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The Lie of Egalitarianism By: Jamie Glazov
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, February 13, 2004


Frontpage Interview’s guest today is John Kekes, the author of many books, including Against Liberalism, A Case For Conservatism and, the most recent: The The Illusions of Egalitarianism (Cornell University Press, 2003)

Frontpage Magazine: Mr. Kekes, welcome to Frontpage Interview. Let me begin with your argument that the absurdity of egalitarianism is, among many other things, its flawed premise that justice requires overlooking whether individuals deserve what they have and whether they are responsible for what they do not have. Could you talk a bit about this?

Kekes: Egalitarians believe that the obligation of the government is to treat  citizens with equal consideration and they interpret that primarily in economic terms. They think that a government that allows substantial differences in wealth is immoral and their policy is to change the existing differences in wealth by taxation. The money collected by taxation is then used to benefit those who have less.

The fundamental objection to this is that the egalitarian policy ignores the crucial question of how people have come to differ in wealth. If they earned their money by legitimate mean, hard work, intelligence, in tough competition, and not being afraid to take risks, then they deserve what they have. To take their money from them in order to benefit those who have made wrong choices, were afraid of taking risks, or lost in a fair competition is unjust because it takes from people what they deserve and use it to benefit those who do not deserve it. To say that a government that does not adopt this unjust policy is immoral is absurd. It is the precise opposite of the truth. and it is this falsehood that egalitarian rhetoric endlessly repeats.

FP: Let’s talk a about the impulse behind the egalitarian agenda. Somewhere it is a clear rejection of life and of the world in which humans actually occupy. There is some kind of rage and anger that lies beneath the surface of this disposition. Could you talk a bit about the psychological dimensions that spawn the desire of egalitarians to steal from people who earn wealth and to give it to people who do not? 

Kekes: I shall do my best to answer your question, but I must point out that I am not a psychologist and what I say is a guess. One part of the egalitarian motivation seems to me to be an envious resentment of success. Egalitarians seem to mind that some people achieve excellence in some area of life and enjoys the rewards his excellence brings him. In having this attitude, egalitarians forget that human progress was always achieved in the past and will only be achieved in the future by people who have exceptional talent combined with the willingness to work hard to use their talent for some purpose.

Egalitarians tend to forget that everyone benefits from such achievements, not just the person himself. For businesses are profitable, if they sell something that people want to buy; research in science, medicine leads to discoveries that make life better; great works of art teach people about world and respond to their sense of beauty. Such achievements make life worth living, or at least make it less miserable for countless people.

Another part of the egalitarian motivation is pity for those who are at the bottom. This is a noble sentiment, but it easily becomes sentimentalism. For it makes a great difference why people are at the bottom. If they are the helpless victims of misfortune, that is one thing. If their position is their own fault, that is quite another. People who are deprived through no fault of their own should be helped. That is what individual good will and charity are for. But egalitarians want to force good will and charity on people by legislation. And if people have other priorities, then egalitarians are quite willing to force them to do what they don't want to do.

FP: Leftists always dream of “equality” and redistribute resources. Tell us why the very assumptions behind these dreams are flawed.

Kekes: If by some miracle resources were redistributed and everybody would start out with the same amount of money, in no time at all the old differences would emerge. For some would spend their money, others would waste it, and others would invest it, or use it to start a business. People differ, they have different preferences, and what they do with the money they have reflects their preferences.

The dream of equality is to make life such that everybody's preferences would be satisfied. But that is an impossibility because some preferences are criminal, sadistic, stupid, trivial, self-destructive, or otherwise irresponsible. A government must prevent the satisfaction of preferences that interfere with the satisfaction of other people's preferences. Not all preferences are equally acceptable. A government that ignores this violates its most basic obligation. And that is what an egalitarian government would have to do to achieve equality.

FP: You refer to some preferences being “criminal, sadistic, stupid, trivial, self-destructive, or otherwise irresponsible.” In other words, Mr. Kekes, evil exists. But egalitarians seem to have a problem with the phenomenon of evil. And I would add to that the notion of original sin and our fall. Could you expand on this? Why do egalitarians have such a difficulty with the existence of evil, and from where does the need to deny its existence emanate?

Kekes: I have much to say about this question in The Illusions of Egalitarianism. One of the fundamental assumptions of egalitarians is that people are basically good. Egalitarians recognize, of course, that there are evil acts, serious crime, and that there is much injustice. But they explain all this as resulting from bad political institutions. These institutions, they suppose, are responsible for the evil that people do because they corrupt them. People become enraged by the injustice, exploitation, discrimination inflicted on them, and their evil acts are the result. The naivite of these views is amazing. For egalitarians refuse to ask the obvious question of why bad political institutions are bad. Surely, if institutions are bad, it is because bad people create and maintain them.

