The dream is dead. Not for everyone, of course. Some of those who consider themselves oppressed will still demand equality, because they’ve been convinced that inspiring oratory, fervent marching and occasional outbreaks of looting can move mountains. That’s what the history books and media narratives tell them. “The arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.” The oratory and the marches are really just religious devotions — very satisfying emotionally, but, like religion, too often smothered under the truth of human nature.
It’s all an empty lie. Any mechanism we’ve adopted as the means for equality is really just bait and switch. We’re told it’s all for noble and altruistic purposes. Civil Rights laws, hate crime legislation and Federal government orders are really made to benefit the lawyer and lobbyist class. Who benefits from college diversity, inclusion and equity directives? Administrators. Who benefits from Civil Rights laws and regulations? Lawyers. The Americans with Disability Act? The stated beneficiaries are the persons with disabilities, but the real windfalls go to . . . you guessed it . . . lawyers. Obamacare was advertised as “equal access to healthcare” but it was really designed to subsidize mental health professionals, and provide guaranteed profits to the health insurance industry.
There are two types of equality:
1) All persons have equal value and worth.
2) All persons should have equal power.
The first is an ideal, but I think there has been clear progress towards its realization. The elimination of slavery, the extension of the voting franchise, the elimination of deliberate government discrimination — these are all tangible milestones that gained dignity and freedom for most people today. A change in the law like the legalization of gay marriage really does reflect the equal dignity of gay people. So over the past few centuries we as a society have made progress, and continue to make progress, in equality of value and worth.
I support efforts to increase equality in this, the first sense, because it is both right and achievable. We can gain most of the benefit by limiting the powers of the most powerful institution: government. The benefits go primarily, and most immediately to the intended beneficiaries, those suffering some indignity or unfairness.
But the focus the past few decades on equality of power has been a waste of effort. For all the effort — the War on Poverty, Head Start, Obamacare, endless tax credits and development zones, Medicaid — who can say that power in society is more equally distributed than it was in the 1920s? Certainly by one measure of power — wealth — we’ve become more unequal in recent decades. If the sharecropper’s grandchild is now a nurse that’s certainly a clear gain. But when compared with the gains made by the farmer’s family, whose daughter is now a partner in a law firm, who has gained relative power?
Now relative power is important, because power is the tool to gain the single most sought after benefit, one we all strive for. Power enables more choices. The powerful have choices that the powerless do not. Choices give you the confidence you can survive adversity, lack of choices leaves you and those you care about at the mercy of others.
Power is money, and so the efforts to gain equality of power usually rely on the government shifting the distribution of wealth. The myth of Robin Hood is very, very strong. We all like to believe that the wealthiest and most powerful institution — the government — is either intrinsically altruistic, or can be made altruistic by a noble ruling class. The government spends money here, and allows dispensation from taxes there. When money alone is ineffective it uses coercive regulation. It’s Big Brother, a tireless advocate for the weak. Of course none of it works. No government effort on behalf of the powerless has ever ended because its goals were achieved.
One of the reasons the first type of equality is achievable is because it just requires the government to protect someone from harm, or force society to end an unfair restriction. While third parties can profit from this, it isn’t as lucrative as campaigns to gain the second type of equality. When huge sums flow out of Washington into favored institutions, the stated objective is equality, but the real engine is subsidies for the powerful. Lawyers and insurance companies benefit more from lawsuits than the beneficiaries. Lobbyists prosper when there is a richer flow of subsidy money to draw on. Lawyers profit not just from their settlement fees, but by the need to retain lawyers for future disputes. Corporations benefit because Byzantine regulation is a barrier to competition.
When I hear talk of reparations to address inequalities and fix systemic racism, it sounds totally futile in its very nature. You cannot fix inequality by tugging at the heartstrings of the powerful. Oppression shifts; the powerless do, quite often seize power but that does not address inequality in general. It changes one inequality into another inequality. We have unequal power in society, and we will have unequal power in society in a hundred years.
We’ve spent trillions of today’s dollars on the Great Society, and the distribution of power in society is just as unequal.
We are a religious people. We need to be on a crusade, we as a nation need to be doing great things. We’ve worked on great, and successful, endeavors before. The Civil War. Settling the whole continent. The Panama Canal. World Wars. The moon landing. Compare these with the Great Society and its dying embers that that we’re still trying to bellow to life. The Great Society leaves us no better off.
We need to focus on something we can actually achieve. Something hard, something we can all have a role in. We can search for life on Mars, or in the dark oceans of Europa. We can find a cure for cancer. We can develop fusion power. We can struggle internationally to eliminate armaments, and in our own nation to eliminate violent crime.
But equal power? Experience has shown that is a chimera; it’s not possible politically.
Just because it’s politically unachievable doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Quite the opposite. For some of us it may be the most important thing in our lives. As a Christian it is my obligation to feed the hungry, nurse the sick, and shelter the poor. I don’t satisfy that obligation by voting, or mailing a check to some political campaign. Marching and waving signs doesn’t satisfy my obligation. They’d probably increase it, because participating in such street theater is a sort of idolatry, where the signs and the chants are just appeals to a lesser god. My penance for believing in political equality would be to spend myself humbly in simple acts of caring.