On a late Winter morning in 1775, William French woke up for the last time. The lively 22 year old lived in the Town of Bennington, a municipality only five years older than the young adult. Self-named by Benning Wentworth, Governor of New Hampshire, the small hamlet lay on the west side of the Connecticut River, nestled in the broad curve of the oxbowing waterway in the fertile eastern valley beneath the Green Mountains. French walked that afternoon of March 13th along King’s Highway until he reached the farm house of an eccentric old patriot by the name of Capt. Axariah Wright. There he met Daniel Houghton and nearly 100 other men. They were there to tackle a pressing problem.
[This Commentary originally appeared in the October 25, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
We immediately respond with a resounding “Yes!” As youngsters, we begin learning the lessons of the American saga. A free and open democracy – like that in the United States – implies and demands a society of equals. Our founding fathers’ forged the idea of “one man, one vote.” (Most of us forgive our ancestors, who took nearly 150 years to add “one woman, one vote” to our forbears’ edict.)
Yet, can a society in which less than 1 percent of the population owns more than 20 percent of the wealth truly be considered egalitarian? Can a nation where some people own two or more houses as others drift homeless be thought of as egalitarian? Can we all be equal when some of us have well stocked freezers while some of us wait hungrily in soup kitchens? Kind of makes you wonder…
Is America equal?
Since the writings of Adam Smith, (i.e., well before the phrase became fashionable), the United States has lived a creed of social Darwinism. We view many aspects of life (economics and business in particular) as zero-sum games. This means “some gotta win, some gotta lose.”
Whenever and where ever possible, we tried to make sure those that had to lose lived in a foreign country. Still, socio-economic classes existed in America well before the revolution which severed us from the political (and economic) tyranny imposed by King George. They continue to exist today and some would say the gap between the richest and the poorest has widened dramatically.
For more than half a century now, our government has tried to address economic inequalities with a series of social programs. Today, Congress devotes greater than a third of the annual budget to social spending. Yet we linger no better off than we did before Lyndon Johnson introduced us to The Great Society. Even Daniel Moynihan, a principal architect of that plan, admits it failed.
Is America equal?
For a variety of reasons, America possesses many inequalities. In part, these inequalities derive from the doctrine of American Egalitarianism. This tenet differentiates the American experiment from almost any other modern culture. Its existence provides the very reason why, despite so many inequalities, the United States has and continues to prosper in a politically stable climate. The promise of American Egalitarianism not only satisfies our own countrymen, but it perpetually draws immigrants to our shores.
We can define the end result of American Egalitarianism in a phrase – social mobility. For many, the real chance for a better tomorrow – whether for ourselves, our children or our grandchildren – overcomes the pain of sacrifices today. Though our nation has social classes, we do not find them “caste” in stone. America spawns the Horatio Alger story which captivates the yearnings of every citizen of this world.
Is American equal?
No. For American society to consist of over 200 million identical drones runs contrary to our nation’s spirit. Genuine equality imposes too many limits. Most of all, it eliminates failure. Experience shows many of the most sparkling successes have come only after a succession of failures.
Anyone who has determined to climb a mountain recognizes and accepts the fact that climb will leave most people on the flat earth below. America breeds mountain climbers. It exalts men and women who go beyond the call of duty. It glorifies those who put service above self. It boldly applauds the explorer who has tackled unchartered terrain.
Must society induce equality upon these superstars? Should we shackle them with the chains of parity? Does any one person or group of persons have the right to deny another person’s zest? In America, we immediately respond with a resounding “No!”
Is America equal?
Yes, unequivocally. American Egalitarianism means, as Thomas Jefferson eloquently declares, the inalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Every American citizen retains the equal right to live life as he or she pleases (provided they don’t violate any other person’s rights). Each American owns an equal and undeniable right to personal freedom. Finally, every man, woman and child in this country has a fair and equal chance to seize upon opportunity to improve their own standing.
These equal rights insure that America will forever be equal.
Next Week #82: Penalize Colorado! – Ethics Begins on the Football Field – (originally published on October 18, 1990)
Next Week #84: The Environmental Bond Act – Why People are Voting “No!” (originally published on November 3, 1990)
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]