Sometimes it pays to listen to the terms in which the man in the street debates the West’s current crisis of confidence.

In a recent Townhall online column, in order to refute Ibram X. Kendi’s conception of equity, conservative pundit Pat Buchanan goes so far as to deny the concept of human equality in the Declaration of Independence:

. . . Are all men truly created equal? Are all races and ethnic groups equal? Are men and women equal? Are all religions equal? Or do we simply agree to accept that as true–and treat them all equally?

All Americans, we agree, have the same God-given rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the same constitutional rights in the Bill of Rights, and the same civil rights, enshrined in federal law.

But where is the historic, scientific, or empirical proof of the defining dogma of American democracy that “all men are created equal”?

Jefferson, Buchanan goes on to point out, was not truly an egalitarian; he owned slaves and held an “aristocratic” perspective as to our ambitions and destinies. Even Lincoln, although he abolished slavery and gave former slaves voting rights, was not truly a believer in universal human equality.

While rejecting Kendi’s dichotomy between “equity” and racism, Buchanan simply argues that in fact all humans are not equal:

If Asian and black kids start kindergarten in the same class, and Asian kids in 12th grade are studying calculus while most black kids are still trying to master algebra, racism alone, by Kendi’s rule, can explain such a regular result.

The solution to persistent inequality?

Mandate equity; mandate equality of results; mandate equal rewards for black and white. Compel the government to produce policies that deliver equality of results.

But what if inequalities have another explanation?

What if Asian Americans are naturally superior in mathematics?

What if an inequity of rewards in society is predominantly a result of inequality of talents and abilities?

Aside from neglecting the significant social component of such things as “superiority in mathematics,” notably the very different family structures and traditions of the two communities, the essential concept missing from Buchanan’s argument is the distinction between moral and ethical equality. Equality is a moral truth because it links all of humanity in an implicit pact of reciprocity irrespective of their individual achievements and abilities. It is understandable why Kendi has no interest in understanding the sense of this pact, but Buchanan’s apparent blindness to it is unfortunate. The great achievement of the Enlightenment, whatever its failings, was the explicit articulation, not just in religious but in worldly political terms, of this fundamental truth about humanity.

The originary hypothesis anticipates the fallacy on both sides of this debate.

When the Declaration tells us that “all men are created equal,” this cannot be taken to mean, either when it was written or today, that in each “racial” group, scores on a given test, or wealth, or musical talent, will be equally distributed. Yet the term “equality” is not, as Buchanan seems willing to entertain, false or hypocritical. The equality thus affirmed is, in the terms of the originary hypothesis, that between the participants in the originary human scene, and by extension, as Judeo-Christianity has always maintained, the moral equivalence of all humans as equally “created in the image of God.”

In everyday life this sense of equality emerges whenever a group votes on which movie to watch, and more notably, in situations of life-or-death survival, at which point a choice might be made to save the women and children, as on the Titanic, or those with more of their lives left to live, or else draw straws, but where differences of social caste or race or IQ are clearly no longer relevant. Most significantly for the present case, it was the system of government founded in 1776 by England’s American colonies that first explicitly declared this equality to be government’s founding principle, with its corollary later corrected to one person, one vote.

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 affirms a minimal social ethic that derives from our minimal moral equality the “right” to act in such a way as to achieve “happiness,” meaning something beyond the minimal existence with which we begin. Such a doctrine ultimately proved incompatible with slavery, and later, with depriving women of the vote, but its key innovation was to legitimize the free-market relations of the Gesellschaft, “bourgeois” society, the secondary regulations associated with which, such as the minimum wage, or the right to strike, were to be worked out by the legislative and judicial branches.

It is highly significant, not to say ominous, that neither Kendi nor Buchanan understand the Declaration’s implicit definition of being “created equal”: not equality of possessions, let alone of talents, but the equal opportunity to try one’s luck in a society presumably open to individual enterprise, what Bonaparte called la carrière ouverte aux talents—which presupposes that caste relations, such as obtained under the French Ancien Régime and vestigially in England as well, no longer define or limit individual ambitions.

This suffices to define in all its paradoxicality the liberal-democratic system, Churchill’s “the worst form of government—except for all the others”—which still, despite its present difficulties, remains equal to this definition. And the key to its superiority is precisely its recognition of the need to found the ethic of post-caste society on an electoral system based on “checks and balances,” allowing for the exercise of our equal possession of language in civilized debate, and that gives each citizen one vote in recognition of humanity’s originary equality, while minimally restricting these citizens’ freedom of action in civil society.

