The War between Equality and Liberty

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari offers an important and timely insight about equality and individual freedom (or liberty):

Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction … Contemporary American politics also revolve around this contradiction. Democrats want a more equitable society, even if it means raising taxes to fund programs to help the poor, elderly and infirm. But that infringes on the freedom of individuals to spend their money as they wish … Republicans … want to maximize individual freedom, even if it means that the income gap between rich and poor will grow wider … Just as medieval culture did not manage to square chivalry with Christianity, so the modern world fails to square liberty with equality…

Our collective failure to resolve the contradiction is reflected in the struggle between American Progressives and Conservatives whose surrogates—Democrats (the Army of Equality) and Republicans (the Army of Liberty) respectively—are engaged in what feels like a fight to the death for the soul of America, and universal public education is one of several redoubts of the Army of Equality being bombarded by the Army of Liberty.

My non-scientific sample of one tells me it is unlikely that the average American has realized there is a contradiction between individual liberty and equality even though many of us revisit the quintessential story of that contradiction every December. December is the time of year when many Americans turn to A Christmas Carol, which was written by “the man who invented Christmas” (Charles Dickens) as an early Victorian plea for equality. In the story, two gentlemen visit Scrooge—Dickens’ spokesperson for individual liberty—and ask Scrooge what he wishes to donate to the poor.

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.”

Marley, Scrooge’s deceased business partner, is Dickens’ ghostly personification of equality who challenges Scrooge’s conservative point of view:

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Dickens served to illuminate the contradiction—the war between the Armies of Equality and Liberty—in much of his work, but as Harari notes, the battle lines had been drawn by the French Revolution in 1789, and yet, 231 years later (and 177 years after A Christmas Carol was penned) the war still rages.

For which side are you willing to go to the barricades: for the Army of Equality that will tax you in order to fund programs like universal public education, and in the process, decrease your liberty to do what you want with your money, or for the Army of Liberty that will lower your taxes and diminish, or as some conservatives wish, end universal public education, which would greatly confound the Declaration of Independence’s promise of equality of opportunity and the pursuit of happiness?

Instead of manning barricades, isn’t there a better way somewhere in the Radical Middle? Compromise used to be a hallmark of American Democracy (and perhaps, other true democracies as well), but it is no longer. The foundational issues today are the same as they were when we Boomers were kids and our uncles fought tooth and nail across the kitchen table but stopped short of throwing punches. Why?

I suggest that what is missing in America today is the third word in the cry of the French Revolution and the current motto of the French Republic: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Fraternity is kinship, togetherness, and union; a group of folks sharing common interests. When there is fraternity, there can be negotiation and compromise because that common bond provides a reason for persons of differing views to work together to solve problems, but despite that truth, American Fraternity is in its death throes. I believe that historians will come to a consensus that there is a straight line between the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and the beginning of the demise of fraternity.

The Fairness Doctrine had required that American TV and radio outlets provide free air time for responses to any controversial opinions that were broadcast by those outlets, and its repeal by the then 5-star General of the Army of Liberty, Ronald Reagan, meant that outlets could once again broadcast inflammatory and unchallenged editorial commentary without having to present opposing views. The freedom to do so led to the birth of Fox News and MSNBC in 1996, each of which immediately became echo chambers for war propaganda generated by the Army of Liberty and the Army of Equality, respectively. These chambers selectively ignored facts and distorted and fabricated views that were contrary to the dogma of their opponents, which ultimately resulted in the endorsement of “alternative facts” by an aide-de-camp of a general of the Army of Liberty.

When social media appeared (Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006, and then a plethora of other politically skewed media), platforms were created on which tribalism was nurtured and from which rocks could be thrown safely. Most of us have spent enough time online to realize that there are few if any voices calling for fraternal compromise; instead, there are tens of thousands of voices calling for the humiliation and even literal death of their opponents. Over the past five years, my own voice, such as it has been via blogging and social media and regretfully caught up in the blood lust of the war, has been shrill and unforgiving. In the denouement of the most recent battle, the Armies of Equality and Liberty stare at each other across a bloody field. Generals strategize about how to bring about ultimate victory while the hoi polloi lick their wounds in preparation for the sacrifices they fear will be coming.

The last time the armies were in a similar situation was during Reconstruction when the then (temporarily) victorious generals of the Army of Equality acceded to too many wishes of the defeated Army of Liberty, which has resulted in more than a century of vicious inequality for African Americans. Moving forward does not need be as dire, but the future will be unless there is a lasting truce during which we can began to build fraternity amongst all Americans. The first step in establishing such a truce is the acknowledgment that neither equality nor liberty will ever reign supreme. Second, it must be acknowledged that survival as a country is essential to both the well-being of Americans and the well-being of the citizens of the world. Third, we must acknowledge that despite the philosophical divide, we are one family. And fourth, we must rely upon fraternity to provide the impetus to find compromise.

Guaranteeing a quality education for all American children is one of many topicshealth care, climate change, taxing structure, and policing being othersthat can provide a vehicle needed to get America back on the road to fraternity. If such a scenario were to evolve, Americans would need to be reminded of (or introduced to) the fact that although issues of racial discrimination in education have been adjudicated with the equal protection of all citizens under the law being upheld by numerous court cases—SCOTUS’ 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka comes to mind—American children do not have a federal, constitutionally-guaranteed, fundamental right to a free, public education. And then …

  • Progressives (the Army of Equality) must acknowledge that States’ Rights is an issue that is not going away and reaffirm that providing public education is the responsibility of individual states.
  • Conservatives (the Army of Liberty) must acknowledge that universal public education is a right and not a privilege, and that a quality education for every American child is essential to our country’s survival.
  • Conservatives and Progressives must negotiate and compromise to clarify appropriate expectations of universal public education that would become the content of a 28th Constitutional Amendment: The American Education Bill of Rights (AEBR).
  • By ratifying the Amendment, each state thereby would commit to ensuring that its educational system will be aligned with the AEBR.
  • In response to the states’ full responsibility for implementing universal public education, the Progressives and Conservatives in Congress would change the Department of Education from a Cabinet-level agency responsible for devising and insuring compliance to Federal initiatives to an agency within Health and Human Services that supports research into identifying effective educational practices and supports States’ initiatives by providing consulting services when requested.
  • Progressives and Conservatives, in the service of American Fraternity, would need to support the conscientious implementation of the AEBR in each state, and if it is suspected that specified student rights are not being provided, such issues would be resolved by the Judicial Branch of the Federal Government.

The above scenario identifies concessions that each side would have to make in order to arrive at a resolution, but as long as the current emphasis on “my army winning” exists, American Fraternity cannot be nurtured, and in the absence of fraternity, compromise will be tenuous at best if not impossible. Because of my life’s career in public education, I find the notion of one or the other side winning to be loathsome because, to my way of thinking, we should all be concerned about whether or not the dream of American Democracy is winning, an as yet unfulfilled dream that values both equality and liberty and relies upon the goodwill of fraternity—as it has for most of its first 244 years—to drive compromises that the majority of Americans can accept, the same Americans who no doubt have never given a thought to the foundational contradiction that has challenged our fragile American Democracy since before its inception.

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