“What makes equality such a difficult business,” wrote the 19th century French playwright Henry Becque, “is that we only want it with our superiors.” His lament illustrates one of the more poignant aspects of an eternal contradiction–the stark disparity between idealism and realism–that has plagued philosophers for all time. Some, like Edmund Burke and the generations of conservatives who followed him, find the idea of true equality not only impractical but subversive, and thus shun it. Others, such as Karl Marx and many of the founding intellectual authors of the United States of America, believed equality was plausible and, in Marx’s case, would be the natural outcome of the oppressive onslaught of capitalism. Neither Burke nor Marx was entirely correct. Burke was mostly correct in his assumptions, as equality is indeed unnatural, but was incorrect in his conclusion. Marx’s idealism is laudable, but his lack of foresight and the impracticality of his ideas of equality rendered his predictions incorrect.

Equality, according to Burke, is not compatible with greed, envy, pride, or lust–arguably inexorable aspects of human nature–and is thus itself incompatible with human nature. What follows logically from contemplation of this contradiction is the opinion of Edmund Burke: “Political equality is against nature. Social equality is against nature. Economic equality is against nature. The idea of equality is subversive of order.” It is at least true that inequality is present in nature. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, many species form dominance hierarchies:
“Dominance hierarchies are best known in social mammals... the evolution of dominance hierarchies in a species is indicative that there is competition for resources. Members of a dominance hierarchy are aware of how they are positioned within that hierarchy and they behave appropriately... In species where organized group living is essential to survival, it also serves to maintain order among pack members.”
It is important to note, however, that by pointing to inequality in nature, Burke is not arguing against equality necessarily. He doesn’t claim that equality is undesirable, per se, and he doesn’t even make the leap toward whether equality is indeed impossible. He simply makes the argument that, observed human nature as it is at present, and possibly taking an example from nature, equality makes for bad government and “subverts order.” Burke was fervently practical and considered contemplation of egalitarianism a waste of time, for “if [a political principle] is not practicable then it is not good.”

But Burke is incorrect by definition. Equality and order are not necessarily at odds. Order is simply “a formal disposition or array,” according to the Random House dictionary. What Burke is talking about is not order, but hierarchy, and equality is obviously subversive of hierarchy. Hierarchy includes a comparison of value, while order only necessitates sequence; the example for order given in the dictionary is alphabetical: d comes before e. But that does not make d better than e or more capable or deserving, and in fact the only difference between d and e is their position–and unless a complex argument was to be made about the utility of the letters, which has nothing to do with alphabetization anyway, you could say that d and e are equals. Thus, equality is not subversive of and is in fact compatible with order, and it is not a waste of time. Perhaps, though, Burke wrote “order” but meant “hierarchy.” Equality is seemingly subversive of hierarchy by definition, and if he meant that then he is possibly correct both in that assertion and in the impracticality of equality as a political system.

Regardless whether order or hierarchy is what Burke meant, however, another problem with the argument from nature is the fact that in animal societies, both scarcity and dominance are determined by different criteria than in humans. Animals compete for resources (usually food) and the fittest animal will usually dominate. That does not only mean the strongest or fastest animal; it could mean the one with the best camouflage, or something seemingly arbitrary like the one with a correctly curved beak. But regardless, the animal most fit to survive does, and gets to eat and to reproduce itself.

In human beings, however, hierarchy is almost always determined by access to capital, not anything inherent such as strength or looks. It can be argued that persons with those two qualities, or intelligence, or an attractive personality can rise up the ranks, but money transcends all of those things in limitless ways. If one has money one can rise up the hierarchy. However, as the encyclopedia stated above, where there isn't scarcity there isn't usually a hierarchy. Cows, who do not compete for what seems like a limitless supply of grass or grain to eat, do not judge or compare themselves to each other and thus are equals such as the letters d and e are.

