Balancing freedom and equality in a vibrant democracy

by Schuyler Foerster

Sky is currently serving as the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Social Studies at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic.

We live in a world ridden by conflict—conflicts of ideas.  Rarely are these ideas about how, together, we might improve the quality of our lives.  Instead, they are all too often about how some of us can improve our lives at the expense of others, usually because we want to blame those “others” for whatever we think is absent in our own lives.

“We the People,” was not about “some” of us.  (Actually, it was, but we have fought several battles and one Civil War to remedy that exclusionism in law, if not yet entirely in fact.)

At the heart of this democratic experiment is a delicate balance between “freedom” and “equality”—two core values that, paradoxically, exist in tension with each other.  After all, if we are to be “equal,” then none of us has the “freedom to be unequal.”  And if we are to be “free,” then inequality will be inevitable.  These are extremes, of course, and we know what those look like: freedom without the restraint of law and civic responsibility is anarchy; equality devoid of human aspiration and real choice is communism.

We struggle with this balance, so it is imperative that we have a clear view of what these words really mean.  (In doing so, we should avoid the baggage-laden labels of “liberal” and “conservative”; these words are often distorted badges of pride or similarly distorted shibboleths of disdain.)

House Speaker Paul Ryan has characterized the “American dream” as “the idea that anyone can make it in this country.”  Accordingly, all one needs is the freedom to make the choices—and take the risks—necessary to “make it.”  This, of course, begs the question of what “making it” really means.  In a recent tweet, Ryan answered this question in this way: “Freedom is the ability to buy what you want to fit what you need.”

Seen this way, freedom is a permissive concept: the freedom to buy what you want, and not what others tell you to buy; the freedom to say what you want even if it hurts others or incites violence; the freedom to pollute everyone else’s air because you don’t want to be required to have an emissions test or adhere to clean air standards inscribed in law.

The difficulty with this permissive view of freedom is that it is selfish.  It values the individual good but is indifferent to any greater good.  We all know that freedom has significant limits.  We are not free to drive 100 miles per hour in a school zone because we want to; there is a greater good of public safety involved.  We are not free to scream fire in a public theater just for fun.  Free speech is limited by laws against hate crime or child pornography.  The list goes on.

The point, therefore, is that freedom is neither “free” nor “unconditional.”  What sets those limits is the rule of law—laws consented to by citizens within a constitutional framework, but laws nonetheless.  And it is government that bears the obligation to enforce those laws.

Likewise, “equality” has its merit in society but also its limits.  We know that a certain amount of socioeconomic inequality is inevitable.  People are different.  They have different skills, talents, resources, and opportunities.  Some get “lucky”—others don’t.  At times—and still—some seek to place a perverse genetic definition on these differences, but the real point is that inequality comes with the territory.

As a society, we have repeatedly discovered that too much inequality is bad not just those who “don’t have,” but also for those who “have.”  As Henry Ford long ago discovered, keeping all the profits for oneself means that no one else can afford to buy what you make.  Economic growth across abroad base of society begets more growth.  In the Great Depression of 1929, we saw the fabric of stable society unravel; the New Deal was designed most of all to engender hope for the future, not despair.  In the Great Recession of 2008, millions of people saw their small but accumulating wealth disappear overnight; for many there was no road—or not enough longevity—to recreate that wealth.  The result?  Despair and anger at a system that had “broken its promises” and “abandoned” the average working family, especially those who had not been able to adjust to the new economic realities of globalization.

The standard critique of the New Deal and its offspring, the “Great Society,” is that government subsidies of disadvantaged segments of society engender dependency and sap initiative, even as they seek to provide a “safety net” so that the rest of society is spared the spectacle of armies of homeless people, long bread lines, or desperation-driven violence.  So-called “welfare queens” square off against Horatio Alger.  If you’re not well off, somehow, in this social Darwinist construct, it must be your fault: you were stupid, didn’t work hard, made bad choices, or were irresponsible.  But this is a half-truth, and policy must deal with the “whole” truth.”

The fabled Horatio Alger story is misleading.  In the 19th century, hard working boys escaped poverty by hard work, ultimately “noticed” by someone in a position to offer the boys a “break.”  In the 21st century, manual exertion is insufficient, as major corporations screaming for skilled workers even in the wake of the 2008 recession (and even more loudly now); one needs advanced education and skills for which our education system remains inadequate.

To promote equality in America is not to insist on “equality of outcome”—that everyone has the same regardless of situation.  It must, however, strive to create “equality of opportunity.”  Only in this way can we resolve the tension between “freedom” and “equality.”  What good is freedom if there are no real choices in which to exercise that freedom?  What good are free enterprise and an open marketplace if one cannot acquire the education or resources necessary to participate in that marketplace?  What good is screaming “get a job,” when the job requires skills one does not have, or pays so little that it does not cover transportation or child care?

Or—to return to Speaker Ryan’s adage—what good is the freedom to buy what you need if you are unable to acquire the means to do so?  Or, is this a perverse way of saying that you really only need what you are able to buy?

Today, this “freedom” vs. “equality argument typically translates into a debate about “more government vs. less government.”  “Government is best that governs least,” often attributed (wrongly) to Jefferson, is a simple proposition, cited most of all by those with libertarian instincts who tend to see government as antithetical to individual liberty.  Lincoln had a different view: “The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort do at all, or do so well, for themselves.”

To be sure, government does not have the obligation to provide all that one needs or wants in society.  But in defining the purposes of our government, the U.S. Constitution specifies “establish Justice,” before “promote the general Welfare,” and these before “secure the Blessings of Liberty.”  Securing the blessings of liberty (“to ourselves and to our Posterity”) is a mandate within the context of the other purposes of government; it does not exist in isolation and clearly does not take precedence.

The beauty of Lincoln’s view of government is that it continues to put the onus on the private sector to do what private citizens, either separately or together, can and should do for themselves.  But it also confronts the fundamental challenge of government, which is to do what it has unique competence to do in a way that the private sector does not, precisely because the success of the private sector is also in the public good.  But it must apply across the board, not just to some who—like Horatio Alger’s hard working boys—were “noticed.”

Consider, for example, how many of the supremely wealthy in this country were able to accumulate wealth because government cushioned the inherent risks associated with private investment and entrepreneurship.  How many of those screaming that government needs to get out of the way of business were able to succeed in business precisely because government provided research contracts that turned into lucrative licenses, then protected the investments of venture capitalists who funded the enterprise, then offered bailouts either directly or through subsidized bankruptcy proceedings when the venture turned bad.

The point is not that these are inappropriate roles of government; they are appropriate.  But to object to government’s role as a matter of philosophy while enjoying the benefits of government’s role is hypocrisy.  To turn that philosophy into policy in a way that consciously and deliberately denies opportunities to those who are not blessed by birth and circumstance is both cynical and indifferent to the very purposes of good government.

In a free society committed to the ideals specified in the Constitution, government can indeed reconcile the tensions between freedom and equality.  Government can and should work to enable all its citizens to avail themselves of the “blessings of Liberty” by doing what is in its competence to ensure that each of us has the opportunity to succeed and a safety net that also encourages individual risk taking.  These opportunities can and should be protected in law, applicable and accessible to all, because it is through the law that we are ultimately all equal and exercise our freedom.


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