Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

The Attack on Freedom in the Name of Equality

October 1, 1988 -

When the provision of paternal security replaces the provision of justice as the function of the state, the state stops providing justice. (Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction)

If it is good to know how to deal with men as they are, it is much better to make them what there is need that they should be. The most absolute authority is that which penetrates into a man's inmost being, and concerns itself no less with his will than with his actions (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) 

The conflict between equality and freedom is shaping up as one of the most important issues of modern politics. In Canada this issue has become focussed in the recent efforts to use the law and public policy, and especially the new Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to make this a discrimination-free society.

A Revolutionary Change

Well, you might ask, what's wrong with trying to eliminate discrimination? Shouldn't we all be against discrimination and in favour of equality? Yes, of course, in one sense. But we must remember that words don't always mean what they seem, or what they used to mean.

Many of us still assume that equality and nondiscrimination are simply characteristics of life in a free and open society. However, the current push to legislate equality, always justified in the name of human rights, makes the state the all-powerful regulator of society.

The slide into a state-regulated society is facilitated by, among other things, a disregard for the lessons of history and a wilful ignorance of the role of nonstate social structures and institutions in safeguarding freedom. The most striking example of this attitude is the declining sense of personal responsibility and the consequent breakdown of family and marriage. As nonstate (private) institutions become weaker, more and more of their functions are relegated to the state. Canadians increasingly perceive the state to be a source of security and the solver of an ever-lengthening list of problems. But as the state's role expands, it becomes less and less competent to deal with what traditionally has been considered to be the legitimate and limited task of the state. What is the reason for this fundamental shift in the popular view of the state and its relationship to the rest of society? Why are the changes happening so rapidly now? And why is there so little debate and serious reflection on these momentous changes?

The development described here cannot be understood without insight into the dominant spirit of our time. Very briefly, the ideology of modernity is the belief in human autonomy and self-sufficiency. This involves a radical break with the Christian doctrine that human beings are created by God and therefore exist in a position of dependency and servanthood. When they reject belief in the sovereign Creator-God, the giver and sustainer of life, human beings will search for their source of authority and security elsewhere. They find that source in anyone of a variety of places. Communist societies invest the state with unlimited power and attempt to make the state the focus of existence. In Western society, a much more subtle yet no less destructive development is taking place. In his famous 1978 Harvard address, "The Exhausted West," Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned against this development when he charged the Western world with losing its courage and spiritual direction. To understand just what is indeed happening in our society, we should look at what is now meant by equality and freedom and investigate how the two concepts are applied in the political realm.

Old Words, New Meanings

The current concept of equality has a relatively short history. Traditionally inequality, not equality, was accepted as normal and even desirable. A person's lot was believed to be assigned by fate or providence, and unchangeable. This assumption was even used to justify the worst examples of inequality, such as slavery and apartheid. While biblical revelation about the nature of man and the law of God in principle rejects all forms of inequality achieved by means of oppression and mistreatment, it was not until the rise of modernity, especially during and after the eighteenth centurycccccccccccccthat equality was elevated to a new principle for the right ordering of society.

A helpful way to think about equality and rights is to consider them in the context of and as means to building a society of freedom and justice. In other words, equality should always serve to establish a free and just society. There are at least three ways in which equality should be regarded as normative and beneficial.

First, in the most fundamental sense of the word, all human beings are equal in the sense that we are created in the image of God and called to serve our Maker. We are also equal in the sense that all of us share a sinful human nature that is in need of salvation through Christ. Thus in the profoundest spiritual sense, we all are members of the same human community.

Second, equality of all citizens before the law is a necessary condition for a free and open society. The law must be applied impartially to all citizens and may not be a respecter of persons.

Third, equality of opportunity, with respect to employment, lodging, public services, education, and so on, is something that also deserves our whole-hearted endorsement.

It is interesting to note that public policy is marked by the neglect and, increasingly, the deliberate elimination of the first-mentioned meaning of equality. But to remove the spiritual foundation of equality (secularization) is to fundamentally alter its meaning and its impact on society. One effect is the change from freedom to equality as the paramount political virtue. The secularization of life and the elevation of equality to a new political imperative are directly related developments.

In the Christian tradition, freedom is understood to be first of all a gift of God planted in the heart of man. It is not something provided through human authority, but is a given of creation. Second, freedom is always experienced as the fruit of obedience to God-given norms. Freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. By contrast, secularism portrays freedom as a purely historical and human achievement produced through the correct ordering of society. The first commandment in such a society states: "Thou shalt have no other gods before thee but thyself."

