The limits of equality: hierarchy and order

In the film Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) speaks to the point: one can believe in equality under the law without believing in equality in all things:

The idea of equality is a toxic elixer for democracies. Envy has always been among the most potent forces operating in human societies, and the characteristic form that envy takes in democracies is an endless vendetta against all forms of inequality.

Louis Markos swims upstream, against an ideological current that has become strong enough to wash away once monumental institutions. Has anyone seen the King of France?

Imagine someone whose ruling ethic was that of egalitarian sameness trying to form a ballet troupe, an academic faculty, or a football team. I can’t say that many of us would be willing to pay to see such a troupe, to enroll in such a university, or to place a bet on such a team. Although the popularity of “reality TV,” the persistence of quota-driven affirmative action initiatives, and the lowering and/or mainstreaming of educational standards suggest, alarmingly, that many in our country would like to see the elimination of any kind of ranking, distinction, or hierarchy, the common-sense pragmatism of our citizenry has thus far prevented us from falling into the black hole of egalitarian mediocrity. We all recognize, in our best, noblest, and least envious moments, that just as we excel our neighbors in certain areas, they excel us in others.

He brings in Plato, a heavy-hitter from the distant past, quoting from Book VIII of The Republic:

Praise and honor in public and private go to rulers who behave like subjects and subjects who behave like rulers. . . .

. . . the father will acquire the habit of imitating his children; he will fear his sons. The sons, in turn, imitate the father, showing their parents neither deference nor fear; this kind of behavior persuades them they are free. Citizen and alien resident also consider each other equals, and with the foreign sojourner it is the same. . . .

. . . teachers fear and flatter their students; for their part, the students feel contempt for their masters and tutors. All in all, the young mimic their elders, competing with them in word and deed. The old respond by descending to the level of youth. Exuding charm and amiability, they mimic the young in turn so that they may not be looked upon as arbitrary or unpleasant. . . .

The outer limits of public liberty are reached . . . when the slaves who have been purchased, male and female, are as free as those who bought them. And I nearly forgot to mention the spirit of liberty and equal rights that governs the relations of the sexes.[2]

At his point, he feels obliged to state the obvious–that in respecting the importance of hierarchical structure Plato was not taking the side of oppression or tyranny. Is that distinction not so obvious it can be assumed? Of course not:

Plato, by pointing out the dangers inherent in any culture that collapses all hierarchical structures, no more advocates the oppression of children, students, foreigners, slaves, and women than does St. Paul when he calls for wives, children, and slaves to respect their husbands, parents, and masters (Eph 5:22-6:9; Col 3:18-4:1). Plato’s concern is that once liberty- and equality-mad citizens have created such a radically permissive and distinction-less society that they will willingly and willfully elect strong men to ensure that it continues. These strong men, Plato warns, will make promises to extend the egalitarian holiday by canceling debts and redistributing land, but all the while they will be aggrandizing power for themselves and laying the groundwork for a tyranny.

The sort of equality yearned for by our contemporaries–that we will all have the same material abundance irrespectivie of talent or industry or history, and that none of us will need to submit to the authority of bosses–is a robust fantasy.

I hold with the older view, that when an individual cannot decide a question himself but must submit to a higher authority, he is embedded in a hierarchy. Whether that higher authority is a king or a democratically passed law or the whim of a mob may matter quite a lot for some purposes–social orders may be just or unjust, kind or cruel, wise or foolish–for the purpose of understanding hierarchical structure, it does not matter. A society cannot be nonhierarchical any more than a body cannot not be made up of cells, tissues and organs. If we are part of something larger than ourselves, we are embedded in a hierarchy. One cannot make a friendship, form a partnership, get married, have a baby or start a club without forming a new hierarchy.

So attacks on hierarchy end as attacks on order. They are normally a sucker’s games, if, as is usually the case, the instigator of such attacks intends to gain power or authority–that is, a place above others in a hierarchy–from the attack.

Tearing down a hierarchy leads toward chaos, and the experience of chaos cures most people of the hankering for anarchy since, in practice, social chaos is always a wild competition for enough power to establish a new hierarchy. The French Revolution is one of inexhaustibly interesting examples: a weak king was dethroned by mobs incited by various provocateurs vying for power. A period of instability and bloodshed ensues as various leaders plot against and kill one another until Napoleon accrues sufficent force to orchestrate events and establish himself as dicator.

At no point did French society pass through a truly nonhierarchical phase and at no point did anything an honest person would describe as equality arise, though it was true, as the revolutionaries noted, that the guillotine was marvelously egalitarian in the way it killed rich and poor, noble and peasant. No innocent sent to that institution would have mistaken his plight for the sort of equality the slogan seemed to promise: liberté, égalité, fraternité.

None of this, of course, constitutes a defense of the old French aristocracy. It is true that the Ancien Régime was destroyed, and it’s also true that new versions of privilege and power took form instantly in the carnage.

The American Revolution was imperfect but more successful, at least when liberty is the goal. This is partly because it wasn’t really a revolution so much as a war of independence. There was an established hierarchy before the war which maintained order after the war. The event was less an excercise in leveling a hierarchy than in shifting governing hierarchy’s source of legitimacy. Out with hereditary privilege, justified by a theory of divine right, and in with temporary power bestowed by the consent of the governed. The Americans were playing a better game than the Jacobins–striving not so much for a leveling of society as for a way to permanently bias the machinery of of government toward just principles.

For the Americans, equality was understood as equal dignity before the Lord and equal treatment under the law. The Founders did not expect or desire (though the more prescient did fear) that such equality would come to be understood as the idea that people of different abilities, desires, and conduct would fare the same in this world.

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