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Socialism is dead, and, except within certain academic and religious circles, there will be few mourners. A system that in Marx’s vision would result in economic abundance and political liberation wound up in practice as economically ruinous and politically tyrannical. The world is well rid of it.

But if socialism as a way of organizing a nation’s political economy has entirely lost credibility, something of its moral attraction remains. Indeed, for a great many people socialism—especially in recent years—has meant not so much a paradigm for arranging a social system as an appeal to the moral ideal of equality. That has been its lure: its ability to tap into moral instincts that long predate and in no way depend on the particular details of Marx’s analysis of modern economic arrangements. It is the idea of socialism as moral decency—which is to say equality—that explains why so many people could for so long hold so intensely to such an implausible doctrine.

It is difficult to conceive of a moral system adequate to modern conceptions of justice that would not, in one way or another, focus on the idea of equality. But that is precisely the problem: what, beyond a gauzy sentimentality, do we mean by equality? And how do we spell out our conceptions of equality in our social arrangements?

As in so many areas of moral/political analysis, our clearest guideposts are negative. We cannot mean by equality socially legislated equality of economic condition. As the post-1945 history of Eastern Europe most recently reminds us, such equality can only mean equality of poverty for all (and not even that—the nomenclatura were always more equal than others). The gate to the egalitarian Utopia is barred: if we wish prosperity for the population in general, the dynamics of such prosperity require some degree of inequality among individuals within the population. The rising tide of a productive economy lifts most boats, but it does not lift them equally. Differences of ability and effort affect individual outcomes, and while social policy need not regard the patterns of those unequal outcomes as beyond the bounds of legitimate intervention, attempts to modify them radically will do harm to the functioning of the system itself and thus to all who work within it.

Social policy that begins with the assumption that our natural condition is economic equality and that deviations from that equality must suggest injustice will almost certainly lead in misguided and counterproductive directions. Inequality may indicate inequity, but—much populist sentimentality notwithstanding—it does not do so necessarily. The notion of tradeoffs between equality and efficiency arises not from the calculating imaginations of the coldhearted but from the nature of economic activity itself.

Americans have in fact seldom thought of equality in terms of equality of condition. They have thought rather of equality of opportunity, and have identified the struggle for equality with removal of barriers to free competition. Most Americans can live comfortably with quite lopsided results in the competition for economic advantage—assuming a floor of minimum economic provision for all—as long as they can feel assured that the rules of the game have not been rigged against them and have been reasonably adhered to in practice. To vary the metaphor, they identify national material well-being not with the carving of ever more equal slices from an economic pie of constant size but with providing conditions under which the pie will dependably expand and from which all will therefore benefit regardless of disparities in the relative size of individual slices.

But if most Americans have been generally relaxed with regard to matters of economic equality, they have cared intensely about equal dignity. They do not object if some among them have more wealth or acclaim than others, but they object most strenuously if those so advantaged take such circumstances as signs of superior value or significance. The American passion for equality has to do with ideas of equal worth, not equal situation. It assumes equality before the law, equal respect, equal consideration. Americans typically combine commonsense recognition of actual differences in ability and effort among people with a profound sense that those differences, legitimately manifest in economic disparities, provide neither a license for special privilege nor an intrinsic measure of human worth.

But how are we to ground our notions of equal human worth? The most obvious empirical reality about human beings is our inequality. We are equal neither in intelligence, physical attractiveness, wisdom, force of personality, shrewdness, virtue, or any of a host of other fundamental attributes. Those inequalities are not necessarily cumulative, but neither do they automatically cancel each other out. We surely cannot rely on any theory of equality that requires us to tell lies to and about each other as to the way we are constituted. Nor do any but the willfully self-deluded believe that our inequalities can either be fully accounted for or effectively made inoperative by our social arrangements.

The American Founders, as in so many other things, had this matter right. The American proposition has to do most fundamentally with equality—an equality rooted not in empirical circumstance, but in transcendent affirmation. We are, our Declaration reminds us, created equal: our equality is, quite literally, God-given. It is bestowed on us—not acquired, not earned, not dependent on normal reckonings of human worth. Our equality is an endowment, a gift. The Judeo-Christian biblical tradition that undergirds the American experience gives equality the most secure basis it could possibly have: we are equal, it tells us, because God made us that way.

Most Americans continue to share that affirmation, which may be one reason our society has been more resistant than most to the blandishments of socialism. The sense of transcendence has persisted among us, and so we have been less susceptible to dubious secular constructions of human equality that the inroads of modernity have elsewhere made more attractive. The idea of equality, so essential to social decency and yet—humanly speaking—so counterintuitive, will continue to find its most secure basis in affirmations of a transcendent reality under which all humans are—equally—constituted. It is in the end only in the economy of God that human equality can be made to be a plausible, let alone compelling, proposition.