Equality or Reciprocity
The words are eloquent. The message clear. The values compelling. “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.” Those core words from the Declaration of Independence echo down the halls of history. “All men are created equal.”
History, though, has the charm of chronicling change. Today we imagine that those Founding Fathers of yesteryear would now be Founding People and that the promised equality would include women as well as men. We can simply omit the word “men” and declare that “All are created equal.”
But right there, with the word “equal,” we stumble once again over the wisdom that subsequent history has bequeathed us. Do we mean “equality of outcome” as the Marxists might have it in their famous bromide, “From each according to ability, to each according to need”? Do we mean “equality of opportunity” at birth, knowing as we do that birth family is a large part of lifetime destiny? Do we mean reparations to try to restore equality, at least partially, for those whom our forbears disadvantaged? Do we mean social welfare for those who stumble along life’s path?
That word “equal” now can seem like the most difficult of American ideals. Certainly, that word was the most difficult for the man to whom the authorship of the Declaration is ascribed. Jefferson, himself, as is now well-known, never freed most of his slaves. He made an exception though for the children of Sally Hemings, a fair-skinned slave who had accompanied him to Paris. It is now generally acknowledged that Jefferson most likely fathered her six children, all of whom were manumitted. The rest of his slaves were kept in bondage. History is full of paradoxes.
It may be that Jefferson was only the designated scribe for more idealistic others on the Declaration’s drafting committee. It was a “Committee of Five”, consisting of strong thinkers in their own right: John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut. It’s hard to imagine Thomas Jefferson insisting on the merits of slavery against the likes of John Adams or Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson does not appear to have been a man of strong ideals or revolutionary thinking. He may just have gone along with the wishes of his colleagues. We can leave the imagining of that classic dialogue to others who are better versed in the nuances of 18th-century conversation.
Today, we pride ourselves in imagining that America is a classless society, but we know that isn’t so. Black Americans still struggle to find the path to “equality” that history has denied them. Moreover, our ideal of equality does not extend beyond our borders. We enforce borders and other protections to shield American workers from the labor of workers elsewhere who thrive with lower wages. Historians call that “American Exceptionalism,” which like the earlier cultural trope of “Manifest Destiny” grants our nation’s citizens lifestyle privileges. We take our prosperity for granted.
We also require many immigrants to “start at the bottom” which creates a working class who are expected to earn their way into acceptance. Countering that relegation to the bottom is the social mobility for which America is known in which smarts, hard work, and a bit of luck can raise new arrivals out of penury and into the middle class. Some current political ideologies assert class as a divisive identifier. America may be becoming more class conscious as a result. Still, the American Dream of opportunity continues to thrive as the world’s ideal.
What then would the ideal of equality look like in practice? We know what it wouldn’t be. If everyone were equally elite, then there would be no one to provide services. If everyone were equally indigent, then there would be no one to pay for services. That means that equality would have to involve reciprocity and dignity.
Picture the role of a waiter. Today he, or she if it’s a waitress, honors guests by remaining attentive to their needs and bringing them their order with courtesy and grace. The waitperson can earn a living wage by their service. Tomorrow, though, the same waitperson may themselves dine out. Then, the roles are reversed and the waitperson, now a guest, is the one who is honored by service.
That ideal of reciprocity was central to the American experience of industrialization. In 1914, before any of us were born, Henry Ford offered his workers a deal. He doubled wages in return for which he asked workers to submit to the regimentation of labor required by the assembly line. For the first time, workers could afford to buy the product they labored to produce. The automobile went from being a status product for those with pretenses of upper-class privilege to becoming a mass product for most workers.
Not everyone agrees that the result has been positive. The ubiquity of the automobile led to the sprawl of Los Angeles. Compared with New York City, for example, one might quip that Los Angeles is the first world-class city designed to take full advantage of the potential of the automobile. It even tore up its street railway system in homage to the new supremacy of private cars.
Today we are engaged in a great political debate arguing over whether our dream, the American Dream, can persist. The Digital Age makes possible a new birth of freedom in which labor can increasingly take less of our lives — productivity allowing more time for family and self — and in which the dignity of service can become like that of our waitperson above. We remain the world’s innovator, the place where dreams are shaped and realized. We may get distracted along the way, but our pursuit of the dream, the American Dream, the global Dream, remains as strong today as ever before in our history.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”