The Case for Equality
A Review by Anthony Del Signore
In contemporary political jargon the word equality almost becomes pejorative. Some argue that equality is synonymous with social justice and should be superseded by individualism. In this interpretation, we are all endowed with “equality of opportunity” in which we are all lined up at the starting line and due to our faculties and talents we will either succeed or fail. Others make the claim that the United States should do more to alleviate inequality – a term almost universally applicable to economics. Neither claim is made by Danielle Allen in Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. Instead she focuses exclusively on equality in a political sense. In her nearly 300 page tract, she delves into the intricacies of who the founders were, how they came to choose the words that we see today, and how their ideas manifest themselves in those words. Specifically, she makes the argument that the 1,337 words written in the Declaration of Independence succinctly make the argument for equal political empowerment.
She reaches this conclusion through a painstaking reading and re-reading of the Declaration, taking each word and digesting its meaning, its context, and its placement among the other words. She makes particular note of the Declaration’s punctuation. The use of dashes versus periods, commas versus colons, all are meticulously accounted for. All of a sudden a hyphen becomes a necessary transitional mark, allowing the Declaration to flow from the individual to the collective. It is akin to a skilled painter, carefully calculating each brush stroke, framing them in the greater picture he or she is about to create. Allen is the skilled painter in this sense and we are merely guests in her art gallery. What we are viewing is a striking portrait of the Declaration’s “Five Facets of Equality” which become particularly clear if we were only to give the Declaration the time it deserves. The five facets are brilliant in their simplicity and so rich in meaning despite their brevity.
The first facet of equality is simply that the colonies and Great Britain are both sovereign. Sovereignty is a novel concept denoting not only freedom and independence but equality with other sovereigns. Thus, the United States can stand side by side with Great Britain as brothers and sisters in the international community. But, what ensures the United States’ sovereignty? Perhaps a better question: what ensures the continuation of government? Just look at the language of the Declaration, according to Allen. “We hold these truths to be self-evident… – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Thus, the individual is politically empowered and equal in his or her own ability to dissolve the government if it cannot secure these rights which are self-evident. Therefore, the United States and Great Britain are both equal in their duties to the people to protect their rights with the consent of the governed.
The second facet of equality ties well into the first and creates a syllogism, as Allen rightly points out, between the individual and the collective. This second facet is that “all men are created equal.” It is a simple, yet powerful statement. This statement goes beyond equality of opportunity, despite what many politicos assert. It again reaches into the domain of equal political empowerment. We are equal to use government as a tool for securing our happiness. We have equal capacity to look upon our communities and change as we deem necessary. Why would the Declaration bring this up? Although Allen does not go into it, it seems that this point is an argument for unity. Not unity in the sense that every colonist is for independence. The Founders knew quite well that was not the case. Rather, unity in that this principle of equality is accepted, everyone’s voices can be heard, grievances aired, and a political consensus can be had. This is not possible under the shackles of oppression the British Crown had on the colonists.
The third facet of equality Allen calls “epistemic egalitarianism,” also known as the “potluck method.” In this the Founders relied upon extensive networks of common people to relay their everyday lives and how those lives were affected by colonial oppression. Through these communications, a list of grievances was created. This list compromise 18 “facts” – as Allen rightly calls them – which “paint the portrait of a tyrant.” But these facts are not haphazard; they are meticulously chosen and worded. They prove political points on how government ought to be administered. Perhaps Allen herself says it most succinctly: “we can strengthen our individual and collective capacity to analyze the relation between present and future by drawing everyone into the work of understanding the course of human events.”
The fourth facet is the idea of “reciprocal responsiveness” – or, equality in relationships among participants. In this, the colonists are asking for redress for past wrongs committed against them (the list of grievances), only to have the door figuratively shut in their face. How can freedom be secured without dialogue? It simply cannot. Thus equality and freedom are tied inextricably together as freedom for the individual is tied to equality as a collective. Once again Allen makes it clear: equal political empowerment is what she means by equality.
The final facet of equality is, I believe, the most important. We all have equal ownership of the political order in which we live. We have equal opportunity to participate, to vote, to speak, to write, to petition, to protest, to run for office, to do a whole host of things which improve our collective community and our individual lives. It is romantic in its imagery yet startling in its implications. A single mother of four has as much political power as the Koch brothers (in theory). Perhaps this equality is the one in which contemporary society has forgotten the most. Since Citizens United, and even before that going back to the ‘70s, money in politics skews our ability to equally participate in our political order. Even more striking is the sheer inequality between partisans and non-partisans. In an overwhelming number of elections nationwide the vote of the non-partisan is meaningless as elections are decided well before the general election. While Democrats and Republicans shut out the vote of the non-partisan, a skewed and frankly inaccurate picture of the electorate is formed. In a political sense, non-partisans are treated as second class citizens. This broken system leads inevitably to the injustices the Founders were trying to rid themselves of. This being said, it is quite clear that our political system does not subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea of equal political ownership. Nevertheless, on the local level equality of participation is alive and well. Any one of us can participate on community boards, in town hall meetings, and serve in an elected capacity. This I do not believe will ever change and is a testament to the Declaration’s assertion of equal political ownership.
Allen’s book brings to light an argument lost in the political vacuum created when anyone brings up the Founding Fathers. Most use the Founders’ language as a call to their specific ideology, when in reality, the Founders probably would not agree with that ideology. They were radicals of their time, yet steadfast in their mission. Disgusted with the old political order, these men set out to blaze a trail for a new and independent people; a people whose principles are based upon… equality.