The phrase (but) some — are more equal than others means that, although parts of a group of persons or things appear to be equal, some receive in reality better treatment than others.
In current use, this phrase often alludes to Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (Secker & Warburg: London, 1945), by the British novelist and essayist George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair – 1903-50). In this satire on Communism as it developed under Joseph Stalin [note 1], the animals of Manor Farm overthrow their human masters and rename the property Animal Farm. They adopt the Seven Commandments of Animalism, the most important of which is: All animals are equal [note 2]. However, the animals are betrayed by their leaders, the pigs, and their revolutionary commandments are rewritten and compressed into one: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others—as illustrated by this photograph from Animal Farm (1954), an animated film produced by Halas and Batchelor, based on the novel by George Orwell:
Professor Richard Fardon, of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, explained the following in Malinowski’s precedent: the imagination of equality, published in Man: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland – Volume 25, No. 4 – December 1990):
When Orwell contrasted the phrase ‘all animals are equal’ with ‘some animals are more equal than others’ his intention was to exemplify a particular type of meaninglessness in political discourse. This says much precisely because it makes no sense in terms of a propositional approach to language about the world. It is a kind of meta-statement about statements about equality, made to argue that the first concession to their difference other animals made to pigs was the end of their absolute equality.
Here are two interesting recent uses of the phrase:
1: from the Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA) of Friday 12th October 2012, about the screening by FOCUS Film Society of the above-mentioned 1954 animated film Animal Farm:
All versions of “Animal Farm” are created equal, but some are more equal than others — like the 1954 animated telling of George Orwell’s classic barnyard allegory about the evils of totalitarianism.
2: from a dialogue occurring during a game of bridge, in Frank Stewart’s bridge column, published in The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana, USA) of Friday 17th January 2014:
“All finesses have an equal chance of working, which in my case is zero,” Louie muttered. […] “All finesses may be equal,” I remarked, borrowing from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” “but some are more equal than others.”
In the following from The Russia House (Hodder & Stoughton: London, 1989), the English novelist John le Carré (David John Moore Cornwell – born 1931) might allude to the phrase from Animal Farm:
“All victims are equal. None are more equal than others.”
Although in current use the phrase often alludes to the novel by George Orwell, (but) some — are more equal than others occurred on many occasions long before Animal Farm was published, as an ironical contrast to all men are (born) free and equal and variants.
The earliest occurrence that I have found is from The Derby Journal (Birmingham (now known as Derby), Connecticut, USA) of Thursday 17th February 1848, which published purported extracts from the private papers of Jeremiah Doughhead, the probably fictional editor and proprietor of an ephemeral country newspaper, the Flytown Borer:
That “all men are born free and equal” we have little doubt, but that some are far more ‘equal’ than others, we have less doubt.
The second-earliest instance of (but) some — are more equal than others that I have found is from The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia) of Monday 22nd May 1876, which mentioned:
The builders and contractors for public works in this colony have had for a long time past a substantial cause of complaint against the Government. The conditions of contract they are called upon to sign on undertaking to execute any public works are one-sided and arbitrary in the extreme. […] When the department under which any work may be performed discovers that an omission has been made in the plans or specifications (or both) prepared by themselves, “the contractor shall, at his own expense,” make the blunder committed by the department good. […]
[…] It reminds one of the Irish declaration of rights as burlesqued by London Punch [note 3], in which it was declared, “all men are free and equal, but some men are more equal than others, especially the quality.” […]
[…] The contractors do not like to bear such legal shackles in the execution of contracts carried out in a free country. They desire to be placed on a free and equal footing with the department in all their dealings. They object to the principle of “men being more equal than others, especially the Inspector-General.”
The phrase also occurred in The Boston Daily Globe (Boston, Massachusetts, USA) of Sunday 17th April 1887:
All men are born free and equal, but some men become freer and more equal than others.
1 Joseph Stalin (Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili – 1879-1953) was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR from 1922 to 1953.
2 The commandment all animals are equal is a transposition to the animal world of all men are equal, which, in turn, is particularly associated with:
– the United States Declaration of Independence, adopted on 4th July 1776:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
– the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), adopted by France’s National Constituent Assembly on 26th August 1789:
Les hommes naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droits. Les distinctions sociales ne peuvent être fondées que sur l’utilité commune.
Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good.
3 I have not found from which issue of Punch, or, The London Charivari this quotation is.