Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VII: equality - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER VII: equality - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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The conception of Equality needs to be here examined, for it has been the prime factor in the creation of democratic theory, and from misunderstandings of it have sprung half the errors which democratic practice has committed. Let us begin by distinguishing four different kinds of Equality.
A. Civil Equality consists in the possession by all the citizens of the same status in the sphere of private law. All have an equal right to be protected in respect of person and estate and family relations, and to appeal to the Courts of Law for such protection. Such equality was found in few countries two centuries ago, but is now (subject to trivial exceptions) the rule in all civilized communities.
B. Political Equality exists where all citizens — or at least all adult male citizens — have a like share in the government of the community, and are alike eligible to hold any post in its service, apart, of course, from provisions as to age or education or the taint of crime. Such equality now obtains in countries which have adopted manhood (or universal) suffrage.
C. Social Equality, a vaguer thing, exists where no formal distinctions are drawn by law or custom between different ranks or classes, such as, for instance, the right to enter places from which others are excluded, as the Romans reserved special seats in the amphitheatre for the senators and Equites, or as in Prussia certain persons only could be received at court (Hoffähigkeit). Sometimes the term is extended to denote the conditions of a society where nobody looks up to or looks down upon any one else in respect of birth or wealth, as is the case in Norway, and, broadly speaking, in Switzerland and the United States and the British self-governing Dominions.
These three kinds of Equality are familiar, and the two former definable by law. To Social Equality we may presently return. There is, however, a fourth kind less easy to deal with.
D. Natural Equality is perhaps the best name to give to that similarity which exists, or seems to exist, at birth between all human beings born with the same five senses. Every human creature comes naked into the world possessing (if a normal creature) similar bodily organs and presumably similar mental capacities, desires, and passions. For some days or weeks little or no difference in these respects is perceptible between one child and another. All seem alike, all presumptively entitled to the same rights in this world and an equal prospect of happiness both in this world and the next, since all possess souls of the same value in the sight of God. It is this equality that the American Declaration of Independence means when it says that “All men are born free and equal”; it is this (applied to human beings when they have reached maturity) which the Greek orator Alcidamas meant when he said that God made no one a slave,1 which St. Paul meant when he wrote, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, barbarian nor Scythian, bond nor free.” Christianity, which first proclaimed the doctrine of Natural Equality, and did most to establish it, treated all who entered the Christian community as equals and brethren. Slavery lasted on in many parts of the world, even among Christians, but (except for a futile attempt made eighty years ago by a few slave-owners to argue that the negro was something less than a human being) the principle has not been denied for centuries past, and the right to liberty has been admitted among the primordial rights to which all men are entitled through the whole of life.
But as the infants grow, innate but previously undiscoverable differences are revealed. Some prove to be strong in body, forceful in will, industrious, intelligent. Some are feeble, timorous, slack, dull. When maturity is reached, some begin to render service to the community as workers or thinkers or inventors or soldiers. Others may become a burden to it, or prove fit only for occupations needing little strength or skill. Thus the supposed Natural Equality turns into an Inequality which is more evidently natural, because due to the differences in the gifts which Nature has bestowed on some and denied to others. The fact that the progress of mankind in arts and sciences and letters and every form of thought has been due to the efforts of a comparatively small number of highly gifted minds rising out of the common mass speaks for itself. Natural Inequality has been and must continue to be one of the most patent and effective factors in human society. It furnished whatever theoretical justification the ancient world found for slavery; it was a basis used in argument by the slaveholders of North America and Brazil down to our own days, though the results of slavery, moral as well as economic, had long ago condemned that institution. To reconcile this Natural Inequality as a Fact with the principles of Natural Equality as a Doctrine is one of the chief problems which every government has to solve.