If there is injustice, it is because people are unjust; if there is discrimination, it is because people discriminate. People come first, and the institutions they create and maintain can come only after. So it is the badness of institutions that must be explained by there being evil people, rather than as egalitarians do: explaining evil people by bad institutions. And of course if there are evil people, as there certainly are, as we know from reading the newspapers and watching the news, it would be insane to regard them as equal to those people who live decent lives.

FP: It is clear that egalitarians are ultimately at war with human nature and the human condition. Could you illuminate this phenomenon for us?

Kekes: One basic truth about human nature is that people are individuals: they have different strengths and weaknesses, different talents and shortcomings, different experiences, different upbringing, and different luck in lives. Their actions reflect these differences. And whether their actions succeed or fail depends on these differences. Egalitarians find these differences immoral.but this is simply a failure to accept the human condition, the fact that human beings are different as a result of genetic inheritance and subsequent experiences.

To undo these differences would require forcing people to live and act in the same way, and that would destroy individuality and establish the worst kind of tyranny the world has ever seen. Egalitarians perhaps do not intend this, but whether they intend it or not, this is what they would have to aim at in order to pursue their absurd goal of changing human nature.

FP: Mr. Kekes, you say that egalitarians “perhaps do not intend” the tyranny that emanates from their ideas. But I would argue that in fact they do, that their disposition is actually rooted in a death wish itself and that Stalinism and Pol Pot’s killing fields etc. are no coincidences or undesired results. In the heart of the Left, there lurks the impulse for the extinguishment of life itself. And it is precisely why the leftist political pilgrimages to the Soviet Union and China occurred during the most genocidal times – and waned off only after the most terrible mass murdering stopped. The Left loses interest in worshipping a regime when the totalitarian terror recedes. Now this might all be happening subconsciously, but the core instinct is there.

Is this too extreme of an interpretation?  

Kekes: I certainly agree that Stalin's Russia and Pol Pot's Cambodia were evil regimes. But it is important to remember that there are evil regimes also on the right, and that many evil regimes are neither clearly leftist nor rightist. It is clear that Idi Amin's Uganda, Khomeni's Iran, Saddam's Iraq, were evil regimes, but it is not clear that they were leftists. I think that looking for a political explanation of evil is a mistake. The explanation of evil is psychological. The sad fact is that there is in human beings a potentialities for evil, just as there is a potentiality for good. Which dominates depends on many factors, among which genetic inheritance, upbringing, economic circumstances, good or bad luck play an important role. All in all, I think that facing evil and trying to explain its causes are among the most important questions we have to face. I merely mention that the book I have just finished is on this question. Its tentative title is The Roots of Evil.

FP: But Mr. Kekes, yes, there are evil “right-wing” regimes, but these regimes are human-made, not necessitated by ideas. What I mean by this is that there is a difference between human evil and institutional evil. Humans can create evil everywhere, but some might not. So one regime that is “right-wing” might be evil, but another one might not, because it depends what kind of human beings run it. But the idea behind the regime does not necessitate evil. In terms of the socialist idea, meanwhile, it necessitates evil. You can never have Marxism experimented anywhere without there being genocide and evil. In other words, what I am saying is that the very impulse of socialism leads to evil necessarily. Whereas, with non-Marxist regimes that do not necessitate totalitarianism, it might just mean what human being is in power. What do you say to this? 

Kekes: I don't believe that ideas necessitate anything. I agree that communism tends to lead to evil, but so do racism, fascism, religious extremism. Whether ideas lead to evil depends on the people who hold the ideas and act according to them. Any idea can be misused. Take, for instance, the Constitution. It says that all men are created equal, and goes on the specify that this means that all men have an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You would think that this is clear and not easy to misunderstand. But egalitarians interpret it to mean that what the government is required to do is to provide the means that enable people to be happy. What the Constitution says is that the government should guarantee that there is no interference with people's life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, not that the government should finance life, liberty, and the happiness. I mention this to show that you can take very good ideas and misuse them and no one has to accept very bad ideas. If people do evil because of the ideas they hold, it is still they who do evil, not the ideas acting through them. They did not have to accept the ideas or act on them in evil ways.

