One of the maxims inscribed on the pediment of the sanctuary at Delphi was “Nothing in Excess.” It expressed the ancient virtue of sophrosyne—what we call moderation or restraint. Moralism is morality carried to an immoderate excess. And it is that excess with which egalitarian ideologues now menace us. They aim to transform our society so as to bring it ever closer to what they regard as the ideal of equality, on which, they claim, the well-being of humanity depends. They arrogate to themselves the moral authority to pontificate about what we should, or should not, say or do. And those who do not follow their moral imperatives they condemn as sexist, racist, and white-male-heterosexual oppressors of women, blacks, and homosexuals.
They tell us, for example, that it is immoral to go out for dinner when people in Africa are needy; they set up committees charged with designing speech codes for how precisely we should phrase an invitation for sex; they monitor the jokes that we tell so as to stamp out “hate speech”; they prescribe the right attitudes to cross-dressing, sex-change operations, and which bathrooms transgender people should be using. They have made it illegal to inquire about the age, marital status, drug use, or alcoholism of job applicants. They suspect child abuse if we spank our tantrum-prone child or hug our neighbor’s. We find ourselves censored if we use words such as “mankind,” “fireman,” or, when referring to God, “He.” Discrimination against blacks and women is (rightly) condemned, but discrimination in favor of blacks and women is praised. We are permitted to make fun of fundamentalist Christians, WASPs, and conservatives, but the sky will fall on us if we dare to laugh at the absurdities of deadly serious egalitarian moralizers. Attendance at sensitivity-training sessions has become mandatory for many teachers, police, civil servants, and blue-collar workers. At these sessions, ideologically reliable instructors tell their captive audience, as if they were children, how they should think, talk, and behave. Ideological indoctrination has become part of compulsory courses at universities and colleges, and more and more high schools as well.
False accusations permeate the menace of moralism. Free speech becomes costly. Egalitarians harangue their suspected targets in lectures, speeches, and the media. The freedom of the press, which should be a bulwark protecting our liberty to say or write what we think, is now used by politically correct journalists to misrepresent their biased views as news. Moralism has become the Newspeak of much of the media.
The few bold enough to speak out against the egalitarians risk their jobs, expose themselves to malicious innuendo, and can often wind up hounded by unscrupulous reporters, who are rewarded with prizes and promotions for digging up discreditable episodes in the private lives of their selected victims. They have no way of removing the stain on their reputations caused by unproven charges that reporters disseminate via unnamed “sources.”
How could this be happening to a society founded to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”? It is happening because the Constitution, the rule of law, justice, and liberty are being corrupted by the moralistic excesses of egalitarian ideologues. In the American political system, the rule of law is supposed to apply equally to all citizens, and all citizens should have an equal right to participate in the political process. We know that economic, educational, moral, personal, and political obstacles sometimes impede the protection of these rights. Our political system does not always work as it was meant to do. This should be admitted and corrected. But this is not enough for egalitarians. They are not concerned with correcting the faults of our political system. They want to abolish it. They aim at the radical transformation of our society.
Leading egalitarian thinkers claim that it is an unconditional moral requirement, taking precedence over all contrary considerations, that human beings must be guaranteed the same rights, privileges, and material resources, regardless of who they are and what they have done. It should make no difference to how we treat people, whether they are law-abiding or criminal; whether they are our fellow citizens or foreign enemies. They say that we owe equal consideration and respect to those who defend and those who aim to destroy our society; to benefactors and scourges of humanity; to torturers and the tortured; to terrorists and their victims; to the kind and to the vicious. This destructive way of thinking calls into question the elementary moral obligation that we should treat one another as we deserve; that we owe more to those we love than to strangers; and that we should respond differently to friends and enemies.
All ideologies have the same general aim, regardless of substantive differences between them. It is their structure that makes them dangerous. Central to the structure is a hierarchical system of values. At its peak, one finds an ideal regarded by ideologues as the Good, the pursuit of which overrides all considerations that hinder it. Moral, personal, and political values are said to derive their importance from the contribution they make to its pursuit. The Good itself is some conception of human well-being, or a universally and impersonally commanding principle, or an authoritative text. Questions about how to deal with conflicts, problems, and contingencies that affect values lower down in the hierarchy are answered by evaluating their importance for the pursuit of the ideal. Ideologues then rely on their system of values to evaluate the economic, legal, moral, political, and religious conditions of societies according to whether they advance or hinder the pursuit of the Good. Next, they propose a policy aimed at changing these conditions so as to bring them closer to the ideal.
