In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson famously asserted that “all men are created equal.” Such a simple and timeless observation holds both profound truth and misleading implications for many of us. While this principle forms the very foundation of a free society it can also be misused to facilitate an environment similar to what it was originally documented to refute.
The truth is that all men (and women of course) are created equal with regard to their human makeup, their respective states of being, and their rightful claims to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But the truth is also that not all men remain equal once they begin to take their own journeys in life beyond this point.
As unique individuals – each with our own set of individual will, skills, values, and discipline – we inevitably diverge to varying degrees and directions, which by this very nature causes us to develop unequally. Some people are more apt for certain tasks than others; some are better at math or science; some more athletic, artistic, or musically talented; some people are tall, short, fat, or thin. The list is nearly infinite and this is the truth that fosters competition and accomplishment, both of which are the seeds from which human innovation have traditionally sprung. If everyone were truly equal in reality, concepts of ambition, self-improvement, and work ethic would be products of the past because we would all be identical in physical, mental, personality, moral, and spiritual makeup.
As we are all created equal our states of being (e.g., race, sex, ethnicity, etc.) are common human starting points from which our individual uniqueness can then begin to develop and flourish. In this sense we all start with an equal slate, so to speak, but it is our own perspectives, environment(s), and personal makeup which determine our paths of singularity from there.
This is not to say that any one person is better than another in any social sense, however. In this context, and the context of Jefferson’s words, decent folks should not view each other as generally superior or inferior to each other in relation to our created states of being (as in racism or sexism). More importantly, this principle insists that we are obliged to treat each other equally with general regard to our states of being. The famous philosopher (and Social Contract Theory proponent) John Locke wrote in 1689:
Though I have said above ‘That all men by nature are equal,’ I cannot be supposed to understand all sorts of ‘equality.’ Age or virtue may give men a just precedency. Excellency of parts and merit may place others above the common level. …and yet all this consists with the equality which all men are in respect of jurisdiction or dominion one over another, which was the equality I there spoke of as proper to the business in hand, being that equal right that every man hath to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man.
Make no mistake, we all are superior and inferior to each other in targeted, specific, individual ways – which is why I am not a professional athlete and Michael Jordan is not an engineer, and neither of us are nuclear physicists.
As such, government cannot create equality because real equality simply does not exist in a diverse society of individuals and when it tries to do so it creates an artificial system which takes from one and gives to another, thereby levying government-sponsored inequities that are unnatural and stubbornly oppressive (see Orwell’s Animal Farm). Government’s sole responsibility and legitimate authority is to treat everyone equally (i.e., in accordance with the 14th Amendment), not to destructively and naively try and forge that which cannot ultimately be achieved.