Paul Greenberg

Our president's latest obsession and political appeal (with him they are much the same) would seem to be a determination to assure equality in American society "whenever and wherever" he can, no matter what Congress or the Constitution may have to say on the subject. If his goal and compulsion were noted on a sea chart, it might be designated The Shoals of Equality.

As attractive as equality sounds in any democratic society, the passion for it can lead that society into deep and dangerous waters. The concept of equality itself has undergone a sea change since it was used to mean equality before the law -- a shining ideal bequeathed to the world by Western civilization. But equality seems to have lost its earlier, pristine meaning and now refers to an only material equality -- an equality of income, of property, of spoils. And when words are degraded, so is society. If only the word still meant an equality of opportunity, not of results. Then the possibility of an aristocracy of merit arising out of an equality of opportunity might be born again.

A keen and always prescient observer of "Democracy in America," the indispensable Alexis de Tocqueville, observed that Americans are forever torn between a desire for liberty and an equal but opposite desire for equality. Each has its great benefits and great dangers -- and the objective of a great leader must be to guide us safely between them. But our captain seems to have set his sails only for one. Indeed, he's called inequality of income "the defining challenge of our time."

Forgotten is Tocqueville's warning: "Democratic institutions tend to promote the feeling of envy." And where it leads, which is nowhere good. As another foreign observer once said: "The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries." --Winston Churchill.

That is something else to inscribe on the charts. Along with: Beware the Shoals of Equality.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.