Sometimes, my son and I will play chess. I’m pretty bad, so he’ll take a few pieces from me, and have a good time for a while, which was why he wanted to play in the first place. But he’s in first grade, and just started playing, and I’m much older, so I win.
“You always beat me,” he whines.
“Right. If I let you win, that’s not chess. It’s not even a real game. I could start off with fewer pieces, and that would be another game that’s like chess, but not chess. But if I let you win, it’s not a game at all. It’s a tutorial or something else, and it probably won’t even help you get any better. So should we start with me having fewer pieces?”
“But you said that’s not chess.”
“It’s not, but at least it’s still a game.”
He thinks for a minute, and then we play again, with me having the same number of pieces as him.
The famous second paragraph from the Declaration of Independence is somewhat in disrepute at the moment:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
It’s in disrepute among liberals because Thomas Jefferson, who wrote it, owned slaves, in spite of claiming that all men were created equal, and (unlike George Washington) didn’t even free the slaves who weren’t his children at his death. Also, it says “all men.”
It’s in disrepute among some on the right because “equality among men” as a goal or aspiration or empirical fact is disputed. Don’t we know that all men are not created equal? Surely no one would argue that all men are created with Usain Bolt’s capacity for sprinting, and so, too with the capacity for self-government. This is, as Curtis Yarvin/Mencius Moldbug might say, the creation of government for angels when we are just as close to apes.
I don’t know what Jefferson really meant by “All Men are Created Equal.” I think he probably meant, “Hey King George, I [Thomas Jefferson, rich Virginian erudite polymath] am just as good a man as you, so let me go my way and I’ll let you go yours.” I don’t think he probably put much thought into whether it included or didn’t include poor whites or slaves, or if he did, he thought of it as a rhetorical slight-of-hand of little consequence, like Obama saying his feelings about gay marriage had evolved since 2008. Politicians, in 1776 or 2016, even if they are as gifted as Jefferson, probably care more about the satisfaction of ends than the niceties of means, and least of all about the precision (as opposed to the sonority) of words.
I’ll say what I think it should mean, which is also what I think Americans have more-or-less taken it to mean, as it shifted from “all free white men of property” to “all men” to “all adults over 21”:
It says the rules have to be the same for everyone, or as close as we can make them to the same.
The other day, Vox reported on a study finding that highlighting racism in the criminal justice system causes white respondents to express more support for the (now known to be racist) criminal justice system. (“Telling white people the criminal justice system is racist makes them like it more”)
This is funny because Vox has often taken it as its central goal to tell whites how racist the criminal justice system is, which evidently is counterproductive.
It’s also funny because the Vox reporter for this article, Kate Oh, blocked me on Twitter for the following tweets linking to her article, which are the sum total of my communications that included her and, I don’t think are particularly incendiary:
It happens that I find Andrew Gelman’s study on stop-and-frisk’s disparate application (as opposed to disparate impact) quite convincing, and I think it’s totally reasonable for the New York City black community to complain about and organize around. It’s a departure from procedural fairness for black men to be stopped much more even than their arrest rate or the crime rate in their neighborhood would predict, and to be stopped so much that the likelihood of arrest resulting from search is much lower than for whites.
It’s also reasonable to protest the killings of unarmed men by police, and even better to come up with nonlethal improvements in police practice and monitoring of police activity to reduce such deaths.
But we’ve gotten to the point where we can’t distinguish the kind of discrimination that involves disparate application of law from the kind that produces disparate outcomes, which will always be with us, because people are different from one another, and different in largely consistent ways.
The French center-right economist Gilles Saint-Paul has an interesting concept for a description of a system that is consistent with the members of the system– the people being modeled– understanding and believing the model themselves. He calls this property of models autocoherence, and uses it to describe macroeconomic and financial models.
A problem with a macroeconomic model that predicts irrationality; that assumes that everyone will overinvest in real estate or buy too many Greek bonds, is that someone who knows the model can use it to bet against the irrationality in the system and make money, but in doing so causes the irrationality to dissipate. It’s not an equilibrium model, it’s a model for a game with elite players versus suckers and marks. This is made only worse if you institutionalize the incentives for some to become suckers and marks.
To my knowledge, Saint-Paul hasn’t made an explicit connection with the idea of autocoherence, but he wrote a whole book about the limitations and dangers of applying behavioral economics insights– the departures from rationality that we can describe and predict– to the design of public programs and the creation of systems that “protect citizens from themselves.”
Most of the time, we can’t know the best interests of players better than they do themselves. The game’s not the game unless you take the players to know their own minds. The best we can do, most of the time, is to create a system that partially protects opportunity, liberty, property, and life, and then lets people play this very serious game. When you tell players that the rules are different for everyone, depending on their role in the national family, varied precisely according to their abilities and needs- you lose the common understanding that keeps everybody in this together.
It seems to me that this is how we should understand, “All Men Are Created Equal.” It is an autocoherent model. It is not a description of how people do behave, or of their measured capacities, which for all of us involve more failure than success, more tragedy than comedy, less angel than ape.
It is the rules of the game- a game whose players can know, influence, and argue against the rules, because they are not presumed to be suckers and marks.