Egalitarianism, the Elephant

“The world distributes talent equally,” says the president of a college near us, in what I admit is a really effective advertisement, “but not opportunity.” How anyone can say that without blushing, I don’t know. By the time they are five years old, little children know very well that talent is not spread equally. Daddy is bigger and stronger than Mommy. Big sister can sing, but big brother can only croak. Uncle Bob can paint your picture. Uncle Dan can only paint your wall. And so it goes.

The drive to enforce equality where there naturally is none is totalitarian in spirit. You have to control all the facets of the game to make sure it turns out “right.” Such a spirit has been on display at the Olympic Games, which, the promoters crowed, was the first ever to achieve gender equality. By that, they meant that there were as many women’s medals as men’s medals.

Of course, equality in performance was far beyond their reach. In running, a land sport that actually penalizes the male body for its additional weight, the best high school boys in the United States, who do not have the advantage of a corporate-sponsored or taxpayer-funded career, or professional trainers, outperform the best women in the world. In sports that do put a premium on size and weight and strength, forget it. Even in the lower-body sport called soccer, women at their best are no match for high school boys at their best. Or junior high school boys. That’s what the Australian women’s soccer team, then ranked fifth in the world, found out when they got demolished 7-0 by an under-15 boys’ team, and then again a couple of years later when they got demolished 4-1 by a different such team. Imagine the Pittsburgh Steelers losing 28-3 to East Podunk Junior High.

But I don’t want to rag on women’s sports. My point is simple. To demand equality in some regard that you prefer is to permit or enforce massive inequalities in other regards. It must be so. Suppose we take sex out of the picture, and focus on age. Now suppose that seniors like me demand equality with juniors in one regard: we want to compete in the same Olympics on the same terms. We want the same number of medals, and we want them to count the same. We want to eliminate prejudice against the old and middle-aged.

Now consider all the inequalities we must enforce in order to get what we want. We must ignore the difference in performance. We must trump up our senior team at the relative expense of the juniors. We must dilute, quite drastically, the chances a given youngster has of making the games at all. That is because there are many times more young people interested in sports than old people, and in a broader range of sports, too. If we said, however, that we would allow the degree of general interest to determine our choicesif we were governed by fairness, which acts by touch, as it were, by a feel for what is right, rather than by the demands of ideologythen the geezers would have to be content with some fewer competitions. Given that, except in some rare competition like marksmanship, they cannot compete directly against the juniors, they ought then to be grateful that any special exemption is made for them at all.

The point is of general application. What sane mother insists upon exactly equal portions of food for each of her children? They need what they need according to their sex and age and body build and activity. Or consider what we do—or never bother to do—for children who are talented far beyond the average. Do they receive special tutors, as their much slower fellows do? Suppose we aimed for fairness in this regard, that the gifted child will be given as great an opportunity to develop his mind to the utmost as the average child is given for his. Then we would spend more time, more money on the gifted child, because he can take an accordingly greater advantage of it, and a greater benefit to the community would accrue. We do not say, “Carrara has had too much attention. Let us sculpt with slate instead of marble. We believe in lithic equality.” We build with oak, not willow. We farm the plains, not the rocky mountainsides.

The just treatment of other persons also demands inequality in some quite obvious respects. An anecdote from ancient Greece is instructive. One day an old man came to the games and was looking for a seat among the crowds. When he came to the area where the Spartans were, at once all the young men stood up, and offered him a place. Said the old man, “All the Greeks know what the right thing to do is, but only the Spartans do it.” We owe reverence to age: it is due. Many restaurants will offer a special deal for the elderly. That inequality is fair. The good husband does not say to his wife, “I climbed up on the roof the last time it was leaking. It’s your turn now.” He and she both thrive by a fairness that considers each person with equal warmth and charity, and that therefore demands from them or for them unequal things.

We may well ask who benefits from equality as an ideological and programmatic demand, since it runs counter to fairness and the many differences among persons and groups of persons. The answer is easy. The workers of the enforcing machine benefit. They benefit not eventually but immediately, in the act. Take Facebook, for exampletake it, please! Its “community standards,” an Orwellian phrase if ever there was one, are aimed overwhelmingly against anyone who holds what everyone held one cultural minute ago, that men are men and women are women. 

In the name of equality, Facebook wields a power over men’s minds that makes Napoleon look like a boy playing marbles. In the name of equality, public schools lord it over the parents, whom they treat at best with impatient condescension. Just try to say to your child’s teacher, “This young adult fiction you are feeding the children is bad in style and worse in morals. What has happened to the good and great works of English literature?” You might as well be a toddler with finger paints advising Michelangelo, except, of course, that you are no toddler, and the teacher is no Michelangelo.

It is precisely the democrat in me that rebels. For I am a democrat in this sense. I believe that ordinary people, in their folkways and their local rule, are competent to pursue ordinary features of the common good in a sane and fair manner. If they think it good to have a dance hall set aside for young people, so be it. If the boys organize themselves for a baseball leaguewhich is what boys used to doso be it; they tread on no one’s corns, and it is a good thing for them. If the people of the town give a special honor to men of the cloth, who should dare to barge in upon them and demand otherwise? It is an ordinary and reasonable thing. Do they want a Mothers’ Day parade, with mothers marching along with their children? Good for them. Mothers deserve the cheers. If they begin a school day with what they consider a generally agreeable prayer to the Father of light, what should Facebook, or the American Civil Liberties Union, or a national government of 330 million people, or nine lawyers in black robes have to say about it? 

Why should the ordinary people suffer that massive inequality? Why should they be reduced to equally insignificant grains of sand under the elephant’s hoof?

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018); and Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020).

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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