Are Democracy and Equality Compatible?

I'm beginning to wonder about our ability to maintain democracy in the U.S. in the face of ever-rising demands for more equality.

My despair was brought into focus by a recent Tablet article in which author Bryan Garsten explains why Tocqueville believed that freedom and equality were incompatible:

Equality was not merely a moral principle.  Nor was it merely a material fact.  More fundamentally, equality was a passion that gave rise to a certain dynamic in politics.  Freedom, on the other hand, [was] a set of skills and habits that required practice, an art that could be learned but also forgotten.  The danger of democratic life…was that the passion for equality would lead us to stop practicing the art of freedom.

The fear here is that the recent drumbeat in favor of radical egalitarianism -- best illustrated by the rise of the grievance culture and the spawning of many policy positions central to the 2020 Democratic platform -- will prevent citizens from exercising their freedom, thus imperiling our democracy.  Let me explain how this might work.

Fundamentally, representative democracy, as a process, refers to cooperation among individuals in an effort toward self-governance.  These efforts occur primarily via the wide variety of civic, social and political organizations to which citizens voluntarily commit themselves.  Democracy is, in a sense, the institutionalization of freedom.  Note that this definition requires no reference to our federal government or its relationship with citizens.

Tocqueville believed that Americans were gifted creators of minor institutions of democracy.  This isn't surprising, as humans are highly social creatures, and social hierarchies are evident across the animal kingdom, from insects to humans, and are used to help navigate complex social environments, facilitate communication and social learning, and incentivize group-affirming behaviors, among other things.  It's generally accepted that the large primate brain evolved in order to manage the unusually complex societies in which these animals reside.

To put an even finer point on it, hierarchies are, according to Jordan Peterson, a "biological universal."  They are responsible for facilitating human communication and cooperation -- and creating a sense of interconnectedness -- and are therefore essential to democracy.  It is these foundational structures that are the clear target of the radical egalitarian agenda.

To understand why, consider equality, a term with vast intuitive appeal.  The fact is no one -- not a president, a philosopher king, or a caudillo -- can ensure equality in any aspect of human existence.  In the U.S. our best hope for achieving equality comes in the courtroom and the marketplace.  Equality under the law and equality of opportunity are worthy ideals, but neither has been fully achieved. Given our imperfections, it's doubtful they ever will be.

Beyond these two examples, equality is definitionally unattainable because each of us is born with varying potentialities across innumerable dimensions, and our achievement within any single dimension is affected by the circumstances in which we are raised.  Luck, too, has its say.  The result of this process are individuals with a mosaic of skills, abilities, aptitudes -- and inequalities -- all of which combine to produce “achievement gaps" in education, economic or social standing, material possessions, etc.  Enter the grievance peddler.

With their utopian sensibilities and hucksterism, these peddlers decry inequities large and small, the significant and the trivial (e.g., "Trump gets two scoops of ice cream, everyone else gets one!" blasts a CNN headline).  Differences in circumstance are attributed not to individual variations in intelligence, ability, effort or luck, but rather to prejudice, even in the absence of evidence for same, or to amorphous institutionalized or even hidden bias.  Individuals dissolve into identity groups that are pitted against the dominant cultural hegemony in a restive, zero-sum-game.  Inequalities become injustices, and the entire system is indicted.

The primary goal of radical egalitarians is to flatten these social hierarchies, transforming the value system that created them in the first place.  Wealth is redistributed.  Laws are unevenly applied.  Admissions criteria and corporate recruiting are fiddled with, as if equality were simply a matter of bean counting and bookkeeping.  And the more inequalities we abolish, the more ravenous we become, and the more inequalities that appear.  Tocqueville:

Democratic institutions awaken and flatter the passion for equality without ever being able to satisfy it entirely.  Every day this complete equality eludes the hands of the people at the moment when they believe they have seized it, and it flees…the people become heated in the search for this good, all the more precious as it is near enough to be known, far enough not to be tasted.  The chance of succeeding stirs them, the unc1rtainty of success irritates them; they are agitated, they are wearied, they are embittered….

Social hierarchies aren't the only target.  Radical egalitarianism also frays the bonds among individuals.  To wit: inequality is at the heart of many relationships: parent-child, teacher-student, employer-employee.  Even among peers, social hierarchies sort us in cruel ways.  Individuals, conditioned to recognize their weak positions across numerous power dynamics, feel increasingly envious, agitated and filled with revolutionary spirit.  Today those holding minority positions in our democracy no longer feel outvoted; they feel oppressed.

All this effort at flattening hierarchies and destroying bonds is resisted by those who see it for what it is -- utopian, sectarian, nihilistic, dangerously cynical, and, above all against nature -- and so the perpetrators, historically, must resort to totalitarian measures to enforce new loyalties, often to tragic effect.  (See: Stalin, Mao, the Khmer Rouge.)

Freedom and democracy are not merely in a state of tension with radical efforts at equality, they are entirely out of phase; they are incompatible.  Yet down the road to serfdom the far-left takes us.  Has the American experiment finally run its course?  Are we fated to stumble on spiritlessly, a headless body politic, a democracy in name only, disemboweled of the uniquely American spirit bequeathed to us by some fusty enlightenment philosophers?

R. E. Bowse teaches in the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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