early twentieth were responses to the perception that competitive equality no longer extended to a wide range of people, but had become limited to a tiny self-made aristocracy of industrial titans. The varied responses known as progressivism consisted of different strategies for dealing with the corporate concentration of private businesses.

Government Intervention for Control and Equalization

What might be termed regulatory progressivism perceives of society as ideally composed of autonomous individuals engaged in competitive market activities. Regulatory progressivism views the proper role of government as limiting the size and influence of business corporations, through strategic regulations. What we can call corporatist progressivism regards public and private corporate collectives as new, essential structures in American society. The corporatist progressives believed in close cooperation between big business and an emerging big government, with government controlling and directing or even absorbing large-scale business activities. In the 1912 Presidential election, these two streams of progressivism were represented by Woodrow Wilson’s new freedom and Theodore Roosevelt’s new nationalism. Roosevelt essentially argued in favor of a bureaucratic restructuring of political society, aimed more at government direction of an egalitarian citizenry than at promoting opportunities for upward mobility.

Faced with the constriction of opportunity produced by the Great Depression, the programs of the thirties owed much to progressive era plans for governmental intervention in economic life and to practices of governmental economic direction during World War I. In adopting New Deal as the slogan for his administration, Franklin Roosevelt apparently intended to echo the square deal promised by his much admired distant cousin, Theodore, whose corporatist progressivism prefigured much of FDR’s general approach.

The New Deal had at least two important implications that sit uneasily with the Jeffersonian ideals of competitive equality and limited government. The first concerns the political dimension of social citizenship. Under the New Deal, corporate people are primarily members of a centralized political system and they act on the world around them (and on each other) through political action. The second implication is that determining distribution is an essential function of government. People act through government, but they also receive goods and services through government. They are equal, then, in their direct relationship to the state and in their dependence on the state.

Equalization through Structural Mobility and Government Subsidy

In the years following World War II, three trends promoted shifts in Americans’ attitudes toward equality of condition and equality of life chances. First, Americans experienced structural upward mobility in a flourishing, labor-intensive economy of mass production and mass consumption. An increasing number of desirable, relatively high prestige jobs became available. As a consequence, much of the American population moved up the socioeconomic scale. While success continued to be understood as a consequence of individual effort—and individual efforts were indeed usually necessary for success—chances of getting ahead were more widely available than ever before. Second, in the years after the war, the US government launched programs that would subsidize upward mobility. The post-war years witnessed expanded government support for home ownership and education—especially the type of higher education oriented toward white-collar, professional employment, which had previously been the domain of a small number of elites. The third trend was the growing association of the concept of equal opportunity with a large segment of the nation that had previously been excluded from the competition altogether. African-Americans—a separate caste under first slavery and then Jim Crow—increasingly called for their share of equality of opportunity.

The increase in structural mobility encouraged the perception that not only did everyone have the chance to get ahead, but also that everyone should be getting ahead—even though ahead still meant ahead of others. Government support, expanded in the New Deal and during the Second World War, promoted the view that government could and should help Americans beat the competition. While outcomes were still expected to be unequal, the logical implication of government assistance was that the starting places could be equalized. Because winning the socioeconomic race was coming to be seen as the norm, government began to acquire a responsibility for compensating for any disadvantages that could keep people from becoming winners. The competition was no longer a matter of de Tocqueville’s churning—everyone was expected to move forward and upward.

Old worries about elite control over political and economic life did not disappear in the fifties and early sixties. Radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, evoking many of the themes of earlier progressivism, inveighed against what he saw as a power elite. But these worries were peripheral in a nation that had come to expect near-universal upward mobility.

Finance, Technology and the New Natural Aristocracy

By the seventies, the post-war American economy began to stall, as foreign competitors took over more labor-intensive industrial activities and high government spending absorbed capital and acted as a drag on economic life. The answer offered by advocates of supply-side policies in the 1980s was to cut taxes on higher incomes, especially capital gains taxes, in the belief that this would spur investment into re-industrialization. Critics of such policies argued that they would simply enrich corporate elites, without producing a return to an earlier state of widespread improving conditions and mass upward mobility.

