Equality and Liberty: Can We Integrate These Two Concepts?


The Greek philosopher, Socrates, once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. With all due apologies to that great thinker, I would like to suggest that unexamined concepts or ideas are not worth having and, in fact, may cause great harm. What do I mean?

The rhetoric is heating up in the political arena these days, particularly since some of the social changes being suggested involve such “basic rights and entitlements” as welfare, Social Security and affirmative action. Underlying these “basic rights and entitlements” are some key concepts or ideas which allegedly justify them and provide the arguments for their existence and promotion. It is these key concepts and ideas that I want to briefly discuss in this article.

The Concept of Equality

The concept of equality appears in the Declaration of Independence in the phrase “all men are created equal.” What did that mean to the framers of our government? The clue to the meaning appears in the next phrase: “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Founding Fathers were not stupid men. They knew that individual persons were not equal in personal characteristics and abilities. They knew that some people were more intelligent than others, some were disabled in some way or other, and some people had artistic or mechanical talents which others lacked in significant ways.

What was meant by the concept of equality was “equal before God” and “each individual is an end in himself.” Each individual is entitled to serve his own purposes and pursue his own objectives. An individual is not to be treated simply as an instrument to promote someone else’s purposes.

The men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution knew that individuals are not identical to one another. Each person has different values, different capacities, and different tastes. As a result, individuals want to live different lives and they want different things. The concept of personal equality demands that these differences be respected.

Regardless, however, of what particular circumstances one was born into or what specific characteristics one possessed, each individual was “equal before God (or the Creator).” The Founding Fathers accepted this as a basic principle or axiom of American political philosophy.

The concept of equality was further expanded to include “equal before the law.” Individuals who are wealthy are not to be treated differently from those who are poor, and individuals who are intelligent or talented are not to be treated differently from those who may be lacking in mental ability or limited in talents, as far as the law is concerned. In other words, each individual stands before the bench of justice on an equal footing. That, at least, is the ideal, regardless of the fact that sometimes that ideal is not reached in some situations.

Eventually the concept of equality expanded even further to include “equality of opportunity.” What this meant was that an individual should not be prevented by arbitrary obstacles from using his capacities, talents, and so forth, to pursue his own objectives and goals. This does not mean “identical” opportunities (that is impossible), but simply that one is not denied his right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness, on the basis of birth, color, religion, gender, and so forth.

The concept of equality in the sense of equal before God, equal before the law, and equal access to opportunity, has served this country well. It is the basis for a society of free minds and free markets. It is the cornerstone of the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Many decades ago the concept of equality was revised, and with disastrous results. The new meaning of the concept of equality became “equality of outcome.” The goal of equality under this meaning is “fairness,” a radical departure from the traditional concept of equality. And one of the real difficulties with “fairness” is that it is not an objectively determined notion. After all, what is fair? Or what is a fair share?

The most insidious thing about the idea of “equality of outcome” is the extent to which it reduces another key concept in American political philosophy, the concept of liberty. The concepts of equality before God, before the law, and equality of opportunity, enhance liberty. On the other hand, equality of outcome, in the name of “fairness,” leads to arbitrariness, subjective determinations, differences in the treatment of individuals, and a general reduction in personal freedom.

If what individuals acquire is determined by “fairness” and not by what they actually do, who is to determine what an individual gets and who is to determine from whom that acquisition comes. It means that those who work hard and produce will have to give up part of their production so that others who may not work and produce will, nevertheless, have a “fair” share of what is produced. It also means taking from those who have earned and giving to those who have not earned. It means everyone finishes the race at the same time, even though some may run faster than others.

This irrational concept of equality of outcome is the foundation for all the policies of the Welfare State. It is the sole justification for forcibly depriving individuals of what they have gainfully earned and giving the fruits of that work to those who have not earned them. Or, in other words, it is the basis for stealing from the haves and giving to the have-nots, simply because they somehow “deserve” a fair share.

We have seen all too well where this concept and the programs it supports has led us as a nation. And so now, finally, after decades of failure, the welfare system and its corolaries are under attack. It is unfortunate, however, that the attack is being made for economic reasons, the high cost of the present welfare system and the fraud it involves, rather than because it has reduced individual freedom and the welfare system is incompatible with the traditional concepts and ideals of the American political philosophy as envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

And that brings us to the next key concept to be discussed.

The Concept of Liberty

Americans have traditionally been proud of living in the “land of the free.” Unfortunately, today that should read the “land of the somewhat free.” The entire concept of freedom that our Founding Fathers accepted as a principle to guide the new nation they created has been turned on its head.

The change in the concept of liberty that took place was very subtle; so subtle, in fact, that few citizens at the time took notice. Whereas the original meaning of freedom meant “freedom to,” the new meaning of freedom meant “freedom from.” That slight change in wordage has spawned one of the worst disasters in American history.

The original intent of the framers of the American government was that all individuals would be “free to” pursue their own Happiness, work toward their own goals, and reap the benefits of their hard work. Americans were “free to” speak their own minds, read a free press, create wealth, build businesses, farm the land, raise their children, and so on.

About six decades ago a new concept of freedom was promoted. This was the notion of “freedom from.” This notion was based on a number of false assumptions, including the assumption that “security” was paramount as a value. The argument went something like this.

