In societies without large disparities in sociopolitical power, the egalitarian balance is often maintained through purposive action.

Pamela J. Hobart studied philosophy and education at the doctoral level at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and she holds a B.A. magna cum laude in philosophy from Georgia State University. From 2012 to 2014, Pamela served as the K-12 Education Program Officer for the Institute of Humane Studies at George Mason University. Her research interests include virtue ethics, social norms, character education, homeschooling/​unschooling, and the epistemology of reasonable disagreement, and she lives in New York City.

Mainstream conversation surrounding inequality often assumes that equality (of some kind) is desirable, and that achieving it is possible. No shortage of ink has been shed on what “equality” means, and which potential dimensions of equality are morally and politically important. For even just the barest overview of these theories, set aside a few hours to read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entries Equality and Egalitarianism.

This area of political inquiry, while interesting, gives the misguided sense that our task as citizens is to learn and think about equality, to choose the most plausible from the various theories of equality on offer, and to implement it. In other words, egalitarian theorists are largely engaged in what you could call “ideal” theory. Their visions of equality are top‐​down.

However, the whole point of the exercise is to figure out how to move from initial conditions of inequality towards conditions of equality, and how to stay there. If it were clear that equality is desirable, what it entails, and how to achieve it, we’d already be living as egalitarians. Instead, we need to do non‐​ideal theory regarding how to work towards equality in a persistently non‐​egalitarian world.

In one type of effort to this end, we might at least provisionally set thorny conceptual issues regarding equality aside, and look to times when equality (or something importantly similar) was actually achieved in practice. An ethnographic understanding of egalitarianism and how it works can complement (or even defease) the more purely philosophical egalitarian visions on offer.

Certain general conditions promote or frustrate egalitarianism and a flattened social hierarchy amongst humans. For instance, hunter‐​gatherers who are nomadic and lack the ability to accrue differential amounts of possessions/​wealth have a relatively difficult time converting social and material status into political power. The nomadic condition is an example of “automatic leveling,” a mechanism that pressures a society towards egalitarianism. On the other hand, agrarian societies give rise to the possibility for some individuals to capture more or better land, generating vast wealth and putting the landless at their mercy. They do away with any automatic leveling former nomadism may have effected.

Anthropologist Christopher Boehm conducted a large survey of existing “weakly stratified nonliterate societies” that are politically autonomous, examining their political climates for regularities. According to Boehm, automatic leveling‐​type conditions seem to be insufficient (if helpful) for producing egalitarian societies. Instead, widespread egalitarianism in these groups is better explained by the prevalence of intentional leveling mechanisms: behaviors intentionally undertaken by individuals to limit a leader’s power, thereby keeping hierarchies relatively flat over time.

Boehm’s commonly‐​observed intentional leveling mechanisms include critical public discussion/​opinion, ridicule, outright disobedience, desertion, deposing, or assassination. Basically, through combinations of these actions (or the latent threat thereof), ordinary individuals prevent leaders in their midst from rising to excessive political heights. Of course, actions of these types can be undertaken for reasons other than dislike of domination, or they can be undertaken not specifically for the purposes of leveling. Nonetheless, observably intentional leveling is widespread and effective, satisfying non‐​dominant group members’ persistent desire not to be excessively controlled.

Can intentional leveling be leveraged once more to keep society in egalitarian check, even at a large scale? The prospect doesn’t look good. Flattened social hierarchies, with few advantages for those of higher status, seems to be both cause and consequence of small‐​scale living. Without the ability to powerfully control other group members, leaders have a hard time keeping large groups together. People living in small groups are accustomed to having more immediate political input and do not appreciate infringements. It is easy enough to imagine a modern mass society that’s egalitarian on some dimension (for instance, equal post‐​redistributive incomes) — but not one without a powerful bureaucracy of status‐​bearing officials tasked with implementing that version of equality.

Some intentional leveling does still happen, to be sure. Free speech (especially including freedom of the press) facilitates the criticism and even ridicule of leaders. Incumbents lose elections. However, some intentional leveling mechanisms are obviously not available within the modern state. Most notably, forcibly deposing leaders at any time within the election cycle or conspiring to have their own families kill them with impunity is not meaningfully possible within stable, liberal democracies. And of course, though leaders are occasionally assassinated, it’s not common enough to put much of a damper on would‐​be despots. Even the right of individuals to simply exit polities is not always well‐​respected; moreover exit’s costs are different than they might once have been.

It would be anachronistic and self‐​serving to celebrate traditional people as the first real libertarians. Still, the tendency for an egalitarian ethos to emerge from conflict has relevance to contemporary mass society and its attendant political difficulties. It’s easy to idealize hunter‐​gatherers, imagining that their non‐​hierarchical, consensus‐​based societies are politically calm. But in reality a shared egalitarian ethos creates conflict—whatever conflict is necessary to quash a dominant leader’s rising star.

Dissenters in small groups are closely united primarily in their objection to the runaway leader at hand; their project is to restrain him. Getting people to unite based on their objection to a bad leader is much easier than assembling support for a new candidate and his prospective constructive plans. There is no report that the dissenters in traditional communities also openly hold positive interests that they hope to pursue with some alternative leader. At most, a new leader comes forward organically, all the while subject to all the same effective leveling mechanisms (and knowing it, too).

Intentional leveling mechanisms in effect give the little guys a collective veto over their rulers, without thereby giving anyone the power to do anything else. When dominating leaders vacate (or are made to vacate) their informal seats of authority, no power attaches automatically to the office. Each new leader in the churn must start from scratch, behaving in such a way that he’s not leveled out. Imagine how different, for instance, the American presidency would be if each President had not inherited a precedent of expanded power from the last (regardless of how small a margin he won by).

Though it’s not clear whether the desire to be free of excessive political control is part of “human nature” per se, it certainly seems common and strong. If achieving robust equality today would require citizens to set aside this desire (rather than serving as an expression of it), then that may be a fool’s errand. Giving a few people tons of power understandably tends to seem like a bad bet, even if it’s ostensibly in the service of equalizing future power.