One of the unfortunate effects of politics is the hijacking of perfectly good words and making them mean things that they’ve never meant. For instance, in the debate over gay marriage, the word “love,” which I Corinthians 13 describes as the greatest of all virtues, was redefined in terms of mere emotions and eroticism instead of seeking the good of the other person, even if that meant self-sacrifice. Joe Biden likewise thinks that “unity” means calling folks who voted for Donald Trump threats to democracy. And here in Alabama, many of our elected officials think that “conservative” means growing the size of government faster than California or New York are growing theirs.
In the fight to control words, another unfortunate casualty has been the word “equity.” From the founding of our nation until now, equity has had a very different meaning than how the left is using it nowadays.
At the time of America’s founding, “equity” simply meant “justice; right,” or “the impartial distribution of justice, or the doing that to another which the laws of God and man, give him a right to claim.” While we have gotten away from our theological foundations in the 21st century, Merriam-Webster still defines “equity” as “justice according to natural law or right.”
No reasonable person should have a problem with the foregoing definition. Justice is getting what one deserves. Nobody disputes that innocent people should be vindicated and that guilty people should be punished. That is justice, and that is equity. So far, there’s no problem.
In law, “equity” has a special meaning. According to Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, at the time our Constitution was adopted, “equity” meant “the correction or qualification of law, when too severe or defective; or the extension of the words of the law to cases not yet expressed, yet coming within the reason of the law.” Again, we don’t think as carefully about what these concepts originally meant in the 21st century as we did in previous times. Nevertheless, in law, Merriam-Webster still defines “equity” as “a body of legal doctrines and rules developed to enlarge, supplement, or override a narrow rigid system of law.”
In legal practice, it is common to ask courts to grant forms of equitable relief. For instance, if the government is violating the First Amendment, it is common to ask a court to issue an injunction that makes the government immediately cease its actions. While the First Amendment forbids the government from doing certain things, the application of the First Amendment to a particular case requires an equitable remedy. That’s how equity is supposed to work, and it is a good thing.
So is this what the left means today when they talk about equity?
Nope, not even close.
In the context of so-called social justice, which is where the term often appears, this definition appears to fit how the left uses the term: “Equity, in its simplest terms as it relates to racial and social justice, means meeting communities where they are and allocating resources and opportunities as needed to create equal outcomes for all community members.”
Equality of outcome has very little to do with either natural, God-given justice, or the spirit of the laws. According to the Bible (which is how we know what natural justice is), inequality of outcome may be due to the fact that a person did not do what they were supposed to do. (See, e.g., Matthew 25:14-30; II Thessalonians 4:8.) In such a case, producing equality of outcome by taking from those who worked for it and giving to those who refused would be truly inequitable. Now without a doubt, if someone is poor because someone is truly oppressing them, then equity would require the government to help fight off the oppressor. (See, e.g., Psalm 72:4; Proverbs 13:23.) But if the law is fair and neutral, and if nobody is actually oppressing (in the true sense of the word) the less fortunate, then neither natural nor legal equity requires equality of outcome.
At the end of the day, by perverting the term “equity” to mean “equality of outcome,” the left is doing what it has been doing for decades: stealing another perfectly good word and changing its meaning to advance its policy goals. It’s the same old socialism and racial discrimination for which they have been advocating for years.
I think it would be good if we didn’t let them get away with misusing the term “equity.” If we were successful, it would force the left to be honest about what they’re really fighting for instead of letting them get away with something that sounds better than socialism and racial discrimination.
Matt Clark is the President of the Alabama Center for Law and Liberty, a conservative nonprofit law firm that fights for limited government, free markets, and strong families in the courts. His column appears every Friday in 1819 News. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.
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