The Shoals of Equality

Posted: Apr 01, 2014 12:01 AM
The Shoals of Equality

How might a captain's log of the good ship America read? The pages would surely include accounts of halcyon skies and smooth sailing, however turbulent the times seemed at the moment. As well as episodes of peril, even shipwreck, as the grand old lady was tossed and turned, even torn asunder. See 1861-65.

There would be notations in the log by the greatest of her captains and commanders, the Washingtons and Lincolns, whose service to the Republic even now can be summed up by only one word: indispensable.

The roster of skippers would include the near-greats, too, however much they might have veered off course from time to dangerous time, like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, who seem to have taken command just when their vision and leadership -- and spirit -- were most needed.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed of FDR that he may not have had a first-class intellect, but he had a first-class temperament. The same could be said of Ronald Reagan, another Happy Warrior. No wonder both held ship and crew together through many a storm, guiding the old Republic into safe harbor.

Yes, there were glory days -- when the Revolution was won and the nation founded, and its liberty confirmed in law, specifically the Constitution of the United States, which yet endures, however undermined by the never-ceasing ambitions and ideologies of men convinced their ideas are superior to its.

Others besides the great and near-great have occupied the captain's quarters from time to time, and some almost steered the great ship onto the rocks -- disasters like James Buchanan and just drifters like Jimmy Carter.

Our current captain looks increasingly like one of those nondescript Others -- not because his ideology tends to outrun his understanding, though it does, but because, like Jimmy Carter, he doesn't seem to know what he's doing. Which may explain why his Signature Accomplishment is becoming his signature failure. See the continuing misadventures of what is known as Obamacare, which may explain why this captain is constantly issuing course corrections without actually changing course.

If there were charts and maps to consult on this voyage, they might include a notation found on old depictions of the seven treacherous seas: Here There Be Monsters. And yet our heedless captain sails on, like a Columbus without an astrolabe, as the inevitable storms arise.

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.