Does Natural Justice require Political Equality? Most Greek democrats held that it did, and that all citizens should have an equal right of voting and equal eligibility to office. In the modern world the sentiment of fraternity, mainly due to Christianity, has counted for more than any abstract theory. Whatever inequalities exist between men, the feeling remains that “one man is as good as another,” or as Burns wrote, “a man's a man for a' that,” in this sense at least, that the things men have in common are more important than the things in which they differ, and that the pleasure or pain of each (even if not measurable by the same standard) ought to be equally regarded. The association of Equality with Justice is strong, because every one feels that the chances of birth have given to some and refused to others a share of the external conditions of well-being which has no relation to intrinsic merit, so that the disparity ought not to be artificially increased. The sense of human sympathy appeals to the finer and gentler souls who desire to lift up those to whom fortune has been unkind, and it finds favour with that large majority of persons who have no special excellence that could entitle them to special treatment. Those who, agreeing with Aristotle's view that Justice is not absolute but relative to a man's capacities, so that each man's share in political functions should be proportioned to his virtue and his power of serving the State, have in modern times argued that ignorance should disqualify for the suffrage, and that one who has not enough property to give him a permanent interest in the country, or who contributes nothing in taxes, should not be placed on a level with the man of education possessed of at least some taxable property.1
To this it was replied that the poor man has the same flesh and blood as the rich. He has an interest in his country's welfare, and suffers quite as much as the rich man by its misfortunes. Even if he has little property, he has his labour, an indispensable contribution to the country's wealth. He is liable to military service in time of war. If he is a Roman Catholic, he receives the same sacraments as does the rich, and his son may become a priest, dispenser of the means of salvation. If he is a Protestant he is, at least in America and Scotland and in the Nonconformist Churches of England, allowed his voice in the affairs of the congregation. Why should he be debarred from bearing his part in the civil government of the country? 2 If in these things Natural Equality is admitted, why not in politics? It is the simplest rule, the expression of Natural Justice.
In the struggles over Political Equality, turning chiefly on the extension of the electoral franchise, the equalitarian view prevailed not so much because it was admitted in principle as in respect of the want of criteria that could be practically applied to determine a man's fitness to vote. Intelligence, knowledge, and a sense of civil duty were the three qualities needed. But there were no means for testing these. No line of discrimination could be drawn between those who possess these merits and the rest of the community. No test of fitness could be applied which would not admit many persons whom their neighbours knew to be personally bad citizens, and probably exclude many who were known to be good. The possession of property was obviously no evidence of merit. Many who disliked universal suffrage allowed themselves to be driven to acquiesce in it for the sake of simplicity. Thus it has come to be deemed the corner-stone of democracy. But though Natural Equality triumphed as a doctrine, Natural Inequality remained as a fact. To votaries of the doctrine it was, however, an unwelcome fact, which, since it could not be denied in the face of the evidence, they sought to ignore or minimize. Having decided that every man was fit to vote, they argued that as he was fit to vote upon policy he must be also fitted to execute policy. If one man is as good as another at the polls, one man is as good as another for office, or at least for all offices except the highest.1
The people having been recognized as competent to govern themselves, why scrutinize degrees of competence for elective posts? “The average man rules, and his authority is best delegated to one who best represents the mass, because himself an average man. To suggest that special knowledge and skill must be sought for in an official or a member of the legislature is to cast a slight on the citizens in general.” This attitude was the easier to adopt because the bulk of the citizens were not sufficiently instructed to know the value of skill and knowledge. Popular leaders usually encourage the self-confidence of the multitude, and may carry their flattery so far as to disclaim their own attainments and dissimulate their own tastes, so as to make these seem to be just those of the average citizen, that type of simple untutored virtue which has come down to us from the fabled Golden Age of Hesiod. There have been times and countries in which this exaltation of the Common Man has been carried so far as to treat differences of capacity as negligible. The people is conceived of not as an aggregate of all sorts of different kinds of minds and characters, each kind the proper complement of the other, but as a number of individuals resembling one another like pebbles on the beach, their social unity based on their equality and guaranteed by their similarity. The doctrine of Equality, filling the people with a belief in their own competence, even for judgeships, was particularly strong in new countries where the early colonists were nearly all occupied with the same tasks, developing a self-helpfulness which could dispense with special knowledge. But it has not been confined to those countries. Everybody remembers how in the Terror of 1793 a plea that Lavoisier's life might be spared was met by the remark “The Republic has no need of chemists.” The Russian Communists of to-day appear to take the “proletarian” handworker as the type, and propose to reduce every one else to his level. Nevertheless the progress of physical science, involving special training for the purposes of production, and the enlarged sphere of governmental action, which increases the value of skill and knowledge, have been making the recognition of Natural Inequality in the selection of administrative officials more and more inevitable. A country which should fail to recognize this cannot but fall behind its competitors.
