What kind of Equality?
Tibor R. Machan
So called progressives--who wish to sell us on the idea that their rejection of the principles of the Declaration of Independence amounts to moving forward whereas it is, in fact, blatantly reactionary--like to make fun of the American Founders’ and Framers’ ideas. One of those ideas that has come in for some drubbing is where we are told that “All men are created equal.” In fact, several elements of this statement have received much ridicule. One is that it talks of “men,” another that even if it is taken more honestly as referring to adult human beings, it is plainly false. There is, of course, yet another part of it that is often derided, namely, that human beings were created by God, even though by “create” one can mean both something religious and secular.
What about the idea that human beings are created equal? Aldous Huxley is reported to have dismissed this as follows: “That all men are equal is a proposition which at ordinary times no sane individual has ever given his assent.” Yet, Huxley and all whose who gleefully join him in his attempt to debunk the Founders seem not to have been paying sufficient attention to the actual words of the Declaration. Immediately following “That all men are created equal” is the sentence “that they are endowed, by their creator, with certain unalienable rights.” Which pretty much implies that this is where all of us are equal, namely, in our possession of the unalienable rights--among others--to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
What is clear from this is that the Founders didn’t believe something ridiculous like Huxley suggests they did, namely, that “all men are equal.” Just look at any group of human beings and it is patently absurd that they are equal. We are all individuals, with a great variety of unique, distinct, different, and even special attributes that make up who we are. Despite this, however, we are also equally in possession of our rights.
Just consider this: all marathon runners differ from one another yet they are also equal in having to start from a certain spot and having to finish at another. But this equality is very limited and contributes just minimally to their status as marathon runners. The students in my university classes are clearly unequal on many fronts yet they are equal in having to pass certain tests, write certain papers, take part in class discussions.
So the equality that the American Founders identified about human beings makes perfectly good sense: however much they all differ--however unequal they may be in their talents, opportunities, physical prowess, wealth, health, and beauty--they are equal in having fundamental, unalienable individual human rights to their lives, liberty, pursuit of happiness and many others not possible to list.
Yes, the Founders proposed that human beings have many more than just those basic rights. That is why when the Bill of Rights was crafted, it included the Ninth Amendment which states that “the enumeration in this Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The Framers worried that listing some of the most basic rights may mislead folks into thinking that they meant human beings have only those, whereas in fact human beings have many, many more rights than what the Declaration or the Bill of Rights could possibly list.
This is not difficult to grasp. Neither the Declaration nor the Bill of Rights states that human beings have the right to, say, laugh, sing, play billiards, or to get on their knees and say prayers yet, of course, every adult human being has the right to do these things. And how do we tell that the Founders and Framers thought so? Because they listed very broad principles only, such as the rights to life and to liberty. If one has the right to one’s life, it clearly means that one has the right to a whole bunch of peaceful, non rights-violating undertakings, given that life consists of innumerable such undertakings. Similarly, to have the right to liberty means to have the right to act in innumerable ways that do not violate anyone else’s rights. But a brief, succinct declaration, or a brief list, cannot possibly mention all the rights human beings have. The terms used are abstract ones, indicating a great many more concrete elements--just as when one uses the term “furniture” to indicate all those chairs, tables, beds, sofas, drawers, etc., that is meant by it.
My suspicion is that in the battles for people’s minds and hearts a lot of people who find it inconvenient that others would have the rights the Founders and Framers indicated wish to make it appear the American Founders and Framers were confused and what they proposed can be simply dismissed. Well, they are very wrong about this.