Liberty and Equality

Posted on November 28, 2019


It seems to me that we are guaranteed two rights, liberty and equality, in the founding instruments of our republic, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. There are other rights, like the freedom of religion, and principles, like government as Abraham Lincoln phrased it, “of the people, by the people, and for the people” in his Gettysburg Address of 1863.

The new government also included free markets, limited government, the vote, and a democracy in contrast to old style monarchies across Europe and, indeed, much of the world. These were radical departures from the norm, looking back to classical Greece’s experiments with democracy and to the Bible for morality and God’s place in this new form of not only government, but also in governing men.

Both liberty and equality were expressed as necessary for the new “experiment” to work, but, by the same token, both were ideals. There is no such thing as absolute liberty or absolute equality in the equation of how men behave.

The equality principle is meant to foster or encourage equality under the law. That slavery existed in this country until the Civil War was a glaring deficiency in the equality principle, and the abolition of slavery was a major achievement in moving equality towards reality.

The same is true of liberty. Absolute liberty produces absolute chaos. Everyone doing what they please are so contrary to the rule of God and man as to be almost unnecessary to even mention. In Scripture, God was so displeased and outraged by men doing whatever they pleased that he destroyed all living creatures, big and small, save for a few he saved through Noah and his Ark.

We have been dealing with the ideals of liberty and equality now for at least three hundred years since our colonial forefathers concluded in the eighteenth century that the English King and Parliament were depriving the colonists of both, and, ergo, the American Revolution.

The pendulum of emphasizing one or the other has swung back and forth over the years. In the late nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, we tended to liberty, and under unbridled capitalism we produced an immense amount of wealth. Think robber barons, Rockefellers, Carnegies, and the like. When capitalism apparently failed in the stock market crash of 1929 followed by the Great Depression, we pushed liberty down a bit and elevated equality to try and distribute some of this great wealth in some fair manner. Actually, the first income tax had been enacted in 1913 as a progressive movement shook the gigantic trees of capitalism with another ideal: spread the wealth equally, make sure all the nuts and fruit falling down (wealth) from liberty of enterprise fell on all, some obviously more than others, but not strangling the poor and those not privileged by capitalism.

In the 1960s, a new wave of equality swept across the country, this time not so much spreading the wealth equitably, but eliminating the laws—think segregation—to integrate those historically outside the circles of capitalism, like African Americans, into the mainstream. Others stood to benefit from the great wave of equality, including women (the pill helped), Hispanics, and American Indians for example. Equality was the drumbeat, and federal programs like Affirmative Action were the weapons to level the playing field.

Today we are located somewhere between liberty and equality, not quite sure which to champion and embrace with enthusiasm. As we approach a presidential election year, the stakes seem larger, more significant, longer lasting. In short, we think our problems and challenges are radical and unprecedented. At stake are not only equality and liberty, but also—explained breathlessly to the less anointed–the very survival of the earth. We are, in short, behaving as people always have, putting ourselves and our problems into the dynamics of the timeline of history and claiming, of course, that our problems and solutions transcend all the past, which was just a prelude to us.

Which do we choose? Politically either socialism or capitalism? Much is claimed by the champions of both these great “isms” of modern life. The arguments for free this and that—education, insurance, medical care, etc.—are argued by socialists as they push for radical equality. This means big government, and big communist and socialist government have always—let me make that clear, always—led to totalitarian and repressive dictatorships, or the near or real eclipse of liberty under monsters like Josef Stalin.

Or a return to relatively unbridled liberty and the abuses of capitalism? People made fortunes of unprecedented dimensions with little accountability and even less thought to their fellow human. There are some exceptions. In the late nineteenth it was Andrew Carnegie who had a social conscience, and Bill Gates of Microsoft is a modern reflection of that conscience. Liberty, in both cases, was attenuated by equality and morality.

Always in the name of offering solutions, let me suggest a good source, the best, for answers: Christian Scripture. For starters, it provides some great principles on liberty, sharing, work, equality, and your relationship with God to start the healing, not promote the dividing, process.

Published as “Somewhere Between Liberty and Equality,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019.

Posted in: History, Politics