Some discussion in the previous post of the Enlightenment’s greatest fallacy, “all men are created equal.” Folks in Our Thing have a better understanding of it, of course, but even we aren’t necessarily grasping the depth of the problem with “all men are created equal.”
For instance, we like to say, as Pickle Rick does here, that
“all men” was construed to mean free white men of good character, capable of bearing arms. Not slaves, not servants, not women or children. Men like themselves.
That gets much closer to the heart of it, but still not close enough. Mostly Jefferson meant a kind of naïve legal positivism — that even the worst freeman should have the same assumption of innocence at law as the king’s son, and should either of them be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the sentence should be the same. That’s maximal liberty, as the Founders would’ve understood the term: Neutrality before the bar.
The problem, of course, is that nobody will fight and die for “neutrality before the bar.” All men are created equal, though… that’s a slogan that will rally troops, especially when you’re asking men to volunteer for the hundred-lashes horror of an 18th century army.
The idea that arms-bearing capacity should give you the right to vote was much older than Jefferson. It came out of the Putney Debates during the English Civil War. Back then, the issues that a man might be called upon to understand in order to responsibly exercise his franchise were small and local. Recall that the only hard limit on a government’s power is communication speed — 17th century infrastructure being what it was, life in most places for most people wasn’t significantly different under the Protectorate than it was under King Charles. Not that Cromwell and the boys didn’t give totalitarianism the old college try, but when it took three days for the fastest courier to make it to Edinburgh from London, they just didn’t have the juice to make it work.
America in 1776 was a rough frontier society. Infrastructurally, it pretty much was England in 1648. Jefferson can be forgiven for thinking that the same conditions applied. But they didn’t, because present trends never continue and history never stops. Thanks to increased communication speed, people started looking at what Jefferson said, not what he meant.
That’s half the problem.
The other half is that in some ways, Jefferson really did mean what he said. We’ve already noted that social contract theory has a fatal flaw: Hobbes’s Leviathan ends with the most absolute possible monarch, but it starts with the premise that all men are roughly equal in the State of Nature. Again, Hobbes was writing in the 1640s. He can be forgiven for thinking that this is roughly true, since “the state of nature” he envisioned was an English village — a tight-knit, seemingly eternal world all to itself.
For us, the state of nature is much different. For us, “all men” means “each individual,” which means “isolated free agents”… and the “state of nature” is, of course, the entire world, because there’s virtually no place on this globe of ours that you can’t reach within 24 hours.
Thus, we know just how glaringly false “equal” really is.
That being the case, we know that social contract theory — i.e. the basis of representative government, i.e. the foundation-stone of the Constitution — is wrong. And not just a little bit wrong in the details. It’s fundamentally wrong, and nothing built on an error can endure.
It was a necessary lie in its day. But it was a lie for all that.Loading Likes...