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Unequal Identities

 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” So reads a famous passage from the Declaration of Independence. Human beings are equal and of equal worth. In a democracy, they have equal votes.

While equality may be a shining ideal, the truth is, however, that human beings badly want to be unequal. They want to be worth more than their neighbor. The core of human motivation is the desire to stand out in the crowd - to be prettier, or have more money, or have an advanced degree, or be known for outstanding charitable works.

Young men and women will typically pay $30,000 or more per year to attend a private college. What for? It is not to acquire a specific body of knowledge. That could be gained much more cheaply from books and the Internet. Instead, the purpose of attending college is to receive a degree.

A degree validates the person, at least from an intellectual standpoint. He or she must have a certain degree of intelligence to pass all those courses. More to the point, employers require the degree as an indicator of intelligence and a capacity for hard work before they will hire someone for certain kinds of jobs. A degree says that its recipient is better than someone else who lacks that qualification.

Education is, therefore, an institution based almost entirely upon the promise of a favorable inequality. High school students try to get good grades to achieve a higher ranking in the class. They take SAT tests which are scored nationally, implying a certain rank. Then, college admissions offices look at those scores and a student’s ranking in the class to pick those individuals they want for the freshman class. The students with better qualifications are admitted to the more prestigious colleges. If they have degrees from those colleges, they are thought to be persons of exceptional intelligence and skill who will likely succeed later in life. And, if they have an advanced degree, their qualifications are superior to graduates possessing only a B.A.

Needless to say, the same principle applies to employment within a bureaucracy. All organizations have leaders who are given superior powers of decisionmaking within the organization and, just as important, superior pay. There is not just one leader but a spectrum of leadership ranging from the Chief Executive Officer or Chief Operating Officer to the assistant vice president in charge of this-or-that and the several department heads. Below them in the hierarchy are individuals who work in various capacities for the organization down to an entry-level receptionist or clerk in the mail room. Inequality of position is the chief motivating principle in business organizations.

I will not bother to explain that the Army has privates, sergeants, majors, lieutenants, and all the other ranks. Apart from fighting, this seems to be the salient feature of military organizations. Organized religion, which teaches that all men are equal in God’s eyes, nevertheless arranges itself into an ecclesiastical rank. Originally, its structure was patterned after the Roman Army. In this case, however, the man at the top is considered the “servant” of others. He washes the feet of the lowly in imitation of Jesus. The paradoxical nature of Christian teaching never ceases to amaze.

What is the most important element in this unequal world? I would say it is money. Money is essentially a medium of exchange - an artificial commodity which can be traded for something else without the physical inconvenience of goods changing hands. But what, actually, is money? It is pure quantity. All dollar bills look alike. What is significant is how many of those bills one possesses and how that quantity relates to other people.

If I own thirty-thousand dollars (potentially convertible into crisp bills), I can purchase a certain kind of house; it might better be called a “shack”. If I own two-hundred dollars, I can purchase a much better house, which is larger or in a better neighborhood. And with a million dollars, I can purchase a mansion on a lake. The purchasing power of money is not absolute, but relative to price levels and to the incomes and purchasing power of others.

One of the strongest motives in our society is to amass as much money as possible. The possession of money is quantifiable. Therefore, it is easily translated into a social ranking. Bill Gates owns more money than anyone else in the world. Therefore, he is at the top of the social heap. Warren Buffett ranks second unless, with the declining value of the dollar, some Arab sheik or Chinese business tycoon has taken this place. In a plutocratic society such as ours, possession wealth translates into power and prestige. A certain amount of money is needed to purchase the material goods that sustain life. Beyond that, it’s all social ranking.

Now, of course, in the circles of wealth, people are forever scheming how to maintain their superiority when someone else comes along with more money. So we have the difference between “old” and “new” money. We have a multi-generational aristocracy sneering at the nouveau riche. For this reason, wealthy matrons hold debutante parties for their daughters, wealthy aristocrats belong to exclusive country clubs, or they send their children to prestigious colleges. If you appreciate good art, literature, and music, you probably possess that degree of culture which, with money, is required for high social rank.

Ranking is, therefore, everything in the human world in which we live. What about the world after death when dust has returned to dust and distinctions among men are erased? The Christian religion, among others, teaches that there is nevertheless a continuation of the unequal moral situations found in life. Some go to Heaven and some to Hell. How can I be among the saved? That is the question which Jesus answered in his preaching and conversations with the Disciples. At the Last Judgment, humanity will be divided into two groups, one like sheep and the other like goats. We will not all be equal when desiring to pass through the Pearly Gates.

So why fight it? People seem to want numbers attached to their names. They want those numbers to be larger than what the next guy has. As a social experiment, communism failed. A world which really works must provide incentives for people to become unequal in an economically and socially useful way. Keep this in mind the next time someone talks about equality as a desirable end. Individuals have physical needs comparable to those of others, but the needs will not be met without feeding their motivation to become unequal.

 

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