Burke believed that because of these factors, equality would never function in society. But, as we’ve seen, equality is not inherently subversive of order, hierarchy is a function of scarcity, and in humans, what is scarce is capital. It follows simple logic that if capital were no longer scarce, equality would be possible and at the same time order would continue to prevail. But is radical egalitarianism a lá Communism the only way to eliminate the scarcity of capital? Would all capital have to be distributed worldwide equally? To answer that question, we look to Marx, who would likely have answered, “yes,” and see in his impractical theories potential for a plausible egalitarianism.

Karl Marx witnessed the struggle and oppression of the lower, working classes (or the proletariat) and through scientific study came up with what he thought was the inevitable outcome of industrialization: a revolution whereupon the proletariat would cast of the yoke of capitalism and a new order would be introduced. He recognized correctly that the human struggle, at least in the modern world, is different from that of the animals in that we usually struggle for capital in order to procure goods, not for the goods themselves. The new order he envisioned included true equality among all people, and especially the abolition of both capital and private property. “One of the most vital principles of communism,” Marx says,
“...is its empirical view... that differences of brain and of intellectual ability do not imply any differences whatsoever in the nature of the stomach and of physical needs; therefore the false tenet, based upon existing circumstances, ‘to each according to his abilities,’ must be changed, insofar as it relates to enjoyment in its narrower sense, into the tenet, ‘to each according to his needs.’”
Marx believed that all men had the same physical needs and as such deserved the same amount of food and resources. The main difference between Marx and Burke is that Marx believed initially that equality would surface naturally, that the proletariat would rise of their own accord, as the conditions wrought by capitalism got so bad that there was nothing else for them to do. Once the proletariat became aware of their condition, Marx claimed, they would rise. Unfortunately for Marx’s theory, this didn’t happen. The important point, and the origin of Marx’s most glaring contradiction, is that the proletariat needed to become aware of their condition before the revolution could occur. This concession effectively stated that it might be impossible for Communism to originate organically; the intelligentsia, or the Communists (being Marx and his colleague Max Engels), had to inform the proletariat of their condition if they did not recognize it on their own. Thus he effectively neuters his own argument and agrees with Burke that equality is not natural.

Marx was correct, however, that equality was plausible. Aside from his self-contradiction, he was only incorrect for two main reasons. First, he did not have enough foresight. Marx was writing at the beginning of the industrial revolution (and before it had even come to Germany) and couldn’t imagine the world hundreds of years in the future. He surely couldn’t have imagined globalization, the awesome amount of wealth in the world today, and surely not the gross disparity between the rich and the poor. He would have immediately recognized that not only would the abolition of private property be impractical in a global society, but that today many people barely even own property, and thus would have looked for another means to achieve equality. The second issue is that Marx considered equality in far too radical terms. Burke had a point when he stated that politics must be practical or else they are useless. A theory in which all people, regardless of the amount of work they do or how much they feel they deserve, receive the same amount of that illustrious capital, will not be accepted by those with much to lose (Becque’s quote comes to mind). Obviously anyone with private property is interested in keeping it, and those with a lot of private property will fight tooth and nail to maintain it. What Marx did not understand is that equality does not necessarily have to mean the abolition of private property.

Regardless of these blunders, Marx was correct because equality is possible–just not in the way he conceived of it and not by the method he envisioned. Again, Marx thought that industrialization would generate revolution organically because the proletariat would realize their plight and rise up. He was right in that industrialization would make equality possible. But it would do this because previously there was scarcity and now, as a result of industrialization, there is not. Remember, human beings do not lack resources such as food like animals do; they lack capital, and there is only hierarchy when there is scarcity. Industrialization provided enough capital to eliminate inequality if not hierarchy.

