Hacking Away at Procrustes


The Politics of Procrustes, by Antony Flew, Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1981, 216 pp., $16.95.

The final stretch of the cosmic journey described in Dante's Divine Comedy opens with a question: Are the souls lodged in the lowest sphere of paradise vexed by any residual desire to ascend to a higher elevation? The poet is reassured that each of the blessed is entirely content with his appointed station. Dante reflects:

Then it was clear to me that everywhere in Heaven is Paradise, though the perfect Grace does not rain down alike on all souls there.

Prominent ideologues of the New Egalitarianism would demur. Such rank inequality of outcome would lead them to suspect that a wrong turn had led them into a perfect hell. Calls for an Affirmative Action program would resound to the very Throne of Heaven, and a team of social scientists would be unleashed to produce multivolume studies detailing St. Peter's reactionary elitism.

Reflections on things religious is not out of place here. Old taboos have withered during this century, but in their place has sprouted an unquestioning veneration of equality. Its priesthood occupies prominent positions within government, journalism, the academy, and the think tank; on both sides of the Atlantic, its devotees are legion. But though their incantations have powerfully troubled the air, the doctrine is as obscurantist as any being preached by Iran's mullahs or your local Moral Majoritarian. For, as Professor Flew brilliantly documents in this book, equality is a term on which have been dumped enough noxious confusions, equivocations, and bromides to despoil a landfill.

Flew notes that equality is not one thing but several. In the factual realm it signifies parity with respect to some natural attribute—height, strength, intelligence, productivity. Within this realm, human beings are manifestly unequal (though some would go far to deny even this truism). Equality, though, can signify not only what is but what ought to be. It then serves as an ideal of the good society, that deserving to be brought into existence and maintained.

Equality as ideal also is ambiguous. It can signify at least the following: (a) equality of basic rights; (b) equal opportunity to secure prized but scarce positions; (c) equality of outcome, expressed in terms of income, wealth, or some similar measure. While (a) is an individualist postulate, (c) is a prescription for totalitarianism. The blatant inconsistency has not, however, deterred commentators who should know better from running all three together and concluding that socialism flows from the Declaration of Independence like juice from a lemon.

Flew ably takes this position apart piece by piece, not only correcting garden-variety fallacies studding the levelers' arguments, but also revealing how much they rest on envy of genuine achievement—except, of course, achievement in ratcheting the screws of Procrustes a notch tighter. These humanitarians who sympathetically resonate to each whimper of suffering humanity allow themselves one curious exception: with ill-concealed glee they clamor for marginal tax rates "to make the rich howl in agony." No matter that the country as a whole is made worse off; evidently, malice is its own reward.

Indeed, the only exception to rigidly imposed equality they will countenance is the absolute political ascendancy of the controllers themselves in their Brave New World. But who could doubt that total power in their hands would bring about a far, far better world?

Flew can. With admirable dispatch, pronouncements from influential procrusteans are assembled, dissected, and exhibited in all their confusion. One does not know whether to be amused or depressed by the rampant unconcern for precision in language or validity of inference so meticulously spotlighted.

Each reader will have his favorite specimen of muddle. Mine was soon-to-be Prime Minister James Callaghan's inspired response to one of Britain's periodic economic disruptions: "If this means hardship it has to be fairly shared, and Labour intends that the wealthy who are best able to take the burden should bear more than their fair share of sacrifices." Flew takes special delight in skewering such Mandarins of the Labour Party, but even the most insular American will recognize likenesses to home-grown bathos.

If there were nothing more to this work than the deflation of unsavory political types, it would be welcome. But, not content merely with small game, Flew confronts the philosophical underpinnings of levelling politics, especially "the book of Rawls" (an apt title for a work that has assumed semicanonical status within the philosophical community) and Bernard Williams's influential essay "The Idea of Equality."

This is, to my mind, the highlight of The Politics of Procrustes. Flew argues that the egalitarianism of Rawls and Williams rests on a bastardized construal of "social justice" in which the concept of desert—fundamental to any reasonable understanding of what the claims of justice involve—is whittled away to nothing. His careful parsing of their arguments will be instructive to professional philosophers and, even more importantly, provides a lucid entry point for nonphilosophers into a crucial debate in contemporary ethics. Throughout the book, but here most of all, analytical philosophy's virtues shine clear of its characteristic vices: precision without pedantry; attention to detail without triviality; serious thought without soporific dullness. It is a book that deserves a wide audience. Certainly individualists who oppose procrusteanism in all its far-too-common manifestations will want to attend to it.

At only one point am I in serious disagreement with Flew. He argues (rightly) that the equal opportunity to secure scarce goods or positions does not guarantee equality of outcome among groups of applicants; we cannot, therefore, tell from the goods or positions people end up with, whether they started with an equal opportunity. Rather, he claims, opportunity is equal when there is open competition for available slots. Thus, candidates of different ability may each enjoy equal opportunity to get the position though widely differing in their probability of doing so.

This is itself a procrustean wrenching of language. If Bjorn Borg and I were to meet on a tennis court, it seems wildly counterintuitive to say that I have an equal opportunity to win the match. What I do have, however, is a fair opportunity of winning. The two should not be amalgamated; were I to drug Borg before the match I would be equalizing opportunities to win while simultaneously debasing the fairness of the contest. Flew seems to be confusing equal opportunity to compete for a prize with equal opportunity to win it; however, fairness requires the former but not the latter. It is a mark of how deeply the obeisance to ideals of equality has penetrated that even so skeptical an interpreter of the received wisdom wishes to salvage a usable version of equal opportunity.

Less serious reservations attach to misnumbered footnotes and an inaccurate page reference in the table of contents. Perhaps they will be remedied in the subsequent printings this book richly merits.

Loren Lomasky is chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.