The transition from viewing freedom as a gift of God to something we ourselves have produced has a great deal to do with the contemporary shift in emphasis from freedom to rights. For one thing, since the transcendent source of freedom (and rights) has been eliminated, a new source of "rights" needs to be found. A modern, all-knowing, all-solving, and all-powerful state fits the bill. This state is no longer the institution called to protect the basic freedoms of all citizens before and under the law; rather, it is expected to establish a society in which equality (or egalitarianism) is the most important objective.

The State's New Job Description

There are numerous examples of the new mindset. Even the 1985 Macdonald Report, which dealt extensively with a vast range of issues affecting Canadian society, depicts the state in the new role of all-knowing manager or regulator. The state is described as "the key actor in channelling" the evolution in national self-image. Governments "must provide meaning and recognition for the citizenry" and "manage society as well as the economy." According to this report, "the state will remain the central institution for the governing of humanity" and "has an extensive social role as it responds to ever more encompassing notions of equality," and governments will be involved in "micro-social engineering."

Another striking example of the new statist mindset was provided by Tom Axworthy in a January 9, 1987 Toronto Star article modestly titled, "Equality for Women Will Free All of Mankind." Here Axworthy described the individual as "the unit of supreme value in our society . . . a free agent . . . able to define and pursue his own definition of happiness, his own good, his own set of values." According to Axworthy, "self-realization is the goal and maximizing choice through greater equality is the means," and it is the state's task to produce equality.

In summary, a limitless "caring" state is, in the name of equality, shaping a new society of equals, but such a state will deliver the very opposite to what it promises. Our first political task is to expose the lies of contemporary political fads with the truth that sets us free indeed.

Judge Abella: Discrimination Is Systemic

A proper concern to do justice has at least in part been responsible for the drafting of anti-discrimination legislation, especially human rights codes, since World War II. But in the past decades this legitimate motive has been largely replaced by an exaggerated view of equality that wishes to make all citizens as equal as possible. As a result, government is taking on the role of social engineer in the campaign to create an egalitarian society.

The Female Employees Fair Remuneration Act, passed in Ontario in 1951, was Canada's earliest anti-discrimination legislation in the area of employment. This law prohibited the common practice of paying women less than men for the same work. Over the years, the language of the legislation gradually changed from straightforward "equal pay for equal work," to "equal pay for substantially the same kind of work performed in the same establishment," to "equal pay for similar work," and most recently to "equal pay for work of equal value." The push for equality in the workplace was paralleled in other areas, all of which culminated in the enactment in 1982 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 15, the Charter's equality section, is considered to be the engine of the legislation and litigation now propelling the equality revolution in Canada.

A host of studies, reports, and articles have helped to make equality the new political imperative. The 1970 Royal Commission Report on the status of women in Canada deserves special mention, as does the 1984 Royal Commission Report by Judge Rosalie Abella, Equality in Employment.

Abella's main conclusion was that discrimination is systemic, not incidental, in Canadian society and particularly in the workplace. Something "systemic," that is, built into the system, requires systemic remedies.

According to Abella's report, four categories of Canadians are victims of systemic discrimination: women, native people, disabled persons, and visible minorities. She confirmed the feminists' assertions that what historically has been viewed as "women's work" is undervalued and that women are deliberately restricted in their choices in employment and possibilities for promotion. Abella's recommended remedy was to make the state the supervisor and final arbiter of hiring and promotion policies and decisions by means of affirmative action programs.

Judge Abella went beyond conditions in the workplace. She expressed opinions about family, marriage, child nurturing, education, law and public policy in general. Abella described family and marriage in mainly negative terms and suggested that public policy ought not to treat the family as a single unit. Marriage, she wrote, should be seen as a contract between independent, self-sufficient individuals. She also recommended that the writing of textbooks be supervised to ensure that children are imbued with the "right" ideology and do not grow up with stereotyped ideas.

It is hard to think of policies that would be more damaging to the integrity and health of family life as well as other structures than the ones proposed by Judge Abella. Her conclusion has nevertheless become accepted wisdom in many circles: Discrimination and unfair treatment is built into the system, and only a powerful state is able to remedy this evil.

We Are All Egalitarians Now

Despite different emphases in Canada's three major political parties, there is no real difference between them with respect to the issues discussed here. At the federal level, the Conservative government has enacted equality legislation (affirmative action and "pay equity") much like that enacted by the Liberal government of Ontario and the New Democratic government of Manitoba. Though there are some variations in the timetable and the degree to which equality programs are being put in place, not one of the parties has given a principled analysis and criticism of these developments.

