I picked up a used copy of G.K. Chesterton’s 1906 biography-cum-critical-appreciation Charles Dickens on a visit to the UK five years ago, but to avoid spoilers I held off tackling it until I’d read all of Dickens’s novels at least once. I finally polished off The Mystery of Edwin Drood last month, freeing me to read the Chesterton book.
One of its major themes is Dickens’s egalitarianism, his “democratic optimism”:
We shall consider Dickens in many other capacities, but let us put this one first. He was the voice in England of this humane intoxication and expansion, this encouraging of anybody to be anything.
Which strikes very comfortingly on the modern ear – but it quickly becomes apparent that Chesterton’s notion of equality is very different from the version now championed. At one point he offers this telling digression:
In one sense things can only be equal if they are entirely different. Thus, for instance, people talk with a quite astonishing gravity about the inequality or equality of the sexes; as if there could possibly be any inequality between a lock and a key. Wherever there is no element of variety, wherever all the items literally have an identical aim, there is at once and of necessity inequality. A woman is only inferior to man in the matter of being not so manly; she is inferior in nothing else. Man is inferior to woman in so far as he is not a woman; there is no other reason. … If everything is trying to be green, some things will be greener than others; but there is an immortal and indestructible equality between green and red.
That is to say, when everyone’s worth is measured by a single criterion – by IQ, by wealth, by physical strength – then equality is an impossible goal. It’s only when people are liberated to pursue their manifold, unpredictable, and often hilarious excellences that true equality – the equality of the human spirit – becomes visible.
In 2013 my father died. As his only child and heir I received a sizeable life insurance payout, the sum of various small amounts scattered among his various bank accounts, and a modest monthly pension which will carry on through 2020. This hardly added up to what a middle-class Canadian would describe as a fortune, but it was sufficient to free me, a single person with inexpensive tastes, from the necessity of paid employment for a while.
I used my freedom to write a novel.
…Or that’s the self-glamorizing way to put it. It would be as accurate to say I pissed away my dad’s life savings for three years, during which time I incidentally happened to produce a novel – which, even if I somehow get it published, is highly unlikely to earn back even a tiny fraction of what I pissed away, let alone the money I failed to earn by not working.
I didn’t get here through stupidity. I knew full well that a multi-year gap in the middle of my prime wage-earning years would blow my chances of ever owning a home, or raising a family, or being treated by anyone as a person of importance. It’s not that I don’t value any of those things, but you can see by my choices that I don’t value them that highly.
Meanwhile, given my level of laziness, I knew I was unlikely ever to write a novel while simultaneously working a full-time job. And writing this novel was important to me.
So I’m okay with my decision – for now. Check back with me when I’m a pensionless sixty-five year old starving in a ditch.
Assuming I’ve correctly estimated my expenditures, it appears that last year I scraped by at roughly the Low-Income Cut-Off, or LICO – the closest thing Canada has to an “official” poverty line – for a single person.
I don’t think of myself as living in near-poverty. My apartment is mostly bug-free. My budget allows me two bottles of liquor a month, sufficient for my current level of incipient alcoholism. A couple times a year I fly out to see relatives in Toronto, where I make a show of spending liberally so they don’t worry about me.
Of course it would be a very different thing if I’d been grinding out forty hours a week at Tim Hortons to bring home an equivalent income. A LICO-level standard of living is quite comfortable when combined with the freedom to sleep in as late as you like.
Comfortable for me, I mean. Your results may vary.
I have this thought experiment that strikes me as so obvious it’s probably not even worth writing down. And yet I haven’t seen it expressed this way anywhere, so maybe it’s not that obvious, who knows.
Suppose all the wealth in a country is redistributed equally among all its citizens. All debts are cancelled, all money and goods are apportioned equally, all the land is divided in such a way that everyone’s share is equally productive.
It’s a wealthy country. There’s more than enough for everyone to live comfortably. No-one has to work at Tim Hortons any more – though they’re welcome to, if they like.
If you leave this egalitarian paradise alone for a while, then check in at the end of, say, ten years to see how things are progressing, will everyone still be equally wealthy?
Perhaps you’ll find that a few wily and unscrupulous operators have fleeced their more trusting fellow citizens of all or most of their wealth. But that wasn’t really a fair test. Those who had been well-educated, well-connected, and well-off prior to the redistribution had an advantage over the previously disadvantaged and downtrodden.
So let’s run the experiment again, only this time we’ll kidnap the young children of our failed socialist state and resettle them in a brand new, unspoiled country, where they’ll all be dressed identically, housed identically, fed identically, and educated to a common standard. When the kids reach eighteen the wealth of their new land will be shared out again, and this time, none of them will have any advantage over the others. Surely when we check back in at the end of ten years…
Huh, there’s still widespread inequality. It turns out the kids have different tastes, different interests. Some enjoy the simple life while others like to decorate their homes with fancy and expensive things. Some are content to hew wood and draw water while others prefer to sleep in late and write unsellable novels. Others enjoy manufacturing things that are useful and necessary, which they can exchange with their neighbours for a small share of their neighbours’ wealth. Still others have discovered that having extra wealth is in itself rather enjoyable, and they’re okay with spending their spare time doing not-very-enjoyable things – even working at Tim Hortons – for the chance of making a little more.
What can you do? Kidnap another generation of imperfectly equal babies, I guess. You’ll just have to brainwash the little suckers.
One of the implications of my thought experiment is that the more identical the citizens are in their tastes, interests, and priorities, the more enduring the equal distribution of wealth is likely to be. Which raises the question – did those countries that are celebrated for their egalitarianism get that way because they pursued egalitarian policies? Or are they naturally egalitarian because their citizens exhibit a high degree of homogeneity?
And what happens when homogeneous cultures attempt to assimilate large minorities with very different sets of tastes, interests, and priorities?
…But now we’re getting into the touchy subject of group differences, where you can easily get yourself blacklisted for saying the wrong thing. Better to stay away from specifics.
I’ll only suggest – delicately and humbly – that if you and I can have different preferences about how to spend our time and money, leading to differences in life outcomes, isn’t it probable that different groups, with different histories, different backgrounds, will tend to have different preferences that lead to different outcomes?
The modern version of egalitarianism proclaims that women and men, gays and straights, Jews and gentiles, all must be distributed in every profession, in every sphere of activity, at every level of prosperity, in proportion to their overall numbers. Only then will we all be equal.
But the price of that equality may be that women and men, gays and straights, Jews and gentiles – you and I – lose our distinctive identities.
My own old-fashioned view is that we’re equal already, in the Chestertonian sense – “the immortal and indestructible equality between green and red”. But to the modern progressive mind, that sounds like complacency. Greenness may be just one of many possible yardsticks for comparing people and groups, but it’s the one the modern world is built around. To tell the ungreen to be satisfied in their redness, or yellowness, or blueness, while we continue to adulate green above all, is bound to lead to resentment.
I’m not sure there’s a solution to this problem, or anyway one that doesn’t involve illiberal attempts to re-engineer human nature – precisely what I’m opposed to. So long as people have the freedom to pursue different paths we’ll tend to group ourselves around common values and interests. And so long as different groups exist, jealousy, suspicion, and hostility will arise between them. The best we can do is try and keep these feelings from breaking out into violence and persecution.
In any case, my complacent prediction is that human variety, and human conflict, will outlive all the clumsy attempts by the modern egalitarians to stamp them out.