Everyone likes to feel secure. Life is full of insecurities. There are a lot of risks out there in the real world. People need food, shelter, jobs, education, and so forth. None of these things are guaranteed in the normal course of living. So what to do about it? Why, of course, use the government as an instrument to provide security. The government will guarantee food, shelter, jobs, and so on.

But security and “freedom to” are not compatible concepts. The notion of “freedom to” involves risks, such as the risk of failure and the possibility of mistakes and errors. The notion of security includes the idea of “freedom from,” freedom from, that is, failures, mistakes, errors, and risks. Eventually, to have “freedom from,” an individual has to give up “freedom to.” And that’s what has been happening in this country. Let me illustrate by pointing out a few recent examples.

According to the proponents of this new concept of “freedom from,” everyone should be secure from insults, ethnic jokes, and politically incorrect speech. In fact, a new policy of so-called “hate” crimes has been widely promulgated, partly based on this idea. In order to enforce this new security or “freedom from,” what has to go? Well, of course, the “freedom to” speak (or write, or think) whatever is on your mind. Freedom of speech and freedom of press are thereby diminished.

Now let’s look at “freedom from want.” The proponents of the new concept of freedom argue that everyone should have the basic necessities of food and shelter. In one sense, I agree, everyone should. That is certainly a laudable ideal. I would argue instead, however, that everyone should have the “freedom to” pursue whatever enterprise they desire to provide themselves and their loved ones with food and shelter. The proponents of the new concept may not disagree with that but they argue that somehow, should someone not be willing or able to provide food and shelter for themselves, that somehow this puts an obligation on others to provide such for them. From whence does such an obligation arise? Why am I obligated to provide for some stranger the so-called necessities of life? Why does “freedom from” put a claim on my “freedom to?”

Now, on to a last illustration which will lead into another key concept much abused these days.

At this time, everyone of adult persuasion has the “freedom to” smoke tobacco. This freedom is increasingly coming under attack because of the notion of “freedom from” so-called secondhand smoke. This has led to legislation prohibiting smoking in “public” places, such as restaurants, offices, and so on. In this case, “freedom to” appears to be in conflict with “freedom from.” But is it? I answer in the negative. The reason it appears to be in conflict is because of the new concept of “public” place.

Public Places and Private Parts

Once upon a time there was an enterprise called the private business. It could be a restaurant where the owner provided food services to customers or a private office where professionals saw their clients. We have all seen the signs in restaurants, for instance, that say “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” We are aware that a lawyer or an accountant can refuse to represent anybody they care to. They are “free to” do that, at least for now.

Let’s deal with restaurants for now. A restaurant has always been considered to be a “private” business serving its customers who “choose” to use its services. The restaurant owner decides what’s to appear on the menu and what sort of ambiance the restaurant will provide. The owner has financed the business, worked hard, taken the risks of success or failure, and generally made all the important decisions inherent in the running of any business. If the restaurant is popular and makes money, the owner reaps the benefits. If the restaurant doesn’t succeed, the owner takes the lumps.

Over the past few decades, this “private” business has now become a “public” place. How? Simply by definition and a changing concept of what “public” means. There is no business now that is truly “private.” The government has decreed such. And this means that the owner of the business can no longer make all the decisions so critical to the success or failure of the business.

Now that there is no such thing as a “private” business, all businesses are now “public” places, the government can pass whatever legislation it wants to regarding the conduct of the business. The concept of “private” property as seen by our Founding Fathers has undergone a radical shift. Essentially there is no such thing as “private” property anymore. And that brings us to the tobacco issue.

More and more restaurants are being subjected to a ban on smoking in their establishments. The general trend seems to be toward federal legislation prohibiting smoking in all businesses. This phenomenon can only come about by declaring that all businesses are “public.” The owner has no choice. The decision is taken out of his hands. The customer has no choice, either.

So what is next? Now that there is (by government decree) no such thing as a “private” business, the next step may well be the menu of the restaurant. Already there are forces out there complaining about the dangers of certain foods that are high in fat content and other “bad” things. There is pressure to clean up the American diet. Since restaurants are now “public” businesses, the logical place to start would be there. From now on, no more breakfasts can be served which contain eggs, sausage, bacon, or beef. No more hashbrowns, either. Lunches of hamburgers and fries are out. Dinners will be only government-approved foods.

I know some of you may think this is an obvious exaggeration. But think again! Look back and see how far things have come. A farmer in California can no longer plow his “private” land because of a mouse. A man in New York is arrested for killing a rat at his “private” home. A farmer cannot dig a ditch on his “private” farm because it is now declared a protected wetland. Some jurisdictions prohibit you from smoking in your “private” office. And there may be more to come.

The concept of private property or private business is no more. A “public” place is now almost everywhere that once was private. The change in the concept has been, as I’ve said, very subtle. But that’s how totalitarian governments and dictatorships work. They start out with promises of “freedom from” and “security” and “equality of outcome.” They redefine “private” and make it “public.” And the Founding Fathers look down from above in tears. They gave us an idea and an ideal. We sold them out for the security of thirty pieces of silver.

Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.

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