FP: Sorry, Mr. Kekes, I don’t mean to belabor this point, but I think it is crucial to crystallize this theme. You say that you do not “believe that ideas necessitate anything” and that “whether ideas lead to evil depends on the people who hold the ideas and act according to them.”

Just a second. I would argue that the Marxist agenda, no matter what people are in power, necessitates oppression and economic destitution. The very ideas inherent in Marxism necessitate terror, and that is precisely why every experiment with it has done so. The notion that there must be a classless society, and that private property must be taken away, and that there can be no multi-party system -- these notions mandate a terrorist component and  human corpses if applied to the human situation. In other words, Stalinism was not an aberration of Marxism, but the necessary and inevitable result of it – no matter who was in power. There is no way to collectivize property, for instance, without deadly force. Do you disagree with this?

Kekes:  I don't for a moment want to deny that Marxism is a very bad idea and, if it is adopted by people, it leads them to the sort of evil actions that are familiar from the history of the Soviet Union, China, and other countries.

Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have bad consequences. But ideas don't have to be adopted and acted on. People have a choice about what ideas they hold and act on. It is this possibilities that I have been stressing in my previous replies and I want to continue to stress.

The question is: why do people come to hold ideas that have evil consequences. There are, I think, only three possibilities. One is that they are evil people and the idea gives them some form in which they can express their evil impulses. A second one is that they don't understand that the idea is bad. If they are moderately well educated and read newspapers or watch TV, they cannot fail to understand this. Of course, they may be illiterate and ill-informed. But then they can hardly be said to adopt the idea. They are likely merely to live under it, and be ruled by people who force the idea on them. The third possibility is that they are mentally lazy and pay no attention. Then they are responsible for it because they ought to pay attention to such matters.

I may add that, having lived under both Nazism and Communism, I unequivocally and deeply condemn them. But my interest is in explaining how such regimes become possible. And to explain that merely by saying that bad ideas cause them is not enough because the obvious question about that is why people adopt bad ideas. That is what I have been trying to answer.

FP: Ok, fair enough, and this is truly a crucial and fascinating question. So, in this context, let’s talk about how the bad idea of socialism and Marxism was applied repeatedly throughout the 20th century and how it ended up producing 100 million corpses. And yet, despite this genocide, the Marxist idea continues to be as popular as ever in academia and other milieus. The Left is completely unchastened in terms of the horrific consequences of its own ideas. If it has another opportunity to put socialism into practise, even though it will automatically create another Stalin or Pol Pot, it will do it. And it will do it over and over again. How do we explain the Left’s refusal to acknowledge the human blood that flows from its ideas – and its insistence to continue reapplying the same ideas over and over again?

Kekes: I'll try to answer the question you pose in a minute, but I want to distinguish first between Marxist and non-Marxist socialism. When I agreed with you about the evil consequences of socialism I meant only the Marxist version. I am strongly opposed to all forms of socialism, but it has to be said that the socialist governments in England or Sweden, for example, were not evil. Their policies were mistaken, in my opinion, but they had nothing to do with the sort of mass murder that Stalin and Mao had perpetrated.

It is, therefore, one question of why some people on the Left sympathize with non-Marxist socialism, and quite another why they sympathize with the Marxist kind. Having said that, it remains true, of course, that many Lefists do sympathize with Marxist socialism, which continues to be popular in academia, and it requires an explanation of how supposedly intelligent, well-informed academics could continue to have that sympathy after the well-known atrocities of the Marxist socialist regimes.

My answer is not simple because I think that the explanation is a complex mixture of several causes. First, these largely American academics do not believe that the atrocities were all that bad. They may concede that a few people have been unjustly murdered, but they refuse to accept that their number ran in the tens of millions. They think that the numbers have been exaggerated by right-wing propaganda. And as to those who have been unjustly murdered, they think that all countries, especially America, have been guilty of worse offenses. Not a word of this is true, of course, but that is what they believe.

So we need to ask how they could continue to hold such beliefs in the face of the readily available evidence to the contrary. Part of the answer is that they are outraged by what they see as the grave defects of their own society. They see poverty, racism, exploitation, and they think that the system that allows such things to happen is so rotten that it must be radically changed. They look around for an alternative to it, and Marxist socialism looks attractive to them from a distance. It lends some plausibility to their position that it is true that bad things have happened in America. It would be dishonest to deny this.

But what they don't see is that our system is set up in such a way that the bad things are publicly identified, acknowledged, great attempts are made to correct them, and are not allowed to continue. Our system is open, both the good and the bad are visible, not kept secret. In Marxist socialist regimes, great efforts were made to hide the bad things from outsiders. This was done by secrecy, deception, propaganda, and reliance on the testimony of people who were either duped or terrorized.

