The Intellectual and Moral Poverty of Egalitarianism

It is interesting to discover that the very same issues over which we find ourselves disagreeing today have been issues for generations. 

Egalitarianism is one such issue.

Barack Obama may have struck many people as a novelty when he garnered national attention a few years ago, but his ideological vision -- what we call "egalitarianism" -- is nothing new. 

In fact, conservative theorists from at least the time of the eighteenth century have labored mightily to expose this vision's intellectual and moral poverty.

Although many of us needn't be told about the folly of egalitarianism -- i.e., the quest for "social justice" or "economic fairness" -- the ubiquity of egalitarian thought renders it worth our while to revisit the counsel of conservatives from yesteryear.

One good place to begin is the work of the nineteenth-century American sociologist William Graham Sumner. 

Sumner pulled no punches in taking the egalitarian to the woodshed.  He bluntly described "the dogma that all men are equal" as "the most flagrant falsehood and the most immoral doctrine which men have ever believed[.]" 

The reasons for Sumner's verdict are clear enough.  If all men are equal, then "the man who has not done his duty is as good as the one who has done his duty"; furthermore, if this doctrine is true, then "the moralists" who "instruct youth that men who pursue one line of action will go down to loss and shame, and those who pursue another course will go up to honor as success" must be wrong.

In reality, the goods of "truth, wisdom, and righteousness come only by painstaking, study, and striving."  That is, they are "so hard" to come by "that it is only the few who attain to them."  And it is "these few" who "carry on human society now as they always have done."

Inequality, Sumner insists, between those who contribute to civilization and those who do not is "established as a positive fact."  This everyone sees "as soon as the exigencies of life are felt" and "men are differentiated according to their power to cope with them into 'better' or 'worse[.]'"

So, inequality is a hard, unalterable, empirical fact.  Yet egalitarianism isn't just false; it is invidious.

Egalitarians -- "the friends of humanity," as Sumner facetiously calls them -- promote a sort of malevolent benevolence.  "The friends of humanity start out with certain benevolent feelings towards 'the poor,' 'the weak,' 'the laborers,' and others of whom they make pets. They generalize these classes and render them impersonal, and so constitute the classes into social pets."  Then, "they turn to other classes and appeal to sympathy and generosity and to all the other noble sentiments of the human heart" while proposing "a transfer of capital from the better off to the worse off."  (Sound familiar?)

The problem with the egalitarian's schemes to ameliorate the plight of the needy, though, lies in the fact that "every bit of capital ... which is given to a shiftless and inefficient member of society who makes no return for it is diverted from a reproductive use[.]"  However, "if it was put to reproductive use, it would have to be granted in wages to an efficient and productive laborer." 

What this in turn means is that "the real sufferer by that kind of benevolence" for which "the friends of humanity" are known -- benevolence whereby capital is expended upon "the good-for-nothing" -- is "the industrious laborer."  The latter is what Sumner refers to as "the Forgotten Man."

The Forgotten Man is "worthy, industrious, independent, and self-supporting.  He is not, technically, 'poor' or 'weak'; he minds his own business and makes no complaint."  Because of all of this, "the philanthropists never think of him and trample on him[.]"

The egalitarian impulse, in spite of what its possessors would have us believe, is not really a "noble sentiment."  Sumner asserts that "a noble sentiment, if it is not genuine, is one of the most corrupting things in the world."  During Sumner's day, the egalitarian sentiment on which he set his sights took the following form: "we ought to see to it that every one has an existence worthy of a human being[.]"  Although contemporary egalitarians like our president use a different idiom -- "fairness," say, or "human dignity" -- they invoke basically the same concept.

In any event, we would be well-served to remember that, as Sumner says, it "is the most shifting and slippery notion which the human mind can try to conceive."    

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. blogs at At the Intersection of Faith and Culture.  Contact him at, friend him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.