This is the first in a series of three essays.
Who among us, besides the most xenophobic and bigoted, would deny that this truth is self-evident? Regardless of your own personal beliefs on the origins of the universe, there can be little doubt that all human beings on this planet exist in a state of equality with one another. If history has taught us nothing else, it has underscored this point over and over again. From the colonial aspirations of empires in centuries past, to the grim tales of the conquistadores, to the lessons learned more recently about slavery, genocide, and the struggle for equality among the races in our own country. Who can view these incidents without wincing at the pain and suffering that results when one group of people assumes it is superior over another?
I turn to the chronicles of slavery in the US for empirical evidence of the truth of this statement. For if the moral values assigned to slavery are not objective and distinct from the political will of a simple majority, then slavery would yet exist here. Fugitive slave laws would have been upheld as morally correct, the KKK would continue as a respected community organization, and ethnic minorities would still toil for the benefit of the white majority. The fact that this is no longer the case is all the evidence I need that human equality is a fundamental truth in our universe. The transition from hegemony to equality is never swift nor painless, but it is inexorable. It is constant. And it is right.
There is a deeper implication, however. It goes beyond acknowledging that we lack the authority to enslave/eradicate our brethren based on arbitrary attributes. It speaks to a fundamental corollary of equality. For if we are truly equal, then we all possess an equal right to self-governance. That is, the right to rule over ourselves comes from within, not from any other source. That is not to say that this right cannot be delegated to an agent of our choosing, but this delegation must be completely voluntary, and may be revoked at any time we choose. If we are all equal, then no one has an inherent right to rule over us, for any reason, regardless of the number of people who might consent to it.
This revelation strikes at the heart of civil government as we know it, and it is often this aspect of equality at which even its proponents bristle. One may be in favor of equal rights for everyone, as long as that means a centralized government is still in charge, ready to mete out punishment to anyone who harms us. And, indeed, this is a fairly accurate description of the system under which we currently live, however, it is logically untenable as long as you believe that all men are created equal. For equality excludes the possibility of democracy.
Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying that democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. Do not let the humor of this quote obscure the deeper meaning. It amplifies the near unanimous concerns of the Framers about the type of government they were crafting. They all understood all too well the dangers of democracy as taught by history, and they strove to create a system of checks and balances that would prohibit the wolves from voting the sheep onto the menu. They called this government a republic, recognizing the fundamental difference between it and the mob rule of a democracy being that the rights of the individual are supreme, and that no individual’s rights may be violated even if 99.9% of the people are in agreement that it should be so.
And yet, this is the system we find ourselves living under, where majorities of 50.1% are allowed to enact laws and regulations that violate the equal rights of 49.9% just because it is politically expedient. Those 49.9% have no obligation to subjugate themselves to the will (and the tyranny) of the majority, regardless of how legitimate the system of voting appears. The right to rule over oneself is absolute, and no one can take that right away. That is what it means to be created equal.
Some will allow their mind to expand enough to absorb that idea and its implications. Others will simply call it fallacy, claiming that producing and enforcing laws is the purpose of government, and this idea draws all of our current laws into question. For if one looks hard enough, there is surely someone out there whose rights are being violated in some small way by virtually every law ever passed in this country. Following this premise to its logical conclusion means that all of our laws are null and void, and surely that can’t be right. What would society look like without laws? To embrace equality is to embrace chaos.
Do not be misled by this overstatement. Recognizing equality does not lead to a society without laws. It only means that for our laws to be legitimate, they must be held to a higher standard than simple popularity. The laws themselves, and the means of enforcement, must both respect the rights of the individual first and foremost. And the first step in that direction brings us to my second principle.