Deserve’s Got Nothin’ To Do With It

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

“Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it,” Clint Eastwood’s character may have said in Unforgiven, but equity has been the central issue of Western politics for centuries, Thrasymachus says:

The first struggle over equity involved King John versus his barons, and forced him to concede his rule was not absolute and that freemen could only be punished under law. It resulted in the Magna Carta. This document wasn’t always followed, but it set the theoretical precedent that the individual could insist on fair, and equal treatment. More importantly, it set up an ongoing conflict between the need and desire of the state to exercise power to maintain order and the need and desire of the individual to do what he wants.
The major event of the middle of the last millenium — the Reformation — was a matter of authority. But having shaken loose the locus of authority, from the Pope to — well pretty much anybody who could read — the issue of equity came much more to the forefront, explicitly or not.

In England it became a struggle between the commercial class and the traditional military aristocracy. The commercial class actually did stuff, but the aristocracy only ruled by accident of birth, so how was that fair? The English commercial class promoted its interests for several centuries by spreading democracy, until this became the world standard. The reformist Protest religion of this loved the idea of equality, tearing down those above it and civilizing those below it with religious discipline — the “sivilizing” that rankled Huckleberry Finn so much.

Human neurological uniformity is thus a very deep part of the reformist mentality. No one can rule by birth, and no one can be born to be ruled. People are still obviously not uniform, so what makes them different? Morality, rather than some inborn quality. The people who run society do so because they are more moral. People are good citizens to the extent they adhere to this morality, or at least agree to it.


  1. Equity between nobles was the norm in Europe from the collapse of state power in the Western empire until c. 1450. The struggle was between monarchs trying to impose an alien Persian absolutism on their noble fraternity and noble equity fighting to preserve their customary rights.

    Magna Carta and its many contemporaries were not innovations. John Lackland and his kingly brethren were the innovators. Magna Carta was an attempt to suppress innovation. Even the Parliament that the younger de Montfort organized was a conservative innovation. Longshanks discovered he could subvert Montfort’s initiative to triangulate between rising burgesses and sitting nobles to radically increase the power of the crown.

    Even then innovation was frowned upon well into the seventeenth century. Parliament’s role was not the manufacture of new law but the protection and promotion of ancient law based on precedent. This is why Coke resuscitated the forgotten Magna Carta in his battle against Stuart absolutist innovations. Only later did the burgesses discover that they could triangulate between crown and nobility to increase its power. But that’s another story.

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