Equality and hierarchies do not mix.

There seems to be a peculiar form of rhetoric, where “equality” is professed but where in practice all sorts of hierarchies are implied. This is the rhetoric of the highfalutin, “noble” sort, making lofty-sounding but not-well-thought-out statements about the inherent dignity of man and so on and so forth. People give a lot of credit to such pronouncements even though they are not worth the paper they are printed on.

It’s still interesting to look at the contradictions inherent to that line of thought. For example, we look at the US Constitution, which starts as the following:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The weird part is that none of these clauses are actually true. The Constitution was not written by “we the people”: it was written by a small group of rich privileged white males who were conscious of the masses’ ability to self-rule and wanted to keep a stranglehold on the territory of which they had led the creation. What’s more, the language of these clauses seems to be grounded in equality (the “common” defense, the “general” welfare, secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves- “we the people”, and so on), but the US Constitution establishes a government, a hierarchy of power, with virtually unlimited powers.

Another good example is the U.N. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (once again, flowery rhetoric: what is “universal” about it?). While its first article states that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and right” and that they should “act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood,” many other articles are a contradiction of this principle.

But then we start getting into judiciary issues:

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals…
Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal…
Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

But this is a direct contradiction with the first article. A tribunal, by definition, implies that some human beings have more rights than others: the judge, for instance, has the right to direct the course of a trial and make major decisions about it, without any appeal except by his peers; he is, for all intents and purposes, the king of the “court”; an unaccountable power of, basically, life or death, which no other individual has. Not only that, but he is not chosen by any party: he reigns on a purely arbitrary basis. The jury, by comparison, is carefully selected and is completely dependent on the judge’s orders, and can only render a final verdict which is contingent on the admissible evidence as well as the judge’s own interpretation of the law. Juries are, in any case, not universal by any stretch.

It’s also very hard to see the equality and the brotherhood in a system where your guilt or innocence heavily depends on your ability to pay a special group of people who can navigate an extremely complex formalized system, is determined by a corrupt confrontational process, and can lead you to be kidnapped or even killed on the basis of rules no one ever agreed to.

The next problem is that the Declaration makes a lot of references to arbitrariness: it stands against “arbitrary arrest, detention or exile,” “arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence,” and to be “arbitrarily deprived of nationality.” Nowhere in the Declaration, however, is it mentioned how exactly this arbitrariness is decided. Is it decided by some standard? Or by some person, and if so, who?

Since the Declaration is signed by “States” (skipping the ontological nonsense of how an abstraction can approve or sign anything), we are to assume that the States themselves determine what is or is not “arbitrary.” Therefore all these articles mean absolutely nothing. Any State may formalize any given arrest, detention, exile; interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence; or deprivation of nationality as being “non-arbitrary.”

Articles 13, 14 and 15 heavily use the concepts of borders, country and nationality. Yet all these concepts are hierarchical: since the borders are entirely imaginary, arbitrary and unjustifiable, they have to be maintained by force. This use of force necessarily implies wielders of force and victims of force, no matter how many rights are attached. And if the Declaration is correct that “[e]veryone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country,” then what is the justification for a border’s continued existence? This is therefore a contradiction: either the border has some rationale for its existence, or it should not exist at all.

There is also the concept of property (which I’ve already discussed as being the basis of all hierarchies), and many other concepts that make no sense given the premise, but I think you get the idea.

My basic point here is not that this “universal declaration of human rights” doesn’t have good things in it, but rather that there are profound contradictions between a professed desire for equality and a more concrete belief in all sorts of systems where there are necessarily superiors and inferiors, perpetrators and victims, decision-makers and targets of decision-making, orders and obedience. No matter how good-intentioned, their only possible outcome is tyranny on a massive scale.

All constitutions, all the declarations of officialdom, all political speeches, are of this type. What seems to be hard to understand is that the very concept of people being equal precludes such documents. The very concept of people being equal precludes blueprints of rights to be acquired or not acquired, blueprints of institutions to be built or destroyed, blueprints of what is and is not acceptable.

9 thoughts on “Equality and hierarchies do not mix.

  1. JA October 5, 2010 at 02:30

    I am sometime reader of this blog and I find your posts hear to be thought-provoking. In this post I think you hit the nail on the head when it comes to the inner-contradictions of liberal democracy. What comes to my mind was one person whom you responded to a while back who insisted that all humans were terrible and could not cooperate without the coercion of the state, yet that person, if I remember, identified as a social democrat. I have encountered many in the mainstream left who hold similar views and it annoys the hell out of me. At least authoritarian old school conservative types and fascists are consistent with their political ideas and there ideas about humanity in general.

