With the fulminating on the left about inequality--“Fighting inequality is the mission of our times,” as New York's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, summed up the theme of his post-election powwow with President Obama--it's worth pausing to admire anew the very different, and very realistic, modesty underlying Thomas Jefferson's deathless declaration that all men are created equal. We are equal, he explained, in having the same God-given rights that no one can legitimately take away from us.
But Jefferson well knew that one of those rights—to pursue our own happiness in our own way—would yield wildly different outcomes for individuals. Even this most radical of the Founding Fathers knew that the equality of rights on which American independence rests would necessarily lead to inequality of condition. Indeed, he believed that something like an aristocracy would arise—springing from talent, he hoped, not from inherited wealth.
In the greatest of the Federalist Papers, No. 10, James Madison explicitly pointed out the connection between liberty and inequality, and he explained why you can't have the first without the second. Men formed governments, Madison (like all the Founding Fathers) believed, to safeguard rights that come from nature, not from government--rights to life, to liberty, and to the acquisition and ownership of property. Before we joined forces in society and chose an official authorized to wield our collective power to punish violators of our natural rights, those rights were at constant risk of assault by someone stronger.
So, against the liberty and opportunity central to the founding American vision, which produced two centuries of freedom and prosperity unmatched in history, what have the dreams of equality yielded? At the outermost extreme, the French upheaval for égalité in 1789 and the Russian drive toward a classless society in 1917 drenched every inch of their countries in blood and slashed the stock of human happiness and freedom for generations.
An American version of that impulse dates back at least to Shays' Rebellion, with its dream of an equal division of property. In the 20th century, it most dramatically reshaped the nation whenever a “progressive” president like Obama joined with a “progressive” New York mayor like de Blasio to redistribute wealth through unequal taxation--which Madison would have seen as a betrayal of his most fundamental beliefs, sure to miscarry. It flowered during the Depression, with the alliance between Franklin Roosevelt and New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, resurfaced in the 1960s under New York Mayor John Lindsay, and has come to the fore again today.
Blather from politicians about the unjust inequality of American society--plus a generation's worth of hot air from the universities, the media, and the mega-rich antibusiness entertainment industry about how Hamiltonian, Madisonian America oppresses a host of aggrieved victims, while poisoning the air, the water, and the earth itself (though, of course, human ingenuity can solve every problem human ingenuity creates)--has inexorably eroded the spirit of self-reliance, enterprise, and opportunity that animated the Founders.
Consider that a New York family of four living in subsidized housing, with food stamps, Medicaid, and other means-tested benefits, receives the equivalent of $40,000 a year--more than double what a 40-hour-a-week minimum-wage job pays in the city, though not counted in the government's official income statistics. The result: Seething with resentment, the welfare underclass has lost faith in the future and in themselves. Their demoralization is pure gold to the ever-aggrandizing government.
If this is de Blasio’s—and Obama’s—dream of equality, it’s the reverse of the vision of human fulfillment articulated by the Founders. Hamilton and Madison had a much larger and nobler sense of human possibility.Myron Magnet is editor-at-large for the Manhattan Institute's City Journal magazine from which this article was adapted.