In retrospect, the critics of supply-side economics were largely right about wealth inequality, but the build-up of capital did arguably contribute to a revitalization of the American economy from the nineties onward. The most rapidly growing sectors of this economy became the domains of a new natural aristocracy: the interconnected nobilities of finance and information technology. These new staple sectors direct vast flows of income to relatively few, highly qualified people—a state of affairs that economist Tyler Cowen has described as a “hyper-meritocracy.”

In his 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, French economist Thomas Picketty argues that growth in income and wealth inequality was the consequence of an increase in the rate of return to capital greater than the rate of overall economic growth. He is correct in this—but it is the transformation of developed countries, especially the United States, from labor-intensive producers of goods to centers of investment and innovation that has made capital so profitable. This transformation has created a hyper-meritocracy based on economic activities, rather than on inherited position.

In this situation, policy attempts to equalize opportunity by subsidizing upward mobility are often self-deluding and self-contradictory because they entail the belief that more people can be moved into a shrinking number of desirable positions. In a 2010 article analyzing affirmative action, I use the example of an affirmative action case in law schools to illustrate part of the problem. The number of attorneys has been increasing for decades, with most of the proportional growth among women and members of minority groups. But the legal profession has also become vastly over-populated. Opportunities are limited by the positions that exist. One source of the debate over affirmative action is that—absent significant structural mobility—upward mobility is a zero-sum game: one person’s or group’s gain is by definition another’s loss.

The role of finance in the economy of our new natural aristocracy has posed some particularly interesting quandaries for those who wish to simultaneously equalize opportunity and condition through government policies. The growing role of the finance, investment and real estate sector has made the United States vulnerable to speculative bubbles. An over-extension of mortgage loans touched off the most recent major crash, in 2008. This over-extension had two major sources. First, the fact that the American economy had become so heavily involved in finance meant that markets were filled with foreign and domestic capital looking for places to invest. Expanding the availability of mortgages and developing new financial instruments for turning mortgages into tradable assets provided an outlet for that capital. At the same time, an ideology of promoting mass upward mobility encouraged the federal government to loosen restrictions on mortgages and increase subsidies for lower-income home-buyers, in the belief that homeownership would move people into the middle class. Both the dominance of the financial sector, with its concentration of wealth among a relatively small number of new aristocrats, and a government commitment to spreading equality through subsidizing upward mobility contributed heavily to the unwise extension of home loans to risky borrowers and to heavy market reliance on trading in those loans.

By the second decade of this century, a new version of the old natural aristocracy debate—with the addition of ideas about self-made individuals and the equalization of opportunity through government subsidization of mobility—moved to the center of American political controversy. The administration of President Trump promised a combination of free market corporate tax cuts and deregulation to stimulate hiring, together with a distinctly non-free market executive intervention that would somehow re-create the labor-intensive factory economy of the fifties and sixties. Major Democratic political aspirants, on the other hand, aimed to varying extents at mixes of purely redistributionist policies—taxing wealth for the sake of greater equality of conditions through expanding government benefits—and new attempts to subsidize mass upward mobility, particularly through more publicly funded access to higher education.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I suspect that none of these solutions can simultaneously lead us toward competitive equality and equality of outcome. Like it or not, the comparative advantage of the ­­­­United States in the world system is dependent on its status as a center of investment and innovation. Because these are knowledge- and capital-intensive areas, this means that more rewards are concentrated in fewer hands. It also means more intensive competition for a shrinking proportion of positions. Even if policies could equalize opportunities, including more individuals or categories of people with previous competitive disadvantages would not mean upward mobility for everyone. It would simply increase the number of competitors and ratchet up the competition. To echo John Adams, once people make it into the elite—regardless of the demographic composition of that elite—they will use their own advantages to increase those of their children and descendants. Equality is a troublesome goal.