  2. JA October 6, 2010 at 06:28

    Yes, that would be the guy and I said in my first comment, his views are held by a many in the mainstream left. To Sean’s credit though, and unlike most of the statist left, he was up front about his views. In contrast to this, the mainstream left talks out of both sides of its mouth. When the statist left needs votes, they tell the masses that they are the salt of the earth, but they turn around and argue for the need for social control when they don’t need to pander to the public at large. This article by Jacob Weisberg http://www.slate.com/id/2267685 critiquing the tea party movement (which I no sympathy for at all) is a great example of statist leftism at its worst.

    • Francois Tremblay October 6, 2010 at 15:38

      Oh, I think it’s true of must people, just not to his fanatical extent. But that can be excused by the fact that he is the son of a famous cult leader.

  3. JA October 9, 2010 at 08:30

    I agree that it’s true of most people and such views is reinforced through the media, education, religion, etc. The point that I was making was a larger point of the one that you made in the article. By this I mean that most people pay lip service to democracy as if we were all getting together as a society (like one big happy family) in order to achieve common ends. These types will criticize anti-statists for being selfish and inconsiderate of the others because they are going against society. The same people will then criticize anti-statists because they will argue that without the force of the state keeping everyone in check, everybody would just be killing, raping, looting, hurting each other, etc. That is of course in complete contradiction to the first set of views in that they criticize people for being anti-society well at the same time holding that there is no society, just various mutually hostile groups or individuals kept down by force.

  4. JA October 9, 2010 at 12:00

    This should be considered part of my last comment which I wrote too quickly and forgot to put this on.

    The issue about whether people are evil or not something I have been thinking about a lot in the last year. This should not be a surprise because if you advocate for freedom than it is an important question.

    Now to my point, I was reading some of your earlier posts and it sparked another thought that I have been thinking about when it comes to these questions. It is the fact that people who will argue that human beings are horrible and depraved and that includes, as you pointed out, most people, will at the same time badger on against crime and how horrible it is and how bad the perpetrators are. If you read the comment sections in internet articles about people busted by bullshit crimes like say doing exactly what a cop says or recording cops etc., there are always these idiots who rail about how evil those individuals are an how they deserve punished because what they did was so outrageous. I suspect that these same people making that argument, most of them would say that we are all murders, rapists, thieves etc. only kept in check by state law enforcement. I think you can see the absurdity and contradiction in holding those two views. As you noted in the end of your first part about in your older post about man being innately evil, in the end it comes down to which vision produces better results. I agree that if we take the everyone is evil viewpoint and we are consistent, it would take us to a viewpoint close to that of a socio or psychopath. Why would we want to help those in need if we felt that they are all scum who would destroy or dominate us if given half the chance. In fact, the caricature given by authoritarians of all individualists (for some it might be accurate) would be more applicable to someone who internalizes these views and by that I mean seeing other people as means to your end, getting them before they get you etc.

  5. Francois Tremblay October 9, 2010 at 15:22

    Yes, I agree absolutely with the contradictions that you pointed out. I think it’s obvious that extremists like Prophet do create their own self-fulfilling prophecies (hah!). People who believe others are evil will act in a way that will make others evil to them.

    One thing though, I don’t know that I’d say that it *only* comes down to which vision produces better results. I would never support a purely consequentialist view. I certainly think there are many sound scientific and logical arguments that support the view that man is innately good. The fact that the opposite view leads to global disaster is merely the final proof that I am right, not an argument in itself.

  6. JA October 10, 2010 at 02:08

    “One thing though, I don’t know that I’d say that it *only* comes down to which vision produces better results. I would never support a purely consequentialist view. I certainly think there are many sound scientific and logical arguments that support the view that man is innately good. The fact that the opposite view leads to global disaster is merely the final proof that I am right, not an argument in itself.”

    Yes, I would never make a purely consequentalist argument if for no other than the fact that authoritarian conservatives appeal to that sort of thing all the time to justify their law and order policies such as that broken windows strategy that Giuliani implemented in NYC in the 90’s. Also, I have always had a strong negative reaction against the idea of using people as means to an end. I was simply showing that in the absence of any knowledge about human goodness or badness, that choosing the good side would I think make us better people or at least keep our sanity. If I believed as Sean does, I think it would be hard for me to have any real close relationships in life. I agree that there is evidence in favour of the positive view of humanity, I think that it is ignored and as I said earlier, people are indoctrinated with this nonsense through various channels. Here’s a rather humorous example from Jesse Walker about the situation in Haiti after the earthquake http://reason.com/blog/2010/01/21/cnns-plea-from-haiti-send-cops

    By the way, as a critic of religion, don’t you find it kind of odd when atheists balk at the idea that we need the threat of punishment from a deity in order to be moral and yet, the same people would turn around and argue that we need the threat of punishment from the state in order to not kill one another. They’re making the exact same argument that the religious people make!

  7. Francois Tremblay October 10, 2010 at 02:16

    Yes, of course. Both believe in some exterior determinism enforcing values on people. We know that just doesn’t work and cannot work, because man’s natural state and natural desires are always there, unless we find a way to rewire human brains permanently.

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