In order to understand the politics of our time, we have to understand the paradox of inequality.
The way the debate is usually framed, we are forced to choose between liberty and equality. Now when I am charged to pick one of these, I am happy to do so, provided it is the right kind of either one. You can start at either end. Pick up the right kind of liberty, or the right kind of equality, and the other comes with it. When you find the love of your life, and take her by the hand, and she comes with you, you will find out soon enough that her other hand came too.
Let us treat with . . . what’s the word I am looking for? Got it. Let us treat with contumely the wrong kind of equality and the wrong kind of liberty. Either that, or opprobrium. The wrong kind of equality is envious and filled with bile. The wrong kind of liberty is to virtuous civic liberty what masturbation is to marriage. It is narcissistic political solipsism.
A person filled with the envious kind of egalitarianism rails against a stupid abstraction like “income disparity,” without ever taking time to care whether or not the people involved are better off or worse off as a result of whatever his proposed “reform” is. If one man earned a hundred dollars and another earned a million, we could address the so-called problem of income disparity by robbing both of them. If we took 50 bucks from the poor man and 500K from the rich man, we are clearly making progress, but only if our imaginary problem is an actual one. Conversely, we could make this problem created by envy far worse by making both men better off. Say we triple the poor man’s income and quadruple the rich man’s income. Everybody is happy, except for the economic reformer, who is over in the corner, seething. He is seething because the rich get richer, and the poor get richer a bit more slowly. Which is unacceptable.
But a person full of zeal for the wrong kind of liberty is his own kind of head case. His creed is simply “leave me alone, period,” which is a demand for a world without neighbors. But God created a world full of neighbors, some of them pretty close to home. Hard line secular libertarianism falls into this trap, going so far as to defend abortion with a doctrine of “evictionism,” which treats an unborn child as a trespasser or a squatter. The individual here is god, and everything must give way before the inexorable demands of self. At the end of the day, the polis consists of a bunch of old coots on fifty acres each, and they all have shotguns so they can run people off.
I should say — in the interests of full disclosure, not that you hadn’t already noticed — that a large share of my practical interest in contemporary politics consists of saying “leave me alone” to the tax man and his associated thugs, and perhaps some might detect something of an inconsistency here. But this is not because I reject the need for neighbor love. Rather, it is because I do not believe that a devouring horde of locusts, as vividly described by the prophet Joel, should be included under the biblical definition of neighbor.
The demand to be left alone is lawful and right when you are being unlawfully assaulted. The demand for equality is just and right when it springs from the understanding that every man is a coin with the King’s image stamped upon him.
When it comes to describing the right kind of equality, few are the equal of Chesterton.
“One of the actual and certain consequences of the idea that all men are equal is immediately to produce very great men.”
“The spirit of the early century produced great men, because it believed men were great. It made strong men by encouraging weak men. It’s education, it’s public habits, it’s rhetoric, were all addressed towards encouraging greatness in everybody. And by encouraging greatness in everybody, it naturally encouraged superlative greatness in some.”
Here you have both — liberty and equality. The right kind of equality will insist on the kind of liberty that binds itself in love. The right kind of liberty will result in the kind of equality that glories in inequality. And both will result a resurgent greatness. And about time.