In these ways, ideologies are alike. Their acolytes see themselves as soldiers fighting in the vanguard of the army of the Good. Those who doubt that the Good is indeed the Good are either ignorant or enemies of humanity. The ignorant must be educated—and this is the real source of the menace of moralism. The willful enemies of the Good must be defeated, and that is why ideologues persecute their recalcitrant opponents.
Ideologies, of course, also differ depending on how they regard the Good, what social conditions they approve or disapprove of, what reforms they are committed to implementing, and how tolerant the society is that they are bent on radically reforming. Since all societies fall short of whatever the ideal is, ideologies are instruments of permanent revolutionary change of all that hinders the pursuit of the Good. Sometimes the changes are slow, and sometimes rapid, depending on the nature of the opposition.
The ideology we have to contend with now in American society is egalitarianism. When the Constitution, the rule of law, justice, liberty, the economy, and the educational system hinder the pursuit of equality, then, according to egalitarian ideologues, they have to be changed so as to bring our society ever closer to the ideal of equality. This ideal is elevated to the status of the unconditional, absolute, and overriding requirement of morality.
If we understand that this is what the ideology of egalitarianism aims at, we will recognize it as an extraordinary threat to our society. Egalitarians attack the very foundations on which our society rests. The wars and crises we have faced certainly called into question, sometimes sharply, how we should respond to conflicts between the values by which we live. But egalitarians claim in the name of humanity far more: that not just our society, but even the entire world, be transformed by moving mankind ever closer to their ideal.
It’s not enough to point out the absurdity and the destructive consequences of the egalitarian ideology. It demands an explanation of how egalitarians—living and working in American society and enjoying the benefits of its political system—could bring themselves to give voice to such subversive rhetoric, with its dangerous excesses. This excess was known to Tocqueville. He wrote: “Democratic nations are at all times fond of equality, but there are certain epochs at which the passion they entertain for it swells to the height of fury. . . . The passion for equality penetrates on every side into men’s hearts, expands there, and fills them entirely. Tell them not that by this blind surrender of themselves to an exclusive passion they risk their dearest interests; they are deaf. Show them not freedom escaping from their grasp while they are looking another way; they are blind, or rather they can discern but one object to be desired in the universe.” They are blind because they are scandalized by inequality.
We all have many things to rue in human affairs, but the mere fact of inequality is not among them. Inequalities have been unavoidable in all societies. Being scandalized by that is a misplaced protest against the facts of life, a Caliban looking in the mirror and being revolted by what he sees. Many inequalities result from human vices, of aggression, greed, injustice, selfishness, and so on. But inequality would exist even if there were no vices. There would always be differences in intelligence, imagination, creativity, the acuity of senses, genetic inheritance, talents, and weaknesses—and the time, place, conditions, and the fortunate or unfortunate family circumstances of our upbringing. Thus, we are affected differently by the benefits we receive and the adversities we face. They leave their marks on our lives; and because of them, some will do better and others worse. Being outraged by this is wasted effort. It is not scandalous that not all efforts succeed, not all marriages are happy, and not all children are brilliant.
What is scandalous is that some people live in terrible conditions, unable to meet their basic needs—a situation caused by the scarcity of resources or by the viciousness of those with power over them. It is a matter of common decency, not of egalitarian ideology, that we should do what we reasonably can to help people in such circumstances. And, as a matter of fact, our society does a great deal to help those living in abject poverty, both here and elsewhere. Approximately 60 percent of the federal budget gets spent on various domestic welfare programs and foreign aid. A considerable portion of the various taxes most of us annually pay, amounting to many thousands of dollars for most families, is spent by the government on financing these programs.
Remembering these facts should calm egalitarians, but it does no such thing. They demand much more. What infuriates them are not merely differences in wealth, but the fact that people are treated unequally because what they deserve depends on their unequal moral and personal qualities. Egalitarians want a revolutionary change in the basic assumption shared by all societies and all cultures that have ever existed: the assumption that some human beings are better and some worse than others.
I hasten to add that, regardless of being a better or worse human being, of deserving more or deserving less respect, all human beings deserve basic respect, simply because they are human. But beyond those basic moral limits, it is a consequence of a commitment to morality that we should recognize differences in good and bad moral and personal qualities—and respond to them appropriately. And that is what egalitarians deny. Their excesses follow from their unwillingness to accept distinctions between human beings. Perhaps all human beings are created equal. But shortly thereafter, human differences unavoidably emerge—and we must bid adieu to equality.