So these American would-be Marxist socialists see the bad here, don't see the awful there, and they arrive at the stupid view that what they are not allowed to see is not there. But this is still not the full answer to your question. For we need to understand the outrage that so often goes with these Leftist political commitments. Why are they so angry? I think this is because of their innocence. They start with the belief that everyone is basically good, that if people did not starve, were not unjustly treated, and so forth, then life would be simple and pleasant.

They don't see that in any complex society conflicts of interests are frequent, that people are motivated not just by love, altruism, sympathy, and kindness, but also by selfishness, greed, aggression, hatred, prejudice, cruelty, and so forth, and the idea of basic human goodness is a sentimental falsification of reality. They refuse to believe these hard truths, partly because is would shatter their illusions, and partly because their implications are frightening. They are outraged because they feel that their illusions are attacked. They passionately feel that the world ought not to be like that. But the world is like that and the rage is a symptom of their refusal to admit it. Most of these Leftists have never lived in a repressive tyrannical society, and they cannot imagine just how bad life could be. Their innocence is due to their ignorance, and their innocence is irresponsible because the knowledge they lack is readily available but they refuse to acquire it. And they refuse it because it would result in the painful loss of their innocence.

FP: Why are laws made in terms of punishing racial hatred but not class hatred? Racial hatred is considered a crime now in many parts of the world. Even articulating something that can be perceived as racial hate can get you charged with a criminal offense. And in many respects, this is because of slavery, the Nazi holocaust, etc. And yet, despite the 100 million lives that were extinguished because of class hatred in the 20th century, class hate is still seen not only as normal, but actually as something admirable in many sectors of our society – especially in academia. How do you explain the demonization and criminalization of racial hatred and the simultaneous toleration and promotion of class hatred?

Kekes: I am not in favor of criminalizing any idea. A free society does not do that. But I am deeply opposed to any form of indoctrination with an idea, especially if it is an undeniably bad one. And I am afraid in academic life such indoctrination is frequent. This is inexcusable. Supporters of leftist causes routinely use the classroom as a political platform and coerce students to listen to the noxious political message these academics are eager to deliver. Intolerance is rampant in academic life. This is a very bad thing, but the solution is not to respond to intolerance with intolerance, and criminalize ideas.

If people want to deny the Holocaust, want to say that women or Blacks are inferior, let them. They should be answered and their stupidity, prejudices, or ignorance should be made plain. The direct answer to your question of why racism is criminalized and the hatred of the successful is not is that Leftists have succeeded in hi-jacking most universities. The damage they have done is enormous. There are voices and organizations speaking out and trying to return to sanity and decency, but they are few. I am not optimistic about their success, although I am on their side.

FP: Will the socialist impulse ever die out in the human race and, one day, be seen as an old worn-out idea?  Or will it, like war, exist as long as human beings exist, since inequality is a part of the human condition? In other words, since there will always be inequality, no matter what, there will also be those who dream of building utopia on earth rather than waiting for it in heaven. Right?

Kekes: Yes, and yes again. On this point, we are in complete agreement. If you and I are right about this, then the question arises of what could be done. There are, I think, two things: one public, the other private. The public one is to speak out as forcefully as one can against egalitarianism whenever there is an opportunity. The private one is to create for oneself as good a life as one can under the circumstances. As it has been said, living well is the best revenge. Political statements are needed, but the spectacle of a good life is much more likely to be imitated than a political statements followed.

FP: Mr. Kekes, thank you, we are out of time. It was a pleasure to have you here.

Kekes: It was a pleasure to talk to you Jamie -- and to think about your thoughtful questions. It is wonderful that Frontpagemag.com exists and provides a forum for the expression of views contrary to the Left-Liberal orthodoxy that pervades the media.

*

I welcome all of our readers to get in touch with me if they have a good idea/contact for a guest for Frontpage Interview. Email me at jglazov@rogers.com.

Previous Interviews:

Robert Baer

Robert Dornan

Paul Driessen

Stephen F. Hayes

Andrew Sullivan 

Richard Pipes

Rachel Ehrenfeld

Ann Coulter

Laurie Mylroie

Michael Ledeen

Daniel Pipes

Christopher Hitchens

John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr

Kenneth Timmerman


Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Russian, U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He is the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and is the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. His new book is United in Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at jglazov@rogers.com.


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