Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Equality v. Liberty in 21st Century America”April 1, 2013
Equality represents a state of being equal in terms of value, rank or ability. When it applies to the human condition, it is an artificial state, as no two people are the same, apart from our roles in society. As Americans, we are all equal (theoretically) before the law and in our ability as citizens to exercise our right to vote. The military treats its recruits equally. Fifty-one years ago, when I was in basic training, I stood in formation between a drop-out from Evander Childs High School in the Bronx and a recent graduate of Harvard Law School. In the eyes of Sergeant Billingsley, there was no difference. One can impose equality, but it is not a natural state. Once out of basic training, the differences between the two recruits were obvious.
Liberty is more nebulous; it is a condition we take for granted. It is only through reading the letters and diaries of those who have had it removed that we can begin to appreciate its value. It is difficult to define, yet its removal would be felt. It is a fragile condition that is constantly at risk. On the one hand it risks descending into anarchy; on the other, of succumbing to authoritarianism. The risk of the former, in my opinion, is minimal; the latter bears watching. Liberty was what the Founders sought in breaking with England in 1776.
Our Declaration of Independence exemplified the inalienable rights with which all mankind are endowed by their Creator; among which are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Other rights, which today we take for granted, didn’t appear until later. It was only in 1827 that Massachusetts passed a law making all grades of public school open to all students free of charge. The right to vote became universal only after a wait of almost 200 years. Originally only white male property owners could vote. The 15th Amendment (1869) gave the right to vote to male African-Americans. The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was not passed until 1920. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned literacy tests and provided federal enforcement of voting rights laws in several southern states. The Voting Rights Act of 1970 provided language assistance to minority citizens. In 1990, access to ballots and polls was made easier with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Providing the right to vote to all citizens of age was the proper extension of freedom, whereas ignoring the necessity to understand English and removing literacy as a requirement were, in my opinion, attempts at equality.
As we became wealthier, we became more paternal, and “rights” morphed into entitlements – care for the physically and mentally handicapped, the right of a comfortable retirement and healthcare for all. Historically such obligations had been assumed by local institutions and the private sector. About eighty years ago the federal government began to become more pervasive, and the country veered left toward a welfare society. While I support many of these government programs, they demonstrate a shift in the role of government. The motives of those who led this change were not entirely guileless. Many recognized that in providing services they created dependency and, in creating dependency, they enhanced their electoral base and their odds for re-election. In doing so, they helped send personal responsibility to the back benches. Such politicians – deliberately or not – often failed to understand that attempts to be equitable risk undermining the essence of liberty. Each entitlement received requires giving up some small element of freedom. Many are okay with that, but few truly understand the consequences.
Freedom is illusive. Equality is tangible. Freedom is God-given. Equality is granted by man. Freedom allows us to speak our minds, to worship (or not) as we please, to think as we choose. In Democratic societies, we are all equal before the law and in our one-vote-per-person. Equality of a opportunity is enviable and should be our goal; however, some are always favored. But the tendency today is to extend equality of opportunity to equality of outcomes. We see it in schools where everyone is a winner and where teachers instruct to the lowest common denominator. We see it in the extraordinary increase in food stamps, even as the economy is about to enter its fifth year of recovery. We see it in the redistribution policies of President Obama.
The unspoken truth is that people are innately unequal – in terms of background, intelligence, strength, looks and aspirations. The state needs to provide the equalities enumerated above, but the consequence of seeking equality in outcomes is a dumbing down of society and, definitionally, a less free populace. Alexis de Tocqueville brought attention to this subject. In Democracy in America, he wrote: “The advantages which freedom brings are only shown by length of time, and it is always easy to mistake the cause in which they originate. The advantages of equality are instantaneous, and they may be constantly traced from their source.” He goes on to note that the pleasures of liberty are rare, but exalted; the enjoyments of equality are common and small. Freedom, as I wrote earlier, is only missed in abstentia.