Kendi’s rejection of all systems that fail to provide “equity” may be dismissed as a tendentious position designed to advantage his own racial group, and more broadly, to grant power to a social elite whose power depends on enforcing this position against the partisans of objective evaluation. Kendi’s “equity” replaces the individual “pursuit of happiness” with a racial spoils system that adds bonus points to minority test scores rather than making minorities competitive by improving inner-city schooling. But Buchanan’s lapse is truly serious. As a defender of American democracy, Buchanan should emphasize the affirmation of moral equality that underlies the attempt to select those best suited for their tasks—content of character, not color of skin.

What the originary hypothesis sees in the animating principle of the Declaration is the implicit reference to the reciprocity of humanity’s originary event. The differences that had been the basis of the serial Alpha-Beta system no longer applied; all the scene’s participants, and by extension, all humans, were equal from the perspective of the sacred, as demonstrated by the symmetrical exchange of the gesture of renunciation/deferral, the first sign of language.

The originary scene/event ends with a tacit pact among the participants to replace pre-human seriality with Homer’s “equal feast”—“tacit,” yet universally present in the memory of the originary exchange of the sign. This does not imply that everything must be divided in common, but that such division is the principle to be adhered to in matters of concern to the entire community. It could not well apply, for example, to sexual selection; the Alpha’s right to the “first” female would not operate under such rules—and in any case, unlike the results of the hunt, there would be no need to thus collectively apportion sexual partners. Nor would daily food-gathering results require such division. But the existence in all known societies of collective feasts has corroborated throughout history the validity of the originary hypothesis.

It is nonetheless true that throughout history, whatever the importance or indeed the conscious awareness accorded to the principle of moral equality, before the advent of liberal democracy, durable social orders beyond the nomadic hunter-gatherer level have treated their members unequally in an absolute rather than a relative sense. Until the advent of modern market society, caste distinctions had been the general rule.

It is significant that Marshall Sahlins’ “big-man,” whom I used in The End of Culture (UCalifornia, 1985) as a model for the emergence of caste-divisions, began not by declaring Rousseau’s Ceci est à moi!, which would simply have incurred the hostility of the rest of the group, but with a demonstration of the benefits he could provide his fellows by hosting “out of turn” the traditional totem-feasts. This model should be taken as exemplary; privilege, which humans began by rejecting, had to be accepted as an exception to the primordial human pact when it provided a significant benefit. This is not to deny that the importance of superior force as a factor in the establishment of hierarchies. But the very origin of the human through uniting the community against serial ranking makes clear that the original source of disproportionate power, however tyrannical it may later become, must lie in the provision of greater benefits to the group. And however miserable the life of a serf in the ancient empires, these empires can only have represented economic and cognitive, and of course, military progress over earlier states.

Today, particularly in the US, where there exist no titles of nobility, the general replacement of caste by class, defined by economic role rather than as an ascriptive status, reflects the fluidity of the modern marketplace that justifies the Declaration’s promise of a right to “the pursuit of happiness.” Yet no doubt, although in no way comparable to India’s rigid caste-system or even that of the European Old Regime, milder forms of caste survive in today’s USA, notably in Charles Murray’s Belmont-Fishtown division (in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010; Crown Forum, 2012), which also tends to separate the “liberal” Democratic elite from the Republican deplorables. Kendi’s racialism would lack all plausibility in the absence of such vestiges, which reflect social power-relations in a more subtle fashion than those between boss and worker.

The liberal-democratic formula is founded on the faith, grounded in Judeo-Christian religion, that the pact of human equality it embodies should suffice to prevent the monopolization of political power. And, with the passage of the totalitarian illusions of the 20th century, that this formula remains the worst form of government—except for all the others is clear from the simple fact that emigrants everywhere head for liberal democracies whenever at all possible.

So far, all large-scale attempts to reconcile the prosperity of the modern exchange-system with authoritarian governance have ended in failure, and despite China’s spectacular rise in the last two decades, it is surely too early to declare the success of Deng’s experiment in introducing a limited market into communist governance (Xi’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics”). As witness the recent crackdowns on Hong Kong democracy and on many major figures of Chinese “capitalism”—not to speak of China’s egregious human rights violations or its long-tolerated policy of technology theft.