What then is the relation to one another of these different kinds of Equality?
There has been a long conflict between the sentiment of Natural Equality and the stubborn fact of Natural Inequality. In the ancient world and the Middle Ages the latter had free course and prevailed. With the progress of civilization and the establishment of constitutional government the sentiment of Equality won its first victories in creating Civil Equality. It overcame the selfishness and prejudice of ruling classes, and showed that Natural Inequality is entirely compatible with the possession of equal private rights by all subjects or citizens. Its next struggle was for Political Equality. Here abstract theory and sentiment were confronted by practical considerations, for the risks of conferring suffrage on masses of ill-informed persons, many of them heretofore uninterested in public affairs, were undeniable. Were those who were for any reason — and there were many different reasons in different cases — palpably inferior in the capacity for self-government to be entrusted with a power they might, because unfit, use to their own detriment as well as to that of the whole community? Abstract theory has, however, generally prevailed, though in one remarkable case Natural Inequality avenged itself, for the suffrage granted after the American Civil War to the recently emancipated negroes has now been virtually withdrawn. It had embittered the whites; it had not helped the coloured people.
The sentiment of Natural Equality, strengthened by the attainment of Political Equality, has done much to promote Social Equality. That kind of Equality can, no doubt, exist under a despot who allows no voting rights to his subjects, and may stand all the stronger if they are all alike powerless.1 Yet it is hard in any government except a democracy, and not too easy even there, to prevent the rise of families or corporations accumulating wealth, and, through wealth, gaining power. Legislation has, in sweeping away class distinctions in the civil and political spheres, left social relations untouched. Law indeed could not, except perhaps under a fullblown Communist régime, prevent citizens from choosing their friends among those whose habits and tastes are like their own. Even in Norway and Switzerland, and still more in the United States, social sets continue to exist which are more or less exclusive, and the admission to which men, and still more women, are found to desire. The value of Social Equality — and how great that value is appears when we compare our century with the eighteenth — depends upon its spontaneity. It does much to smooth the working of democratic institutions. The economic antagonism of classes, dangerous in free governments, is less acute when there is no social scorn on the one side and no social resentment on the other.
Last of all we come to Economic Equality, i.e. the attempt to expunge all differences in wealth by allotting to every man and woman an equal share in worldly goods. Here arises the sharpest conflict between the principle or sentiment of Natural Equality and the fact of Natural Inequality. It is argued that Natural Justice, in prescribing Equality, requires the State to establish a true and thoroughgoing Equality by redressing the injustices of fortune — taking from those who have too much to supply the needs of those who have too little, and providing that in future all shall share alike in the products of labour. Wealth, produced by the toil of the Many, must not be allowed to accumulate in the hands of the Few. The establishment of Political Equality has not, as was fondly hoped, secured general contentment and the peace of the community, but has rather accentuated the contrast between two sections of those citizens who, alike in the possession of voting power, are alike in little else. Of what use is that political power which the masses have won if it does not enable them to benefit their condition by State action, carried, if necessary, even to the extinction of private property?
