Unequal treatment (Updated)

In the course of my talk at TAM, I mentioned at one point “There’s nothing so unfair as equal treatment of unequal ideas.” Various people tweeted and retweeted it, so the line was clearly a hit.

That’s actually a misquotation (I was working from memory) of a line I’ve always loved, but have had a hard time tracking down.

You often see the correct version attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but rarely with any citation accurate enough to confirm. In a 1950 Supreme Court dissent, Justice Felix Frankfurter said: “It is a wise man who said that there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals” Dennis v. United States, 339 U.S. 162 (1950). He was objecting to the trial of a Communist Party official convicted for refusing a subpoena to appear before HUAC, and wrote:

Let there be no misunderstanding. To recognize the existence of a group whose views are feared and despised by the community at large does not even remotely imply any support of that group. To take appropriate measures in order to avert injustice even towards a member of a despised group is to enforce justice. It is not to play favorites. The boast of our criminal procedure is that it protects an accused, so far as legal procedure can, from a bias operating against such a group to which he belongs. This principle should be enforced whatever the tenets of the group – whether the old Locofocos or the Know-Nothings, the Ku Klux Klan or the Communists. This is not to coddle Communists but to respect our professions of equal justice to all. It was a wise man who said that there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.

The earliest citation I’ve been able to locate of who that “wise man” might be is in a book review from the 1906 New York Times, from a review of The Battles of Labor, a book on strikes and labor unrest in the Gilded Age and dawning progressive era, by Dr. Carroll D. Wright. Reviewer Edward Bradford aligns Wright – formerly the US Commissioner of Labor – with socialists, saying that Wright’s “collectivism” is simply a “new name[] for Socialism,” though Bradford seems elsewhere to take an overly-expansive definition of socialism. In any event, Bradford quotes: “There is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals. The immorality of equal compensation for unequal services is an immorality which society always recognizes no matter what the attempts may be to secure inequality of compensation for equal services.”

As far as I know, that’s the source, though it may be that Wright was citing some earlier source.

Elsewhere in my talk, I quoted noted community organizer (and Glenn Beck bête noir) Saul Alinsky, whose politics certainly leant to the left (though he wasn’t a Communist or a Socialist). And I quoted Bernice Johnson Reagon, a Freedom Singer from the Civil Rights era. I don’t know the details of her politics, but I’d guess she’s also pretty lefty.

I know there are lots of conservatives who support teaching evolution, and it was only later that I realized I’d made at least three, and arguably 4, overt references to Communist, socialist, and otherwise liberal sources.

Updated to add: Wright’s The Battles of Labor was published in 1906, and is thus in the public domain. And Google Books has it scanned and free to download. That link takes you to the page at issue, which includes no suggestion that he is quoting anyone else.

Comments

  1. #1 J
    July 14, 2011

    I know there are lots of conservatives who support teaching evolution, and it was only later that I realized I’d made at least three, and arguably 4, overt references to Communist, socialist, and otherwise liberal sources.

    Okay…

    And?

  2. #2 sbh
    July 14, 2011

    The saying “There is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals” is usually attributed to Anton Menger. I’m guessing that this might be from “Man weiss eben heute, dass es keine grössere Ungleichheit gibt, als das Ungleiche gleich zu behandeln” [Google translation: “You know just today that there is no greater inequality than the unequal treated equitably”] on p. 30 of Das bürgerliche Recht und die besitzlosen Volksklassen (1904).

  3. #3 rpenner
    July 14, 2011

    As Lecky, speaking of England, well says in his work Democracy and Liberty: ” ‘All contracts to the contrary notwithstanding’ [is] a favorite clause in democratic legislation.” Why is this? Perhaps no better answer has been given than that succinctly expressed by a professor of jurisprudence, namely, Dr. Anton Menger of the University of Vienna, in these words: “There is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.”

    http://books.google.com/books?id=oKvvAAAAMAAJ&dq=%22no%20greater%20inequality%22&pg=PA563

    Richard T. Ely “Political Economy: Distribution of Wealth, and Current Problems” in Progress Volume 4, 1899

    Stated as a principle of labor contract law:

    In legislation and actual practice alike we have realized that “there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.”

    http://books.google.com/books?id=THtMAAAAIAAJ&dq=%22there%20is%20no%20greater%22%20inequality%20%22than%20the%20equal%20treatment%20of%20unequals%22&pg=PA428

    Charles Jesse Bullock Introduction to the study of economics, 1897

    I think he was referring to the 1824 English repeal of anti-Union laws.

    By treating perfectly equally all citizens, without regard to their personal qualities and economic positions, and admitting unlimited competition between them, it was brought about that the production of goods was increased without limit, but also the poor and weak had only a small share in that increased output. The new economic and social legislation attempts therefore to protect the weak against the strong and to secure for them a moderate share in the good things of life. We know today that there is no greater injustice than to treat as equal what is in fact unequal.

    Anton Menger Civil Law and the Propertyless Classes (1890)

  4. Some ideas are more unequal than others and in a lot of ideas it’s impossible to decide which idea is which and by how much.

    Jefferson banned Hume’s history of England from the University of Virginia because he believed it was injurious to democratic government though some Hume apologists have claimed the opposite.

    I’d be curious to know the context.

  5. #5 Mike from Ottawa
    July 15, 2011

    In the course of my talk at TAM, I mentioned at one point “There’s nothing so unfair as equal treatment of unequal ideas.”

    If speaking of ideas, I would go with ‘There is nothing so misleading as the equal treatment of unequal ideas.’ Being informative or misleading is more appropriate to ideas than is fairness or unfairness.

  6. #6 sbh
    July 16, 2011

    Dr. Wright’s book was published in 1906. Two years earlier, in the 20 February 1904 issue of Saturday Review the following appeared:

    Professor Anton Menger was quite right when he said “There is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals”.

    This is the ending of an anonymous review of A Traveller’s Tale of Prison Life.

    Eight years before Dr. Wright’s book was published Richard T. Ely wrote (in Political economy, political science and sociology, 1898):

    Perhaps no better answer has been given than that succinctly expressed by a professor of jurisprudence, namely, Dr. Anton Menger of the University of Vienna, in these words: “There is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.”

    This is probably a translation of a passage in Das bürgerliche Recht und die besitzlosen Volksklassen (Civil Law and the Propertyless Classes.

    All three of these have been scanned and are available at Google Books.

  7. #7 dz alexander
    July 17, 2011

    This statement, with its Tinkertoy arrangement of just a couple of elements, was probably said or written by many people in many languages from the time the concept arose.

    It’s like the swastika, or the star of david or the yin-yang circle. Half the bored kids in classrooms round the world have doodled them.

  8. #8 Patricia South
    November 15, 2011

    I think that this quote can be traced back to Aristotle, who wrote “there is no greater inequality than to try and make unequal things equal”.

  9. #9 Wow
    November 16, 2011

    However, there’s no good quite like righting a wrong.

    And empathy is best shown when you make amends.

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