Ontario has moved the farthest in imposing equal pay for work of equal value with the passage in 1987 of the Pay Equity Act and the appointment of a Pay Equity Commission. All public sector establishments in Ontario must have a pay equity plan in place by January 1, 1990, while private sector employees who have at least ten employees must do so no later than January 1, 1994.

The main argument in favour of imposing such far-reaching government intervention in Ontario is the claim that women earn only about 64% of what men earn. Even the Ontario provincial government's own pre-legislation study of the issue, its Green Paper on Pay Equity, admitted that just a fraction of this difference in earnings can be directly attributed to discrimination. Numerous critics have pointed out that using the wage-gap argument to prove discrimination ignores some very important factors that have nothing to do with discrimination. It is a historical fact that as childbearers and those traditionally most responsible for child nurturing, women have not been attached to the workforce to the same degree that men have. Even today, many women work part-time or leave the workforce for blocks of time to shoulder domestic responsibilities. These are some important reasons why the overall average wage earned by women is significantly lower than that earned by men.

This argument cuts no ice with the feminists and believers in systemic discrimination. But a careful reading of the literature, including Abella's Royal Commission Report, indicates that there is far more at work here than simple numerical comparisons. Instead, underlying the drive for equality in public policy is a mindset hostile to the Christian faith, the institutions of family and marriage, and all non-state structures. It is a mindset of those who believe that the state is the main organizer of society.

In the foreground of this movement are the New Democratic Party and all those to its political left, the labour unions led by the Canadian Labour Congress, and radical feminists, most notably the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. This amalgam of pressure groups is vigorously promoted and supported by large segments of the media, certain academics, and some of the so-called religious left.

The ideas of two influential modern thinkers, Karl Marx and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, are very much in evidence here. Whatever their differences, these two agreed that man is the creator of his own values and the designer of his own social-political institutions. Marx believed in the creation of the "New Man," while Rousseau spoke about the remaking of man by forcing him if need be, to conform to the "General Will." The Marxian and the Rousseauian roads to the society of equals may be different, but they lead to the same destination. Both believe in the supremacy of the state, and see all nonstate structures as obstacles to the construction of the good society.

The Quest for a New Heaven

When an essentially statist view of life is adopted, rights and freedom take on new meanings. Freedom is separated from a normative principle and turns into anti-normative licence. Instead of a protective shield against abusive power, rights are now claims or entitlements to be made on and delivered by the state. Rights thus understood do not increase freedom but diminish it, making individuals more dependent and vulnerable.

Furthermore, in this new context equality becomes a rationale for government to engage in social engineering. The purpose is not to establish equality before the law and equality of opportunity, but to institute a state-supervised and state-controlled method of levelling. The weakening of the so-called intermediate structures, such as family, marriage, school, church, business, and a host of other voluntary associations, is aiding the growth of statism in our society. As the state takes over their functions, it becomes the supreme protector, regulator, educator, and even babysitter. Robert Nisbet put it this way: "The tragedy in our time is that what is good in the ethic of equality is fast becoming swamped by forces—of power above all—which aim not, really, at equality in any civilized sense but at uniformity, leveling, and a general mechanization of life" (Twilight of Authority).

If Christians want to make a meaningful contribution to the current political debate, they must begin by understanding what this political revolution is really all about. Fortunately, there are still Christians willing to tackle that difficult and mostly unrewarding assignment. Ian Hunter, professor of law at the University of Western Ontario, joined the fray a few years ago already with a series of articles warning against sliding into an egalitarian society in the name of equality. Hunter pointed to the religious roots of the contemporary obsession with rights.

Why do legislators willingly invest human rights commissions with powers they would entrust to no other agency? Why is no check put on the exercise of discretion by human rights officials? And why do human rights commissions enjoy a virtual exemption from public scrutiny and criticism?

An important part of the answer, I suggest, lies in the essentially theological nature of human rights legislation. To a secular society, the quest for equality fulfils the same yearning as, in centuries past, did the quest for God. The religious version of Heaven, a land beyond time and mortality and very far off, has been replaced by a Utopian vision of an egalitarian society, to be obtained through Charters, Commissions, Affirmative Actions, and Legislated Codes of Behaviour. ("Jurisprudence: What's Wrong with Human Rights," The Idler, April-May, 1985, p.38) 

All who treasure freedom and care for this nation should take careful heed. Don't believe the claim on the medicine label: "Equality, the cure for all social ills." You may get poisoned.

This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment