Equality Times Two
"West of the mountains nobody owes allegiance to anyone."
(from my Harald)
There are two senses in which people may believe in equality, one having to do with attitudes to people, one having to do with the distribution of income and other good things. The first can, I think, be illustrated with three examples: H.L. Mencken, my father, and the protagonist of my one published novel. All three are egalitarian in the first sense, none in the second.
In his published diary, Mencken mentions going to visit a friend who lived some distance from the railroad station. The friend sent his chauffeur to pick Mencken up. Mencken found that the (black) chauffeur, although uneducated, was an intelligent man, and had a very interesting conversation with him, finding out how the world looked from his point of view. On a second visit Mencken was looking forward to another conversation with the chauffeur. To his disappointment, there was a second guest, a white woman, and in her presence the chauffeur remained silent. Mencken was a famous, influential, and comfortably well off man. There is no hint in his account of the incident that he felt as though that made him superior to the chauffeur. What mattered was not race, income, education, or status but that the chauffeur was an intelligent person with something interesting to say.
In interactions with my father when I was growing up it was always clear that what mattered was who was right, who had the better argument, not who was older—status was simply irrelevant. Many years later I was shocked to hear an intelligent elderly man tell a child not to contradict his elders. From the point of view I had grown up in, the statement was not merely wrong, it was close to obscene.
The protagonist of my novel is an able, successful, famous man—from a society whose status hierarchy is very flat. He takes everyone he meets on the same level, treats a king, the grandson of an Emperor, and a farm boy more or less in the same way, allowing for the difference in their ages and a certain amount of prudence in dealing with the king.
All of this is egalitarianism—of a sort. But it says nothing at all about whether any of the people in question think incomes should be more equal, gender roles less well defined, or anything of the sort. It is an attitude towards other people, not a political or economic philosophy.
The connection with the other sort of egalitarianism comes, I think, from the belief that people don't see the world in the way I have described—a belief that is, of course, often correct. One of the motives for wanting a world that produces more nearly equal outcomes is the belief that your being richer than me makes you better than me, or at least that you will think so, hence that if incomes are not reasonably equal many people will be treated as inferiors.
My point is not that the motive is wrong. Inequalities of income can indeed lead to inequalities of status—although I suspect that people would find lots of other grounds for considering themselves better than other people even in a world where all incomes were equal. My point is rather that there is no necessary connection between being richer, or more famous, or better educated than someone else and thinking yourself his superior in any more fundamental sense. One can be a democrat in the first sense without being a Democrat in the second.
Or, of course, the other way around.