The Culture of Inequality

The Culture of Inequality

The Culture of Inequality

The Culture of Inequality


This books central thesis is that the national faith in individual initiative and free opportunity has become a breeding ground for guilt about our own limited successes and prejudice against all who exhibit signs of failure.


A novel idea about human social life appeared in the writings of eighteenth-century philosophers and political theorists--the idea that society is a system established among equals. Although for some time this idea was little more than a curiosity, it has since become so fascinating that now most people of the world regard it as the only respectable account of social arrangements. Since World War II, few societies have remained untouched or unchanged by this idea, and it remains the crucial issue underlying social change and political conflict in capitalist, socialist, and third-world societies. It is especially prominent in the history of American society. Ours was among the very first to make the idea of equality a defining term of its existence.

In 1776, American society officially adopted a curious story about itself. It was to be a society defined not by its land, language, or traditional culture, nor by its continuity with the legitimate past, but by an unprecedented act of self-creation as a political arrangement. This arrangement was based from the very beginning on the denial of inequality.

This announcement, of course, like other human proclamations, was more of a pious hope than a description of the prevailing pattern of life. We may safely believe that the proclaimers of the American doctrine of equality did not envision the various conclusions that members of later generations would reach from their original, noble premises. We have no reason to believe that they specifically had in mind claims to equality by persons of diverse sexual preferences, grammatical habits, stages in the life cycle, or moral codes. Still less can we credit such farsightedness to the great mass of Americans in whose name those proclamations were made.

Nevertheless, they established the language, the terms of discourse, and the standards of reasonable argument for the future discussion of social issues in America. From then on, any program of social conservation or change that was being promoted would have to be justified in terms of the premise of human equality. In particular, no assertion of the rightness of an inequality in American life could be taken for granted, and no existing inequality in fact could be sustained without an elaborate apology, once it had been brought to public attention.

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