About 180 years ago, in the early 1830s, Alexis DeTocqueville, a French aristocrat, came to the United States to watch a democracy being constructed from scratch. A new country was being built by immigrants mostly from western Europe. They were indebted to their home countries but were also much more independent in constructing a new society than were the Europeans who remained behind.
This country, DeTocqueville found, was obsessed with the idea of equality. Because all were equal, everyone's decision had the same weight. Everyone was entitled to participate in collective decision-making. Decision-making was democratic and everyone was busy participating. DeTocqueville keeps commenting on the "hustle and bustle" of American life. Everyone came to meetings; between meetings everyone was talking about local improvement projects or issues of national policy. A new country was being built and everyone participated.
The level of participation in our country has changed a great deal for many different reasons. But obviously equality is still a major concern, witness the struggle for racial equality, for gender equality and now for equal treatment regardless of sexual preferences. Equality is not only a central theme of our national life. It remains a continuing challenge. We all know that.
But equality does not only promote democracy, it also promotes conformism, the strong pressure for everyone to have the same opinion, to live their life along the same patterns, to embrace the same values and opinions. The high value placed on equality producers the tyranny of the majority. Wherever there is a disagreement over policy, over morality, over the rules governing individual behavior, the majority will feel justified in criticizing and rejecting what a minority of citizens believes.
The high value placed on equality therefore moves us in contradictory directions. On the one hand, it encourages everyone to participate in public affairs. On the other hand, it disenfranchises any views which are not those of the majority.
This pressure for conformity in America used to be a topic of public conversation. Sinclair Lewis documented it in novels such as Main Street (12920) and Babbit (1922). During the 1950s a number of widely read books like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit occasioned much public complaint about the pressures for conformity.
Interestingly enough that concern about the pressure to conform was quite halfhearted. While conformism was a topic of public conversation, conservatives conducted a successful campaign for rooting out Communists and other leftists from government service, academia, the movie industry. No one regarded this campaign to eradicate one kind of political view as an example of the tyranny of the majority.
It is not hard to see why the high value placed on equality produces such contradictory phenomena. Yes, we are all equal and therefore entitled to our own beliefs and values. But the community has a right to not only disapprove of certain values and behaviors but also to prohibit and punish them. While each of us has the right to shape our lives as we see best, our community has the obligation to prohibit certain kinds of behavior. Molesting small children, defrauding unsuspecting investors with securities that are worthless, overworking and underpaying one's employees and many other destructive behaviors are unacceptable and should be punished.
But that only intensifies the internal contradictions of an egalitarian society. As a group we have an obligation to protect our children, or to protect the elderly against fraudulent investment counselors. Is the rooting out of communists a legitimate exercise of community self-government? What about the laws passed in many states which defined marriage as between one man and one woman? When is a community exercising its political rights at legislating acceptable behavior and when is it illegitimately imposing the opinions of the many on smaller groups who have a perfect right to choose for themselves how to act and how to live?
This is the dilemma a country experiences when it values equality above everything. DeTocqueville proved himself very perceptive when he identified this dilemma.
At the same time the problem is not insurmountable. In a democracy public debates not only concern the policy issues of the day, but also the very meaning of equality. Specifically, citizens must decide in what respects we are all equal. The Tocqueville, for instance, speaks in laudatory terms about "universal suffrage" in the United States, oblivious to the fact that, at the time, only white men were allowed to participate in political decision-making. We have since then, after a great deal of conflict,--a good deal of it bloody-- decided that everyone, irrespective of race or gender, should be able to vote and run for political office. Similarly, what areas constitute a person's private domain, and what areas are to be regulated and supervised by public authorities, must be decided by a people which allows everyone equal rights of political participation.
The central task equality imposes on all of us is to define what that equality means which we regard as so important.
Many Americans ranging from ordinary citizens to presidents and their cabinet members do not understand this. High government officials from the United States regularly travel abroad and urge other countries to adopt an electoral democracy like ours. But if we took the idea of equality seriously, surely we would understand that other countries must decide for themselves how they will govern themselves. That is what a democratic stance demands. But we act as if equality meant that everybody must be like us, that we must all be the same.
It is time for us to be serious about equality and to acknowledge that it allows different people to lead their lives in different ways. We can all agree that terrorism is an unacceptable policy choice. But we must recognize that electoral democracy is not for every one. If we value democracy we must allow others to govern themselves, and to do that in ways of their own choosing.