Monday, December 09, 2002

John Adams on Equality

Adams was an egalitarian in that he believed everyone had a right to his property and to equal rights under the law. We all have equal liberty to act as we decide, a “self-determining power of an intellectual agent.” But Adams was no egalitarian in the leftist sense of that word. He believed that there ought not be equality in America. He believed that there ought to be an aristocracy. Some people ought to have more wealth and political power than others.

Would you be “a downright leveller?” Will you prefer “a community of property?” Strict egalitarianism is impossible. Some people are smarter, stronger, of better character, or even simply more cunning and treacherous than others, and they will upset any equality enforced by the government. Furthermore, allowing the better people to rise to the top in power and wealth is good for the country. We ought to allow the best people to take power. We can always vote out anyone who rises to the top by mere cunning or treachery. You wouldn’t want the “idle and profligate” to have as much control of the country as "George Washington," would you? Then let there be an elite group. Accept that sometimes the worse, the merely cunning and treacherous, gain power. But be thankful that usually they fail and the good and wise maintain power. Levelling would be far worse.

There is, therefore, a “natural aristocracy” in America, as in every country; some people are better by nature than others. In America, inequality is not enforced by law. We have, roughly, a meritocracy, enforced by democracy. For an “aristocrat” in Adams’s sense, is “anyone who can command or influence two votes; one besides his own.” It’s a matter of free choice whether others accede to his charisma. We are free to vote for whomever we like. We oughtn’t vote for a system of "levelling." It’s impossible; and it would be unwise even if it were possible. This Founding Father said that all Americans ought not to have equal political power. If he had been believed by Lenin, Mao, and the rest, hundred of millions of murders would have been avoided, as well as the misery that was the Soviet Union, too.

Here is an American conservative. You wouldn't find Adams praising the French Revolution and its Terror, as Jefferson did. More on Adams later on Philosoblog.

(Quotes from an 1814 letter; Adams at age 79)