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18 comments

  1. “At the same time, an ideology of promoting mass upward mobility encouraged the federal government to loosen restrictions on mortgages and increase subsidies for lower-income home-buyers, in the belief that homeownership would move people into the middle class.” The notion that these loosened restrictions stemmed from a benevolent government wanting to expand upward mobility, as opposed to being driven by forcible lobbying from the finance industry abetted by Republican promotion of deregulation is, simply, laughable.

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  2. I’m not comfortable with the dichotomy of equality of opportunity as opposed to equality of condition. That is a very modern formulation and I’m quite sure both Adams and Jefferson would have agreed that all should be equal before the law and both would have denied that equality of condition was either possible or desirable, if the word “condition” implies social, moral and economic equality.

    I know the culture Adams grew up in far better than Jefferson’s but it always seemed to me that Adams was a born and bred a practical republican while Jefferson was a romantic or theoretical republican.

    All of the pre-Revolutionary New England provinces had been essentially Leveller republics that recognized two classes of citizens; those who worked with their hands, the 40 shilling freeholders, and those that worked with heads, the gentlemen of trade and the professions. The relationship was understood to be symbiotic; the gentlemen needed the freeholders as much as as the freeholders needed the gentlemen and they were all brothers and sisters in a Bible republic.

    From 1630 onwards, the essential characteristics of government in New England were: absolute equality under the law for all social and economic classes and equality of political power between the gentlemen of trade and the professions and the 40 shilling freeholders. This was accomplished by dividing political power first between the magistrates, who were freely elected but who were always gentlemen, and the governed, the vast majority of whom freeholders.

    In Massachusetts the individual towns were semi-autonomous within the commonwealth. Town government was based on the open town meeting where the franchise to vote was universal and where the each town sent the same number of deputies (representatives) to the General Court (the legislature). As things developed, the towns of Boston, Cambridge, Salem, Springfield and Northampton and few of their satellite towns were dominated by the gentlemen and the rest of the towns were dominated by the freeholders. There was a balance of power in pre-Revolutionary New England between the gentlemen and the freeholders, that did not survive the Revolution intact.

    But Jeffersonian individualism was not a feature of political and social life in New England. Every individual was tightly bound to first to his family, then to his congregation and town (the two were almost synonymous for the 140 years before the Revolution) and then to the greater commonwealth, which included the entire region as well as the individual provinces. The old New England saying “root, hog or die” meant every individual was faced with the choice of either taking root in a town and conforming to the culture of the town or going hog wild and leaving in hope of find a more congenial town or dying. This system operated to the freeholders’ advantage because the political power of the freeholders was tightly organized at the town level and gave the freeholders political power at least equal to that of the gentlemen. Jeffersonian individualism was actually corrosive to the power of the freeholder class.

  3. [The role of finance in the economy] Hi, I read this paragraph, so I want to provide some history for the statements with the paragraph; I have not assessed the paragraph or sentence transitions because I’m watching Dr. Jordan Peterson, 2017 Personality 10: Humanism & Phenomenology: Carl Rogers. I can read the remaining paragraphs at another time; in the meantime, perhaps, you’ll have some time to incorporate these histories: Asimov’s Guide to the Bible pdf, Parables as subversive speech:

  4. Posted previous comment accidentally, before I was finished. The other point is a small matter of fact. The economic expansion toward the end of the 20th Century didn’t start in the “nineties onward,” as you suggest, but the “build-up of capital” and its positive effect on the economy began in the mid-80’s. Bush 41’s and Clinton’s overall good stewardship of the economy kept the party going with a few brief lapses until the crash in 2008.

    It seems clear to me that Jefferson wasn’t advocating what we now label “equality of opportunity.” Instead, he believed in the freedom to be left alone (“life and liberty,” as in your example of Jefferson and his neighbor), to aspire and to strive (the pursuit of happiness), and in a legal system that neither favored or disfavored any man or group. In today’s jargon it would be one that simply calls balls and strikes “all men are created equal.”).

