Picture the Olympic pool with all the swimmers on their blocks, ready for the race. They are the same distance from the water. The pool is the same length for every lane, and every lane is the same width. Each swimmer has the same set of rules that apply to them. When the starter shoots, the race starts. It will end with winners, losers, and everything in between, but at the beginning, they were all equal.
That’s what it means to be born equal in the eyes of America’s founders. They were not expecting that in a free society that everyone would end up with the same amount of wealth, knowledge, or success. What they did expect was that everyone would have the same freedom to accumulate wealth, access stores of knowledge, and attain success.
What the founders meant by being born equal was that being born human inherently necessitates that one has equal dignity and value as an individual. Now, not everyone will have the same talents, drive, or passions, but that’s what makes each person an individual. The definition of equality that is most valuable is the one that recognizes this fact and allows individuals to be free and discover how to utilize their natural abilities best.
Another way of understanding this better would be to look at a football team. Like the swimmers, they have the same playing field and rules. However, their game varies more. One team has to play offense to another’s defense. This means that a wide receiver doesn’t have to be the best receiver on the field, rather he has to be better than the cornerback covering him. He could be much more talented than the other receiver, but perform worse if he faces a tougher opponent.
While they are not able to control who their opponent will be, but they can prepare for them. Hopefully, they have been training and preparing to make them the most capable to compete. They can analyze the way their opponent plays and prepare to exploit any weaknesses. They have to learn to accept their situation and find a way to create the best outcome given their skills, then use their successes and failures as indicators of how they should train for next week’s game.
What does equality of outcome look like (besides, of course, participation trophies)? It looks like a front lawn. How does one keep their lawn the same length? The answer is to cut it. There is no way to make the shorter blades grow as fast as the taller ones and there is no way to make it all grow to a certain height and stop. The only way to ensure equal height is to cut down the tallest blades the most and each shorter blade less. The odd part about this is that the tallest blades will continue each time to grow the fastest, needing to be cut the most. This is exactly how a society creates equality among its people.
Freedom to grow and improve is necessary to the human condition. To be free is one of the purposes of humanity. Because each person is an individual, they must be free to pursue their passions, and if each person is free to do so, they are all equal. This is because people have free will, and the desire to exercise that ability is inherent.
Some people will become successful and famous, others will fail and be forgotten. Some will do everything they can with what they have, others will squander their talents. Some will be content with what they have, others will want more. Some will fight for their freedom to choose, others will be complacent as their freedom is stripped from them.
Equality is the right to be an individual, not the right of equal claim to the reward. Equality does produce unequal outcomes, but that is not a problem because each individual uses their freedom as they wish. The ability to do that is what it means to be equal.
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