Liberty. Equality. In our American way of life, which is more important? Last Friday, Mark Levin opened his program with this question. Before you read further, please stop and consider these terms. Think about what our way of life is all about. Think about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Think about our Revolutionary War. What were our ancestors fighting for? Liberty? or Equality?
When the French, much inspired by the American Revolution and particularly by Benjamin Franklin, set out to topple their king, they marched to the rhythms of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” Their revolution never brought to France the stability, the tranquility and the prosperity enjoyed by the USA. Why? What was more important? Liberty? Or Equality?
When Russian peasants inspired by the ideas of Marx and under the cunning leadership of V I Lenin threw down the Czar and his empire, what did they want? Liberty? Or Equality?
What did they get? To work backwards, the Russian peasants took charge of themselves and created communes. They gave up their land and quite a bit of liberty in order to become equal. They all became equally poor, equally privileged to stand in line for simple necessities such as toilet paper and bread. They gave up the liberty to work for anybody they wished in order to have a guaranteed job in the commune. Everybody ultimately worked for the government, because nobody was allowed to be an employer, except the government. They all had equality in their choice of employer. The government ran the factories that made the tractors, which were all alike. The tractors were all equal, and they all equally fell apart and failed to run. The peasants of Russia obtained equality, but they were all so equally oppressed that they all equally desired to leave. Russia did not have an immigration problem; Russia had an emigration problem.
The French were pretty concerned with equality, too. In fact, anyone who reads deeply into the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution quickly discerns a number of common threads. Men and women lost their identity as men and women and became neutered fellow revolutionaries. They engaged in committees where their high-minded ideals of a prosperous liberated future fell victim to human egos, and before they knew it, an artful speaker had high-jacked their revolution and run it into the ground in the wicked winter of 1812. They got a lot more equality than liberty. They sold their liberty for a pack of fine words.
The British colonists who undertook to become independent in 1776 were accustomed to English Common Law, and in the context of that legal environment, they knew the difference between liberty and equality. In the litany of their complaints against the king of England, they demanded to recover rights they knew are theirs because they were the rights of all English citizens, but the dominant theme is an insistence on their freedom to procure and protect those rights for themselves. In the bloody, frozen battlefields of the Revolution, men did not give their lives in order to have equal rights. They gave their lives in order to obtain the liberty to protect rights they knew God had already given them. They declared their liberty by naming the rights they intended to protect, but it was liberty, the escape from the tyranny of the empire, that they wanted most of all.
They knew something very important, something the French and the Russian and contemporary liberal politicians do not know. (You may call them progressive if you like, The politics don’t change; just the nomenclature.)They could look at ten homesteads on the edge of a wilderness, ten family farms, ten households, and see ten different lifestyles and incomes. Of the ten some would successfully feed, clothe and shelter their growing families. Others would barely make ends meet. Yet all were at liberty to do the best they could imagine or dream with the opportunity before them. The colonists turned American citizens knew that if everyone was free, then everyone had the same shot at success, because the hindrances to success imposed by oppressive laws and the machinations of politics did not matter out there at the edge of civilization. The truth was the same for all locations, but it was most clearly visible at the frontiers. That is where they could most readily see the truth that if a man has liberty, he can make his own way, but he only has equality, he is oppressed.
We know it here in the mooring field where our boat is currently located. There are probably 200 boats in this mooring field. They are all sizes, all sorts of designs. Each is truly unique, as unique as each owner. The boats in the mooring field are not equal by any means. They vary widely from extremely luxurious to extremely utilitarian. They are not equal, but they are all equally at liberty to come and go as they please. Each has the same right to moor as all the others, and nobody owes the others anything but common courtesy. They are not equal, but they are all equally free. That is the root of the real happiness of the cruisers who reside in these boats. They are free, and they don’t really worry much about being equal. They didn’t all want to be the same, and that is why no two boats are ever alike.
The most important element of our national government, the element proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence and protected by the Constitution is our liberty. Our form of government was never intended to procure equality, because that objective so easily leads to tyranny. Just listen to all the scathing words about “the rich.” As soon as everyone is economically equal, somebody squanders his allotment, and then you must redistribute everything. As soon as all the skin-colors have been mollified, those with red hair start feeling picked on. Do you require everyone to have red hair? Or at least wear a red wig in order to achieve equality in hair color? Where does it end? If you start giving everyone equal vehicles, can you manufacture them rapidly enough to give everyone a new one at the same time? If you spread it out, will you have given everyone a new one before the first folks need a replacement? Then is it equal or not? Can you give the first folks something different when you start the new round of distribution?
America is not the land of equality. We have always prided ourselves on assuring equality before the law, which is to say, we pride ourselves that a rich man and a poor man stand before blind Justice and receive the just disposition of their conflict. Being human, we have found that an elusive goal at times. Nevertheless, what we value above equality is liberty. Equality becomes tyranny. The goal of equality has eroded our conversation as we struggle to find just the right word to avoid offending anyone. We want all our words to be completely neutral. The goal of equality is eroding the meaning of family, even the meaning of humanity. America has not been the land of equality, because equality becomes oppression. Who gets to say what equal means? Who gets to distribute the equal gifts? Who is more equal than others? Read 1984 and find out what happens when equality is the goal.
America has always been the land of the free. Above all other things, people came to this country to be free. If you read what immigrants say about us, you will find that they don’t much talk about equality. They want to be free so they can be whatever they dream. Not equal. Better than that.
Liberty? Or Equality? I’ll take liberty any day.
2 thoughts on “Liberty or Equality?”
However too much liberty will also lead to tyranny.
Those who start to succeed at better able to influence government and business to favor them and to ignore the others. As this continues they gain more and more power so that you have created an oligarchy, a rule by the rich or big business.
This is one reason we no longer have the unfettered capitalism prevalent at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Monopolies are no longer allowed is one example of this.
Those who get power will, too often, continue to accumulate more at the expense of others libertiies.
As a liberal, I have no problem with people being rich. I also recognize that making everyone equal in terms of money and status is not only attainable but also not a good idea. However, I also recognize the danger in allowing the rich to continue to influence government so that the tax laws favor them at the expense of everyone else, so that they can buy their representatives to do what they wish instead of what might be best for everyone.
I will agree wtih you on the importance of liberty. I’ll also agree with you that you cannot and should not mandate equal results. However I am not a fan of liberty only. Your closing statement of liberty or equality is a false dichotomy. We need a balance of both – an equaity in regards to how we are treated by the law and businesses and a liberty in regards to making decisions on how to live our lives.
One without the other – liberty without equality or equality without liberty – will lead to tyranny.
You make some good points. Your comment about the influence of wealth is not, however, an indictment of wealth so much as it is an indictment of elected officials. If someone can be bought, all the equal people can still pool money or influence and have undue power over government.
This particular issue requires examination of another problem we seldom hear discussed in the public forum: how do we rear children to become adults who not only know the difference between good and evil, who also have the character to choose the good even if it is not to their personal advantage? So many problems that bedevil society and government would be solved if elected and appointed officials were people with character instead of people who think their job is to compromise. They do it for power, for celebrity status, for money, for influence, for access to people with more power. Willingness of public officials to be bought makes it impossible to legislate carefully enough to assure integrity in the outcome.
I know that the question is a simplistic question with a complicated answer. I heard someone else talk about it, and I liked the way the question makes people think. Even the fact that you noticed it is a false dichotomy is important. Not everyone recognizes that problem.
It is crucial to define what it is that is equal when we talk about equality, too. To talk about equal standing before the law is not the same as talking about economic equality.
Thank you very much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking response.
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