    1. Partly correct on economic growth in the 1980s. GDP began to recover from the stagnation of the 1970s during the Reagan years and then lost most of its gains at the end of the 1980s (hence the defeat of Bush 1). The recovery of the early to mid 80s was eclipsed, though, by the economic expansion of the 1990s, fueled, as I say, largely by new technologies and the availability of capital to invest in them. On Jefferson’s view, while there is a good deal of simply being left alone in his idea of freedom, if you want to disagree with my characterization of the views he expressed in the natural aristocracy debate in the Jefferson-Adams letters, that’s fine, but you need to do so by referring to those letters and explaining why Jefferson was not defending a natural aristocracy in that interchange with Adams or why his argument in favor of the natural aristocracy should not be seen as a defense of equality of opportunity avant les mots. You might also look at Jefferson’s proposal for an educational system, which was clearly based on the idea of individuals competing for upward movement.

  5. I will take to very small issues with your history. One, the idea that “getting ahead” meant “getting ahead of others.” I grew up hearing this phrase (I’m 67) and the implication was that one would create a better life for themselves in an economic sense, not that one would outperform their neighbors. In fact, the phrase was “Keeping up with the Joneses” not “Doing better than the Joneses.” You affirm this in the last sentence in that paragraph when you cite “de Tocqueville’s churning—everyone was expected to move forward and upward.”

    1. As I think I make clear, the goal of universal upward mobility (the Jones move upward and so do you) depends on structural mobility, of the sort that you and I (I’m your age) grew up expecting in the post-WWII industrial economy. The argument here is that today’s economy no longer presents that kind of structural mobility. Take a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and you will see that projected growth is in high-paying jobs and low-paying jobs. Take a look at income distribution charts, and you will see a growing bifurcation.

  6. Equality in the eyes of God is, as you say, an old notion, and if that were all the Declaration meant it would not have had the reverberations through the centuries that it has had. No, I think that it was getting at something that, in its time, was still revolutionary — that, unlike virtually all other and all previous human social structures, that viewed people as hierarchical in their essence and differed from birth in their SOCIAL worth, this statement asserted that all people were equal in moral status, which included equality before the law, but meant more than that purely procedural notion. It’s not, however, a version of equality of opportunity, except insofar as that moral status afforded. Other versions of equality seem crude in comparison, relying either on simple envy(equality of condition) or on a notion of fairness that aims at correcting the unfairness of the universe (equality of opportunity). And though a particular individual, namely Jefferson, may have been the primary author of the statement, its import goes a lot further than the particulars of his life and times. I’d suggest, in fact, that it represents the conception at the heart of modern or bourgeois equality, and the one that best explains the extraordinary transformations in wealth and living standards that characterize the modern world, lifting literally billions from poverty and early death.

    1. A reasonable summation of the Jeffersonian point of view, although one that misses the fact that his ideas about equality were definitely not rooted in the argument that market economies would create general economic prosperity. For the basis of that argument, you would need to look to Jefferson’s rival, Alexander Hamilton. Now, I actually would agree that market economies based on individual activities have been a driving force in the creation of modern wealth. And I think you could argue that even wnen market economies produce greater inequality, overall prosperity justifies this. This is basically the argument made in recent times by Tyler Cowen, in his evaluation of the “hyper-meritocracy.” But the opposing point of view, which you will see in an early form if you will read my description of the Jefferson-Adams debate, is that the unimpeded use of talent, effort, and connections, can create a concentration of wealth and power that will undermine both democracy and the efficacy of individual efforts. Now, you can reject the whole Adams argument and its later descendants. But if you will read my description of the natural aristocracy debate and the entirety of the article that follows, I think you will see that I am not trying to establish which side is right, but tracing the development of a basic tension in our ideas about equality and trying to describe how this tension has changed in response to social, economic, and political contexts.

      1. I take your point, Carl, but I wasn’t actually trying to summarize Jefferson’s view as such, but rather to talk about the larger point that underlies the effect that famous phrase in the Declaration has had on subsequent political, social, and moral debate — a point inherent in the benign aspects of the Enlightenment generally. I’d extend it, in fact, to include the heretical notion that equality other than the anti-class/caste status equality that phrase invoked is either futile or immoral (or both), and too often has been positively evil in its attempted implementations. That’s a long story, but I do think it’s at least relevant to the concerns your essay expresses regarding, for example, the incompatibilities of the two forms of equality you mention in that first sentence. But I plead guilty responding only to it and not to your main theme — my apologies for the distraction.

