Why, exactly, did the Founding Fathers assert that “all men are created equal?” The statement is clearly false from a material perspective. People are born into widely varying degrees of material comfort and prosperity. Later in life, individual economic choices and work, or lack thereof, will necessarily leave some citizens with more possessions than others.
Government’s attempts to bring about material equality most commonly bring the entire population down to a “lowest common denominator” standard of living. With the government officials themselves excluded, this system may appear to bring about greater equality, but at a terrible price. The leveling, centrally planned programs of the USSR produced a society with nearly everyone at a low standard of living. The average Soviet family’s income was not only well below that of the U.S., but even below the poverty line in this country for much of the Cold War. Meanwhile, the system failed even to produce equality, because privileged Communist party officials abused their influence to maintain a standard of living far above that of the people whom they ostensibly served.
Mackinac Center President Emeritus Lawrence W. Reed had it right: “free people are not equal, and equal people are not free.” Government cannot force equality in the face of each individual’s choices. Indeed, it would be a gross injustice to pronounce that two men — one frugal and industrious, the other lazy and spendthrift — deserve the same quality of life. The fact that harder or smarter work can better one’s condition is the driving force behind American innovation. Remove that incentive through redistribution of wealth, and many more citizens will drift toward the lazy-and-spendthrift camp. If working hard won’t better your lot, why bother?
The Founding Fathers had a much deeper meaning in mind for the phrase “all men are created equal.” They envisioned a republic with all men equal under the law, each accountable for his own actions. Legal equality, to them, included each man’s right to his own life, liberty and property. Regardless of political power, no man’s rightful possessions could be taken away from him: the laborer had as strong a claim on his scanty savings as the rich had on their mansions. This equality of rights — not possession s— strengthens liberty rather than undermines it. Liberty cannot survive in chaos, but equality before the law prevents chaos and establishes certain principles by which both leaders and citizens are bound. The founders were correct in their defense of equality; modern America needs to remember the form of equality they valued.