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Drum is an egalist.

“Egalism” is an English neologism used to translate the philosophy of the Awdalites, a tribe of north-western Somalia. Just how it came to be coined isn’t clear; the content of the philosophy is that all tribes (of Somalia, presumably) are equal, and should be represented equally in Government.

Jack Vance, the science fiction writer, adopted the term to denote a version of egalitarianism so extreme as to require a different name: the notion that all human beings are interchangeable — that the work done by any given individual can also be done by any other randomly selected person. Vance wrote a novel, Wyst: Alastor 1716[1], depicting an egalist society. He didn’t like the idea, and the results described are grim. A visitor gets caught up within the contradictions of the society and trapped; when he manages to escape he is assisted by an almost comically proletarian truck driver, who remarks, “A shame to see a decent elitist in such a plight.”

Since the basic egalist theory is absurd upon its face, egalists require some compensatory mechanism whereby it can be justified. This is found in the concept of cheating, which is integral to the philosophy. A person of superior ability will succeed where another, less able, will not; since that success is a violation of the basic principle of egalism, it can only arise from villainy — the successful person is “cheating”.

Egalitarianism posits an essentially random distribution of ability among people, coupled with the notion of unfair barriers, social structures (including laws) which prevent display of superior ability when it arises in a person the structures assign to a low-ability group. It arose from observation of the principle of reversion to the mean within the ossified aristocracy of Europe. Charles Martel was clearly a person of superior ability (whether or not you agree with or like what he accomplished using that ability) and the people whom he chose as lieutenants were scarcely less able; their descendants, the Habsburgs and Bourbons and Saxeburg-Gothas, are equally clearly ordinary or worse, but a member of the bourgeois or peasant classes could not succeed in proportion to his ability because he was prevented from doing so by the social structure. The aristocrats, largely dullards despite their illustrious ancestry, controlled the resources necessary for advancement but were too stupid to employ them; bright and able members of the lower classes had no resources to advance their ideas. In its ideal form[2], an egalitarian society would make no judgements of ability prior to the demonstration thereof — everybody gets to dance, and the better dancers get the plaudits. If ability is in fact more or less randomly distributed, this makes maximum use of ability to advance the society.

Egalism is not in any way egalitarian, despite borrowing terms and rhetoric from egalitarian philosophy. It is, in fact, anti-egalitarian. Under egalism no one is allowed to demonstrate ability superior to that of any other person, because it violates the principle of interchangeability and is therefore “cheating”. Any social structure which enables the demonstration of ability is inimical to the philosophy, and must be adjusted to make all outcomes the same, because if people are interchangeable any inequality in success must of necessity arise from evil, non-egalist forces. This makes minimum use of the abilities of the people within the society, and in the extreme results in no use of ability — any ability above that of the least able is “cheating”, to be suppressed, and it is evident (to the non-egalist) that “least able” is a very low level of ability indeed.

The principle is visible in many aspects of our society. A single example suffices: radical feminism posits not that there are women who can succeed where men do, but that any randomly selected woman can succeed where any randomly selected man can; any demonstration that this is not the case must of necessity be the result of Teh Patriarchy Conspiring Against Womyn. Other instances will no doubt occur to you.

Kevin Drum trusts Barack Obama because, as an egalist, he observes (or, better, assumes) that Obama holds, and operates under, egalist philosophy. Drum himself is not an extreme or doctrinaire egalist, but others are, and the consensus we now see growing is that the intervention in Libya (for instance) is “cheating” by anti-egalist forces — circumstances created by evil non-egalist forces compel Obama to engage in activities that violate his standards of propriety, and the situation is properly redressed by elimination of those untoward influences. Among those evil non-egalist circumstances is “American Exceptionalism”.

An egalitarian observes a winning team, and concludes that that team has a better grasp of the rules of the game and the procedures to allow development and demonstration of superior ability of the players; the proper response of competitors is to learn more about the game and introduce better plays. This is intolerable to the egalist, who insists that winning is, ipso facto, a demonstration of “cheating”. Team America has, over the years, demonstrated a better grasp of the game than anyone else has, and as a result has achieved success over and above that of its competitors; to the egalist, this clearly demonstrates that Americans “cheat”, and must be punished by being reduced to the success level all the others achieve. Barack Obama clearly accepts this as a basic principle, and egalists like Kevin Drum like and trust him on that basis. It is not a formula for success, even in egalist terms.

[1] The book is available on Google Books as a scan of Alastor, a compendium of the three novels set in the (notional) Alastor Cluster. Since I don’t approve of Google Books’ approach to copyright, it is not linked here.

[2] No ideal egalitarian society exists or has ever existed — certainly the United States has never been such. This is because the adjective is irrelevant. No ideal [X] society exists or has existed, nor will it ever. Lapses from the egalitarian ideal are of course avidly seized upon by egalists to justify their perversion.


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April 2011