  7. “Equality can take two different basic forms: equality of opportunity, or competitive equality; and equality of condition.”

    But I’m puzzled. When, in the Declaration of Independence, it says “all men are CREATED equal”, did it mean that all men (or persons as we might say now) are created with equal opportunity? If so, that’s clearly not true. Or did it mean that all men are created with equal conditions? But that seems even less true. Might there be a third form of equality? And might THAT form be the most basic of them all, and the one that neither promotes envy nor requires a cosmic notion of justice for its fulfillment?

    1. I imagine Jefferson, who originally penned the Declaration of Independence, used the phrase with Lockean notions of natural rights in mind. He was influenced by Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, etc. via his friendship with Lafayette: the aforementioned writers espoused man’s inherent freedom and independence as a natural entity. I think Bankston is unintentionally disingenuous in his original bifurcation of the word and retroactive application of it. The combination of equality of opportunity and equality of condition would not sufficiently constitute the idea of ‘natural rights’ among classical liberals, largely due to its later reduction to a materialistic, operational term.

      1. I think you are right about the influence of Lockean natural rights on Jefferson. However, it looks like you have missed the whole discussion of the natural aristocracy in the Jefferson-Adams letters, in which Adams expresses concern that removing hereditary aristocracy and allowing the free exercise of efforts and talents would produce a new elite. Obviously, neither Jefferson nor Adams used the term “equality of opportunity.” But just as obviously, the substance of his concern was that what we today call equality of opportunity would create an extreme of what we today would call inequality of condition. While I am certainly reading today’s terms backward into earlier eras, this is not in the least disingenuous, but based on the view that today’s concerns and debates are products of concepts that have developed over time, from the natural aristocracy debate through the idea of the self-made man. to universal and subsidized mobility. I appreciate your thoughts on the first sentence, but suggest that you read the whole article and consider whether you agree with my description of the development of ideas about equality and the socioeconomic and political contexts that have shaped these over the entire course of American history.

        1. I didn’t address the Jefferson-Adams letters in my blurb as I don’t see any sensible refutation to their lucidly stated anxieties. It’s obvious Adams was concerned about a nascent aristocracy entrenching and perpetuating itself while Jefferson assured him certain provisions would limit their political/economic influence even in the worst-case scenario. It definitely qualifies as an opportunity vs condition discourse.

          My objection is that Enlightenment philosophy assumed a third type of equality: the ability to exercise reason by virtue of being intrinsic to mankind. It was categorized separately from opportunity and condition, which would be subsequently conflated in later economic and political philosophies like homo economicus. Unlike the other two it didn’t manifest outwardly. Unlike opportunity or condition, reason was an internal capacity that could atrophy. Indeed, significant portions of Jefferson’s politics focused on how to cultivate and de-incentivize abuse of its absence among the general population. Adams’ fear can be framed as Hume’s position on passion vs reason: self-interest, as a subset of the former, would trump any logical recognition or care about the long-term ramifications of social stratification.

          There was plenty of disagreement whether people would diligently exercise it the closer society approximated the state of nature, whether it could moderate the emotions, etc. but the influences on the Fathers strongly advocated reason as an individual pursuit. Specifically I mentioned Locke as he exemplified this optimistic assumption in opposition to Hobbes, Filmer, or even Hume. As per the Second Treatise, he believed rational consideration necessarily led to benevolence and the subsequent reinforcement of equality of opportunity as a natural right.

          As a long critique cut short, I’d say any attempt to analyze through the lens of equality needs to acknowledge equal access and usage of reason as a third component that faded away into irrelevance over time. Pinpointing how and why it stopped being an underlying category would be annoying; most likely, it would make analysis too convoluted as opposed to the cleaner dichotomy you enlist here. However, I consider it crucial for tracing equality as a concept and how it evolved throughout American history. Otherwise the “materialistic, operational” usage makes certain attitudes among the Founding Fathers seem nonsensical and incoherent when juxtaposed against their general beliefs. Jefferson’s insistence on a natural aristocracy is an oxymoron to modern ears and Adams’ fretting over unjustified aristocracy instead of aristocracy as a concept is bizarre to those trained to see any class distinction as innately unfair.

