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IPFS News Link • Declaration of Independence

What the American Founders Meant by Equality

•, Dan Sanchez

The Declaration of Independence famously proclaimed that "all men are created equal." Thanks in part to that prestigious endorsement, "equality" has become a widely held social ideal.

But what most modern-day egalitarians promote is far removed from the kind of equality that the authors of the Declaration were referring to.

Many today invoke "equality" to deny any variation in qualities among individuals, or in the resulting qualitative tendencies among sets of similar individuals. They condemn any acknowledgment of differences in aptitude, ability, character, and accomplishment as an affront to equality.

Many also call for "equality of outcome." They regard inequality of outcomes—of wealth, income, services, treatment by private individuals, etc—as a moral outrage to be rectified.

This is sometimes based on "equality" in the "quality variation denial" sense discussed above. The argument is that, since everyone is "equal" in their qualities, any inequality of outcome must be a consequence of injustice and bigotry.

Alternatively, "equality of outcome" is itself posited to be the sense of "equality" that matters most, and thus an ideal in and of itself.

But the authors of the Declaration of Independence didn't mean any of that when they proclaimed that "all men are created equal." What they did mean is what the English political philosopher John Locke meant when he made the same claim in his Two Treatises of Government. This can be inferred from the well-established historical fact that the founders revered Locke's political philosophy and from the text and context of the Declaration itself.

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