Unlike, perhaps, the 18th century, there is now quite enough food to feed the entire world; it is only distributed unfairly. There is also enough wealth that if it were spread fairly (not necessarily “equally”), everyone could live comfortably. Explains Andrew Webster:
“Egalitarianism as a political programme [Burke] opposed on two grounds. Firstly it was unjust, as it relied upon compulsion, encouraged envy and inevitably levelled people down since levelling them up is impossible. (We know it is impossible because people are genetically unequal; Burke, unaware of genetics, used a ‘scarcity of resources’ argument. For example: dividing a chocolate bar among 100 people leaves each person effectively nothing).”
This is where Burke was also wrong. Genetics and certainly scarcity do not prohibit “levelling down,” only greed and a sense of entitlement do. The situation is much more complex than Webster’s chocolate bar example. In reality, it is as if instead of a chocolate bar, there is a farm complete with animals, an orchard, and a vegetable garden. There are 100 people, some of them owners or managers, some of them workers, and some of them unemployed beggars. There are enough resources on the farm to feed everyone adequately, and to provide for different preferences in terms of food. And that is what happens–the owners and those who have put in more work get more, but everyone gets enough; even those who have put in no work at all get enough to survive. The only way there would be not enough to fulfill everyone’s need is if the owners decided to extract an exorbitant amount of the resources from the farm. This would give us the present situation: this greed excludes the workers from making enough to live well and the beggars from receiving enough to live at all. Equality doesn’t mean each person gets the exact same amount of chocolate, only that everyone gets at least enough to eat.

There is currently enough wealth in the world for to end worldwide poverty without altering the quality of life for the wealthy. There is a certain level of wealth where one’s quality of life is not improved by having more–I personally believe that nobody needs to make more than $300,000 per year. For the efficacy of an example, however, I will use those who make $1.5 million per year; I think many will agree that persons in that income bracket would not suffer much were their income reduced by $100,000.

With that in mind, 40% of the world lives on less than two dollars daily. There are (when incomes are averaged) around ten million people in the world who make $1.5 million a year. Thus, if, for example, each of those people were to give up less than ten percent of their yearly salary, or $100,000, and it were distributed among the extreme poor, the income of those 1.2 million people making two dollars a day would double. And it can be argued that the rich would notice no detriment to the quality of their lives. But for the billions who receive two extra dollars a day, that’s the difference between starving and eating, between staying mired in a cycle of poverty and having access to education and self-betterment, between life and death.

Marx makes it clear that he is talking about needs, not about desires. “The stomach and physical needs,” he claims, is where the focus should be. Where Marx may have gotten it wrong was in being too radical. There does not need to be an abolishment of private property. There does not need to be a revolution in the truest sense, in that the top and bottom switch places. Equality does not mean that everyone has the same amount. That would be the “levelling down” Webster refers to.

A simple example to illuminate this is when comparing a person with a mental or physical illness that requires much medical treatment and a person who is relatively healthy. The extreme conservative might say that the healthy person, by virtue of being born healthy (possibly a result of the benevolence of God?), is more able to provide for himself, to work, to generate capital, and thus deserves the happiness this capital provides. The ill man deserves nothing because he has done nothing to earn capital and is left to rot. This is grossly offensive to a majority of people. The radical egalitarian, however, would say that both men are human beings and deserve equal amounts of capital. This is also impractical, for a variety of reasons–the ill person may get far more than they would ever be able to use, or far less than they require to pay their medical bills, depending on whatever the equal distribution amounts to. Instead, equality should reflect the right to relatively comfortable existence; to survival. The ill person should get enough capital to pay the medical bills and to eat, regardless of whether he is able to work or contribute to society. The other man should receive adequate pay for the work that he does, but not more than he would be able to enjoy; not more than increases his quality of life (determining where this cap rests is a problem I acknowledge but do not attempt to decisively answer).

Equality, in a practical sense, then, could simply mean that everyone has equal rights to life, to, simply, survival. This is the core of Marx’s argument. It would be impossible and, probably, unfair, if everyone received the same amount of capital for different amounts of work. That there could be a minimum wage, more accurately a “living wage,” that everyone, equally, is entitled to, is plausible. This means that the millions of rich people can still be rich and enjoy their wealth, but the billions suffering wretched, life-threatening poverty have a chance at survival as well. The conservative myth of Communism, of equality, of income distribution, is that the only way for it to function is that everyone becomes poor. The idealist myth is that somehow distribution is possible that will make everyone rich. Finding a practical compromise between the two extremes is the only way to actually fulfill the lofty promise of egalitarianism.

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