          It’s my fault for being so vague on the source of disagreement in the first place. I wasn’t arguing from a postmodernist position.

          “I appreciate your thoughts on the first sentence, but suggest that you read the whole article and consider whether you agree with my description of the development of ideas about equality and the socioeconomic and political contexts that have shaped these over the entire course of American history.”

          Besides the above, my main gripe is the article is light on the development of social inequalities on the macro and micro level. It largely focuses on the broad economic ones and relegated the notable social ones to generalized race/class divisions. I understand you’re covering a enormous stretch of time and brevity is king, but relative access to prestige and other forms of social capital affected equality as much as consolidation/dissemination of wealth among the population.

          1. First, thank you for your attention to this article and your insightful comments. In the initial paragraph of this comment, you grant the main point of my argument about natural aristocracy. For the sake of brevity, on the last paragraph,I would just say that relative access to prestige and social capital (whether normative or as an aspect of networks) are matters of status attainment (what affects who into positions and how they do so), while consolidation/dissemination of wealth is a matter of the structure of economy (what positions exist). That’s worth developing further, but is entirely consistent with the overview I offer here, and actually follows from it.

    2. That’s a great question, Metamorf. Certainly, we can think about human equality in purely theological or philosophical terms: as all being equal before God or death. But those are ancient ideas. Equality in mortality was a commonplace theme in pre-Christian Roman writing, particularly among the Stoics. The theological or philosophical equality of souls really was not social or political equality, though, and this was entirely consistent with political commitment to hierarchy. If we look at those words in the Constitution, the statement that all men (sic) are created equal is followed by a statement about the inalienable rights with which they are endowed by their Creator, which we would today describe as negative liberties. Equality here is a matter of not being imposed upon, of having the opportunity to live their one’s life freely as one chooses. So, it is a kind of equality of opportunity. Given the argument Jefferson makes in the letters with Adams, as well as the polity of independent yeomen that he advocated, it seems to me that Jefferson did not believe the free pursuit of opportunity would create a new hierarchy because of limitations on both government and commercial activity. Jefferson lives at Monticello and the yeoman lives on his little plot of land, but they are equal because each can go his own way and neither imposes on the other. In politics, Jefferson did see a natural aristocracy coming out of the highly competitive and (to use an anachronistic word) meritocratic plan for an educational pyramid that he proposed, but this also would not seriously undermine the equality to pursue opportunities because the government mainly run by graduates of the University of Virginia (the top of the pyramid and the only part to be realized) would be so limited in character.

      Whether you agree with this answer or not, thank you for taking the time to read this, think about it, and offer this good question.

    3. Perhaps the Declaration of Independence saying “all men are created equal” is in fact referring to both God’s eternal view for his created beings as well as Jefferson’s philosophical understanding of God’s view.
      In either case I believe both God and Jefferson are opposed to the authors view.
      Caveats imposed on equality such as equality of opportunity or competitive equality and today we can add the leftist mantra of equality of outcome, are in my opinion in stark contrast to both God and Jefferson saying man is equal to “pursue life, liberty and happiness” In Jefferson’s philosophical understanding of God’s truth that means chasing something earthly and temporary without government interference whereas in Gods view it means seeking something heavenly and eternal regardless of any and all interference.

      1. I agree with your characterization of Jefferson’s view of equality, but think that his deism would make him unwilling to bring God into it, except in the vaguest terms. But I’m not taking the side of either Jefferson or Adams in the section on the natural aristocracy debate, nor do I think you will find endorsement of any leftist (or rightist) mantras in this article. I respect your religious beliefs, but I have no idea what God thinks about these matters.

        I’m struck that none of the commenters so far gives evidence of having read anything but the first couple of sentences.

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