To this it was answered that Economic Equality, no new conception, has always been nothing more than a conception, a vision unrealizable in fact. Something like it may have existed among primitive savages whose only goods were a deerskin and a weapon, but as life became more civilized by the invention of new means to provide for new wants, so much the more did intelligence, strength, persistent industry, and self-control enable their possessor to acquire and retain more than his less gifted fellows. By these qualities the arts of life advanced, enabling greater comfort to be secured for all. If all property were divided up on one New Year's Day, the next would see some men rich and some poor. To ignore differences in productive capacity would be not to follow Nature but to fly in her face.
With this controversy we are not here concerned, for Democracy — which is merely a form of government, not a consideration of the purposes to which government may be turned — has nothing to do with Economic Equality, which might exist under any form of government, and might possibly work more smoothly under some other form. The people in the exercise of their sovereignty might try to establish community of property, as they might try to establish a particular form of religion or the use of a particular language, but their rule would in either case be neither more nor less a Democracy. Political Equality can exist either along with or apart from Equality in property.
Equality has in this chapter been considered only with regard to civilized communities in which a government more or less popular exists. Other considerations arise in countries where white men rule over, or are in close and permanent contact with, races of a different colour. How far can the principles which seem fit for the former set of cases be applied to such facts as are presented by Louisiana, or South Africa, or the Philippine Isles? On this subject some observations will be found in a later chapter.1
Nearly a century ago Tocqueville remarked that the love of Equality was stronger than the love of Liberty, so that he could imagine a nation which had enjoyed both parting less reluctantly with the latter than with the former. Nothing has happened since his day to contradict, and some things to support, this view. Although the belief in Equality as an abstract principle is weaker in men's minds to-day, the passion for Equality in practice remains strong in France and the United States, and has spread to Australia and New Zealand. It may continue so far as our eye can reach into the future, for nothing is nearer to a man than the sense of his personal importance.2 Yet we must remember that this was not always so. The feeling of reverence, the disposition to look up and to obey, is also rooted deep in human nature. It appeals not only to that indolence or lack of initiative which disposes men to follow rather than to think or act for themselves, but also to imagination, as when any striking figure appears, rising high above them, or when associations have gathered round ancient and famous families, like those of Rome even in the later days of the republic. There was a time when men nourished their self-esteem, as did the dependants of a great house in mediaeval England, as in later times the soldiers of some great warrior have been known to do, on an identification of their efforts and hopes with the glory and fortunes of those who led them. Improbable as is the recurrence of the conditions which, down to the eighteenth century, and in some countries even later, not only secured respect and deference for what was then called the Upper Class, but inspired romantic devotion to a legitimate sovereign, however personally unworthy, it remains true that what men once have felt they may come to feel again. The instinct of personal independence, vehement in days when there were many injuries to resent and many abuses to destroy, may wane under new conditions, and come to count for less in the political life of nations than it does to-day in the English-speaking world.
In Belgium this notion induced a plan which, while bestowing votes on all adult males, allotted what were called “supplementary votes “to persons possessed of various property or educational qualifications. This system was subsequently abolished.
There were, of course, other arguments for extensions of the suffrage, such as the broadening of the basis of power and the securing of more constant attention to grievances, but these need no notice here.
At Athens almost all the officials, except the Generals, were chosen by lot, and in order still further to secure equality, chosen for short terms, so that many could enjoy office (see Chapter XVI.). A similar system was in force in Florence under the republic in the fifteenth century, though in practice it was so worked as frequently to vest the chief offices in the persons whom the ruling party preferred. In the United States the same tendency appears in the very slight regard had to personal fitness in choosing and running candidates for most elective posts.
A sort of Social Equality has always existed in Musulman countries, because all Musulmans are, as True Believers, gathered into a religious community which, despising the members of other faiths, recognizes an internal brotherhood. This sentiment has given civil equality, but done little or nothing for political equality, no Muslim country having so far succeeded in working constitutional government.
See chapter “Democracy and the Backward Races “in Part III.
An American who, having fallen on evil days, was obliged to hire himself as day labourer to a negro employer is reported to have stipulated that the employer should always address him as “Boss.”