Are all Men Created Equal?

"Are All Men Created Equal?" Hoover Institution "Defining Ideas," November 18, 2015.

Harvey Mansfield looks at equality, with particular reference to America and modern democracy more generally.


The movement to reduce income inequality appeals to a very traditional sense of justice known both to Aristotle and the Bible, arising from disproportion between the rich and the poor. Reducing inequality might seem to imply that after we have reached the correct proportion, the difference between rich and poor will remain, only now adjusted to the correction required for justice. Any further reduction at this point would go too far, and would require a movement supporting correction in favor of the rich. But the movement today does not have this moderate character.

What is new (not perhaps to our time but to modern democracy) is its implicit call for equality between rich and poor, as if equality were the correct relationship between them. It does not believe that “you shall have the poor always with you,” but rather that this distinction, previously taken for granted as a permanent fact of human society, can now be done away with, if not in fact or right away, at least in the presumption behind the debate. Poverty calls for a “War on Poverty,” such as that mounted in the Lyndon Johnson presidency. This is not a limited war, but war to the death. Of course the actual measures proposed will not attain this ambitious goal, but the long-term intention assures that its proponents will keep at it. It also releases them from having to say, or even think about, how much inequality they would retain and why.

I propose to consider this novel presumption as to its end, whether the movement goes toward an achievable or sensible goal, and its means, considering what has already been done toward redistribution of rich to poor and what can reasonably be expected, to achieve the end. In two words, I find the end irrational and the means incompetent.

American democracy has always stood for progress in the sense of more or greater democratic equality. Tocqueville spoke of American democracy as inherently revolutionary in this way, and indeed Aristotle says that not only democracy, but every regime desires to produce more of itself. It is not a reasonable desire, because more democracy, for example, is not necessarily, and usually not, the way to make democracy succeed. But it was American progressives, starting early in the twentieth century and continuing today to President Obama, who proclaim democratic progress as “the march of History.” This progress is inevitable and irreversible; it does not depend on human virtue or divine providence but on factors beyond human control, hence not dependent on human discernment.

True, as President Obama said recently, echoing and softening Hegel when events seemed to go against him, “the march of human progress never travels in a straight line.” But the reverses sometimes due to those “on the wrong side of history” are eventually corrected. The crucial point is that progress has stages that, once attained, cannot be reversed. Progress zigs and zags but never turns around and goes backward. So President Obama proclaimed, when introducing his healthcare plan in 2009, that he was not the first President to seek a solution, but he expected to be the last.

Two difficulties stand in the way of more equality. The first is the lack of proof that “all men are created equal.” If we look around, we see many inequalities, some of them socially constructed by custom and prejudice, but others—such as intelligence, size, beauty, and temperament—seem to be as much natural as any aspect of human equality. The intelligence distinguishing men from other animals is shared with all other normal humans, to be sure, but the degrees of that faculty in different men is as impressive as the common sharing of it. The early modern philosophers of the seventeenth century could do no better, when their assertions came down to arguments, than found human equality on equal human presumption: all men, sharing reason, use it, each individually, to claim superior importance each for himself. This is an equality of vanity rather than truth, or a truth about human vanity. The presumption of equality is a supposed fact agreed upon among reasonable persons for a practical political purpose, and it is based not on a finding that all men are truly equal but on a refusal to risk the disagreement that surely arises when natural inequalities are alleged as justification for rule. Only equality can be agreed to be an “undoubted right,” in Locke’s phrase, on which to found government. What is undoubted is a political truth, not a scientific or philosophic one.

Hoover Institution