This post a while back talked about a certain impasse you're at when one or more of your moral values or assumptions lead you to conclusions that are at odds with the real world -- that is, in conflict with reality as you know it. At that point, as I said, your options are either to condemn or at least lament reality as not being good enough for you, or, as in reductio ad absurdam arguments, to begin to re-examine and question some of those moral values and assumptions that lead you into this impasse in the first place. I ended the post by singling out the assumption that I think is the one real culprit here, and the source as well of a great deal of moral and political confusion and worse in society generally -- this is the notion of equality.
First, let's try to be clear about the term. The equality contained in a phrase like "all men are created equal" is not a vice -- on the contrary, it's a great moral truth. But what does it mean? It clearly doesn't mean that all people are created equal in intelligence or looks or athletic ability or circumstances of birth or any other quality that may enable one to do better than another -- since that is manifestly false. It means, simply, that all people are created equal in status. Which means, among other things, what Anatole France famously mocked in his witticism about the law, in its majestic equality, forbidding the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, etc. He was right, certainly, about the limitations of such equality, but wrong to disdain its majesty -- because until the great bourgeois/capitalist transformations, such equality was virtually unknown, and the great mass of people everywhere lived permanently as inherently lower or lesser beings within an explicitly hierarchical structure of class or caste.
So, I'm referring here to substantive equality, not status equality, and when I use the term "equality" hereafter, it should be understand in the former sense as opposed to the latter. Nor do I mean that equality just as such is evil -- in itself, whatever equality or inequality occurs naturally or unforced is morally neutral. So the title of this post should really have been "The vice of forced substantive equality", but I thought the gain in technical accuracy wasn't worth the loss in impact.
"Forced substantive equality" means simply taking something away from one to give to another in order to make them more equal in whatever that "something" is -- typically money, of course. And it that sense it seems wrong just on the face of it -- not only because such taking ignores questions of desert or merit, not to mention simply differential desires or objectives, but also and primarily because it simply skips over the issue of "right". Who or what does this taking, and what gives them the right to do it -- i.e., how can you assume that the person from whom the money (say) is taken doesn't have a right to it in the first place?
At this point, philosophical egalitarians typically try to move into some variety of either consequentialism or contractarianism, and in either case the arguments can go, and have gone, on for a very long time. Both arguments, however, suffer from the technocratic delusion of grandeur -- the notion that some one or group is able to oversee the whole of society and judge who deserves what, or who has "agreed" to what, or what are the consequences of what. I've dealt with this to some extent in this post on "'Social justice' vs. 'just society'", and I don't want to get any more involved in that very basic error here. For now, it's enough to point out how forced equality violates our ordinary moral instincts, and how, as a result, what we might call "populist" egalitarians (to distinguish them from the more philosophical variety) typically try to attach the goal of substantive equality to other goals or issues that do have moral standing, such as helping the less fortunate.
But helping people who need help is obviously not the same as trying to make them more equal, even if, as a side-effect, it ends up doing so. In fact, one of the more effective ways of helping people is to provide them with a job, an action that might well have the equally irrelevant side-effect of increasing inequality.
Another source of confusion is mixing equality up with issues of merit, as in denying (a presumption of) merit to those with more -- presuming, instead, that luck or nefarious practices accounts for their greater wealth, and assuming, therefore, that it's all right to take away such wealth. But merely presuming that someone's wealth is ill-gotten is obviously prejudiced and wrong. And just as wrong is the desire to take away the good fortune of others. Certainly we question the good luck of bad people or the bad luck of good people, but fortune per se, whether good or ill, can't tell us whether a person is good or bad. Luck itself, in other words, is morally neutral, but the wish to deny it to others is morally flawed.
So, once we strip away the confusions and irrelevancies surrounding the notion of forced substantive equality -- that it's not the same as equality of status, not the same as simply helping people who need it, and not required by some notion of merit -- then we're left with a core that has a distinctly unappealing aspect. Or, rather, a core the appeal of which is only to the darker impulses of human nature -- impulses such as common envy, or an embittered animus at the achievements of others, or a desire to pull down the successful. Here lies the real reason that the urge for this sort of equality persists in human societies -- not because it's a noble aspiration, like freedom or justice, or a virtue, like compassion, but simply because it's a vice, like greed or gluttony. In fact, while other vices seem driven by a more natural desire for mere creature comforts, this one appears to be one of the nastier, more neurotic, and more malicious, driven by its resentful comparison with others. It may well be responsible for more real harm in human society than all the other vices put together, and in any case it is the erroneous assumption at the root of a number of moral absurdities, of which Cohen's notion of socialism is just an example.