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Equality - Overview - Civic Republicanism

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The civic republican tradition—including thinkers such as Aristotle, Niccoló Machiavelli (1469–1527), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)—differs from that of the early liberals by emphasizing economic inequality as a threat to liberty and democratic government. For Rousseau, liberal social contract theory undermines itself in that it does not resolve the fundamental conflict over the unequal private property that lies at the very heart of the social contract. For thinkers such as Locke, individuals form a social contract in order to escape the conflicts that develop over property so that they may enjoy their property and the fruits of their labor. Rousseau, however, contends that by leaving property unequally distributed, Locke failed to resolve the conflict that stands in the way of civil peace and individual liberty. For Rousseau, the logical missing step necessary to solve Locke's error is for all individuals to give up their private property as a condition of entering the social contract. This property is then distributed equally as a private holding of all citizens under the contract. This arrangement allows all individuals equal capacity to tend to their interests and needs and to participate in their collective self-governance. Rousseau's ideas will inform the French Revolution and its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which calls for liberty, equality, and fraternity and attempts to eliminate the privileges of the old aristocratic order.

For Jefferson and for other early U.S. thinkers such as J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735–1813), one of the great characteristics of the United States was its egalitarian distribution of property compared to Europe's. Americans, according to Crèvecoeur, work for themselves, not lords. He boasts that in America, even the "meanest of our log-houses is a dry and comfortable habitation. Lawyer and merchant are the fairest titles our towns afford" (Letters, p. 46). We see here an American expression of the civic republican aspiration of working for oneself, with no master or overseer. This aspiration is also egalitarian in its societal outcomes: the poorest live in dry and comfortable homes, and the richest are merely lawyers or merchants.

Clearly the reality in the colonies and the United States was never this egalitarian. However, Crèvecoeur's vision is an exemplar of mainstream American views on equality in that it does not require anything other than equality of opportunity. The redistribution from the rich and aristocracy necessary to achieve some kind of equality in Europe is rendered invisible through the myth of a frontier of largely empty land that can be settled by Americans of European descent. The equality of opportunity that is the basis of the American consensus has never been the sole cause for the realization of the ideal of a citizen free from overt dependence (Bercovitch; Appleby).

Jefferson was similarly egalitarian in his attitudes toward work and property (and perhaps similar in his tendency to neglect the realities of inequality in early America). In 1785 he wrote to James Madison that

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property.… Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.

He goes on to argue that where persons are excluded by the privatization or enclosure of land, governments must "take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation" (Jefferson, p. 396).

For Jefferson, as for other thinkers in the civic republican tradition, a relatively egalitarian distribution of property and the ensurance of all households' livelihoods are not merely ends in themselves but are important means to good democratic citizenship.

Here [in America] every one may have land to labor for himself.… Every one, by his property, or by his satisfactory situation, is interested in the support of law and order. And such men may safely and advantageously reserve to themselves a wholesome control over their public affairs, and a degree of freedom, which, in the hands of the canaille of the cities of Europe, would be instantly perverted and to the demolition and destruction of everything public and private. (Jefferson, p. 538)

Ordinary Americans have something to lose; they have something at stake in the political economic regime. (On stakes in civic republican thought, see Terchek, 1997.) They will not threaten property relations since they are neither impoverished nor exploited. Therefore, from the perspective of elites, ordinary Americans can be trusted as democratic citizens. Extremes of economic inequality—in which some citizens have much more than they need and others have no livelihood with which to sustain themselves and their families—are not just violations of natural law; they threaten democracy by undermining the respect for law and moderation that allows democracy to function well.

We need also notice the important role equality plays in the founding of the United States. Jefferson inserts at the heart of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence the phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." However, while espousing a basic equality at the very core of the American political experiment, the 1787 Constitution also institutionalized a great deal of inequality. First is the compromise that protects the practice of slavery and determines that slaves count as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of determining representation, even though they cannot participate in selecting those representatives. The Constitution excluded those who do not own property from full citizenship until the reforms of the Jacksonian era, and women were excluded from full citizen status until the beginning of the twentieth century. Furthermore, even once the United States adopted universal adult suffrage, it maintained one of the most unequal instances of representation in any of the stable, advanced democracies: the U.S. Senate. The Senate is based on the principle of equality for states, not for citizens. Thus a citizen of the least populous state has about sixty times as much voting power as a citizen of the most populous state in determining Senate representation.

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