Why then is it so difficult to defend the general principles, including judging individuals on objective criteria, of liberal democracy today? I have noted the rise of the digital as the key change in our economy that has increased the gap between Belmont’s manipulators of symbols and Fishtown’s manipulators of things. But the Kendi solution, however generalized it has become, can only exacerbate the problem, as the continual decline of educational achievement—notable in France as well as the US—reveals. Today’s “affirmative action” achieves the opposite of its original aim, which was to bring the less well-educated up to the level of the others, not give them bonuses to make up for their failures.

Churchill’s quip suggests the reason for the West’s current malaise: the proliferation of “other” forms of government that, however unpleasant and almost always ineffective in practice, affirm explicitly the epistemology of resentment that liberal democracy has succeeded as well as could be expected in converting into positive social energy. The New Left of the 1960s may have been utopian, but there was then at least some hope for the success of post-colonial national communist movements. Today, there is really none (Cuba? Venezuela?), and the “socialism” favored by the young is no more than the deconstruction of social reality that prevails in university classrooms.

Generative anthropology cannot pretend to have solved this problem, but naming it is already an important advance. It is the problem of firstness, the complication that the human, with its culture of the sacred and the sign, adds to the simplicity of the serial distribution that had functioned among the higher apes. This system worked because, in the absence of the human elements of différance and the sense of the sacred, the first may have been resented by all, but as a collection of resentful individuals, not as a collectivity.

In contrast, human serial rankings are highly susceptible of provoking mimetic conflict because the first at any moment is not merely perceived as higher ranked, but as the unique favored in contrast to all the rest. Human firstness designates not simple serial priority but the sacrality that attaches to the unique figure who occupies the scenic center in contrast to all the others on the periphery. The structure of the scene privileges the center not relatively but absolutely; it consecrates its occupant, and consequently provokes a human resentment incomparable with the mimetic hostility of our forebears.

Whence the originary rejection of firstness in the reciprocal exchange of the sign leading to the “equal feast.” But hierarchical society, institutionalizing the differential abilities of the members of the community to supply it with services, creates a permanent basis of resentment by opposing the first, and by extension, those close to the first, to the others whose inferiority is no longer merely serial but structural.

But calling firstness “exploitation” in an unjustified extension of Marx’s concept of the capitalist-worker relationship (itself based on the economically unfounded labor theory of value) does not explain the vast superiority of post-egalitarian societies in providing welfare to their members. There is simply no way to maintain an egalitarian distribution system in a modern economy. The Israeli kibbutzim, which were still flourishing when I visited Israel in the 1970s-80s, have virtually all abandoned their collective economies, and those that have not become the equivalent of mere residential collectives (moshavim) are generally organized around a focal source of income such as a hotel-resort or a factory run by specialists, in contrast to the old kibbutz ideal of autarky.

Yet the dream of “socialism” persists, and decades after the Nuremberg trials, no reckoning has been required of the socialist-communist tyrannies that have inflicted far more deaths and more—if less concentrated—misery than the Nazis. This perverse fact can only be explained as generative anthropology explains it, by the persistence of our moral quasi-instinct inherited from the originary event and reinforced throughout history, which after so many counter-examples remains vulnerable to the utopian dream of a return to a social universe of originary equality.

Modern conservative thinkers, of whom I mention solely Eric Voegelin, have denounced the arrogance of the Enlightenment’s contempt for religion and the paradoxical underpinnings of human culture. For these are not susceptible to being reduced to matters of “reason,” which is a set of rules for manipulating well-defined symbols, not an independent source of “truth” that can take the place of “opinion” in Parmenides’ conception. But it is a grave error to take the elegiac dignity of these arguments as proof of their validity and follow the paleoconservative path of viewing modernity as a catastrophe. Perhaps, as Girard often feared, modernity, even Christianity, were cosmic errors that allowed too much play to the (mimetic) sinfulness of our nature; perhaps, indeed, humanity is on a path to blow itself up. But turning back the clock of history is not an option.

And it is in this spirit that, however we may deplore as Burkeans the devastation wrought by the Enlightenment’s unleashing of plebeian resentment after centuries of abêtissement, we should recognize the genius of the Declaration’s insistence on our “equal” creation, not as proof that we all deserve the same reward, but as a sign that a society that encourages us to enjoy “the pursuit of happiness” is as close to an ideal society as we can create.