It was the tug-of-war between liberty and equality that worried de Tocqueville. His concern was that the passion for equality and the habits they form almost always accompany a diminishment of liberty. He wrote: “Absolute kings were the most efficient levelers of ranks amongst their subjects.” In the past century we saw such characteristics in the Soviet Union, where a well-publicized welfare for the masses concealed a brutal dictatorship. Many East Coast elites were seduced by what they read and heard of a new society in old Russia, one without castes or aristocracy, one that supposedly brought equality to all. History suggests that was never their intent. They were simply thugs dressed as redeemers. The costs included the loss of personal freedom, brainwashing, diminution of the soul and the sending of dissidents to the Gulags. Nevertheless, many naïve Westerners succumbed to the promises of Communism. In 1919, the journalist Lincoln Steffens returned home from Soviet Russia announcing, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Washingtonians of the 1930s like Whitaker Chambers, Harry Dexter White and Henry Wallace became enamored with Communism and the new Soviet Union. Their writings can be contrasted with that of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn who, while initially a fan of Lenin, spent two decades in the Gulags and wrote of its horrors and despair.
A tipping point is inevitably reached when the desire to be fair or equitable infringes on the basic freedoms of the individual. A ridiculous example of the extent to which leaders will go to impose their will can be seen in Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to ban the sale of soft drinks in containers greater than 20 ounces. There is no question that drinking too many large soft drinks is not good for one’s health. One should limit one’s caloric intake, but is that the responsibility of government? If so, can government ban all personal habits they deem undesirable? Where does it stop? The very decision by Mayor Bloomberg implies a disdain for the average person’s intelligence, invoking a sense that the needs of the many should be decided by the few. Such impositions are insulting to the very concept of freedom.
A former colleague Avik Roy, who is currently a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and who writes a blog for Forbes called The Apothecary, had an interesting take on this subject: http://www.forbes.com/sites/aroy/2013/03/28/yes-health-care-is-a-right-an-individual-right/. He wrote: “You see, healthcare is a right, in the same way liberty is a right. And that liberty – to freely seek the care we need, to pay for it in a way that is convenient for us and our doctors, is one that government is gradually taking out of our hands.” Government claims a prerogative “to appropriate our income, for the purpose of providing some sort of healthcare to everyone.” How much easier and more effective it would be to achieve universal coverage, Mr. Roy suggests, if those designing the program would incorporate the classical liberal principles of choice, competition and voluntarism.
The Founders did a remarkable job in creating a structure that threads that narrow path along which a free people trod. They created a government of the people, by the people and for the people. It has been self-perpetuating for over two hundred years. It is a system that has grown and adapted to new challenges that time and technology have wrought, but without losing its basic focus on liberty. But that is at risk. It is not equality that made this nation so special; it is the freedom that allows us to succeed or fail, to rise up or fall down, to have our say, to let us think and worship as we choose, to freely assemble and publish what we want – all rights that are rare in the history of mankind, but that are simply taken for granted by most of us today.
It is not only an emphasis on equality that threatens our liberty. Too much debt renders us dependent on creditors. In yesterday’s New York Times, David Stockman noted that in the hundred years leading to 1980 total U.S. debt (government, personal and corporate) averaged about 160% of GDP. At the end of last year, it was about 355% of GDP. Very low interest rates are temporarily providing cover of the true cost of that debt. War powers were assumed by Presidents from John Adams to Lincoln, Wilson and [Franklin] Roosevelt and were deemed necessary at the time. When the wars ended, the powers were rescinded. George W. Bush and Barack Obama have exercised similar powers. This time, however, we are combating an enemy more difficult to identify and it is a war that is certain to last far longer than past ones, which may cause these powers (and the concomitant loss of liberty) to persist through multiple administrations.
We live in an age that demands instant gratification. For a politician it is easier to favor fairness and equality than to explain the meaning of liberty. Freedom has an illusive quality. Every day the media is filled with stories of the differences between the rich and the poor, the haves and have-nots. We are told about widening income gaps and the inability of millions to afford college. We are told we are becoming a two-tiered society with a disappearing middle class. The concept of freedom does not receive the attention it warrants. It is not taught in our schools with the fervor it deserves. It is ridiculed in Hollywood, as liberty is confused with patriotism, and is equated with low-brow, gun-toting, Bible thumping red-necked Americans. Our school children are told that the United States deserved what it got on 9/11, with no acknowledgment that it is our inherent freedoms that are so despised by tyrants and terrorists.
Equality and fairness, as de Tocqueville noted, are more readily apparent and politically appealing, than the vague nature of freedom. But it is freedom that has attracted millions to these shores and that has allowed us to become a rich, creative and generous people. To the extent that our focus has switched to concerns of equality and fairness rather than liberty, our freedom is imperiled, and if that is lost, all will be lost.