Our country is in trouble. Congress’s approval rating hovers near its lowest level since Gallup polling began, social protest rates are as high as they’ve been since the 1960s and the least among us — poor African Americans — are worse off than a decade ago . These are indicators of democracy running off the rails. To them one might add the stagnation of earnings for most Americans and a new regime of surveillance, wedded to ever-extending bureaucratic regulation.
One cause of our trouble is that we have come to believe that liberty and equality are in conflict, and this affects our policy debates. This misunderstanding began in reaction to Marx, took hold during the Cold War and found new strength in today’s libertarianism. But it’s wrong — and until we return to understanding how liberty and equality reinforce each other, we’re not going to solve our problems.
For millennia, political thinkers understood equality and liberty as concepts that provided mutual support. The ancient Athenians, who invented formal democracy, also conjured up the concepts of “equality before the law” and “an equal right to speak.” They opened political participation to all men regardless of economic status, while naming naval vessels things such as Eleutheria, or “Freedom.” The republican citizenry of ancient Rome conducted its politics under the banner of “equal liberty” and celebrated a mixed constitution that, as Cicero wrote, had “enough power in the magistracies, enough authority in the advice given by leading citizens, and enough liberty in the people.” For a time, that mixed constitution brought “equality,” “something free men are hardly able to do without for very long,” as he put it. The United States’ founding similarly drew liberty and equality together. In Abraham Lincoln’s formulation, the new nation was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The obvious flies in the nectar — slavery and patriarchy — actually reinforce these conceptual points. Those who were not equal were not free and vice versa.
Among citizen men, in Athens, Rome and America, equality and liberty were concepts understood to support and sustain each other. Bonds of political and social equality among the citizens were necessary to forge institutions that would protect each individually from domination by the others and all together from domination by external powers.
Up through the early 19th century, the search for definitions of popular government and the welfare of the people (or salus populi, to quote Cicero and Locke) yielded a diversity of approaches to equality. The ancient Athenians, for instance, and the early modern Americans, focused on political and social equality. The French cared about both of those but also pursued equalizing economic policies. There was, in short, a centuries-long fluidity of analysis around the concepts of liberty and equality — but also a basic orientation toward their fundamental harmony.
This disappeared with the rise of communism. Marx’s famous words, “A spectre is haunting Europe,” introduced an age that assimilated the belief that liberty and equality stand opposed. That age is with us still in the form of contemporary libertarianism.
In the “Communist Manifesto” of 1848 Marx wrote: “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state . . . . Of course, in the beginning this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property and on the conditions of bourgeois production.” Over half a century, the question of the meaning of equality and its connection to liberty came to turn entirely around a definition understood to require the equalization of property through forceful re-appropriation.
In this country, as the argument against socialism and communism gathered force, the battle was explicitly cast as a contest between equality and liberty by thinkers such as William Graham Sumner, the late 19th-century chair of political economy at Yale University. He wrote in an argument against socialism: “Let it be understood that we cannot go outside of this alternative: liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest.”
By the Cold War, both communists and libertarians structured their ideas, to an important degree, around the tenet that there is “an Eternal Conflict” between liberty and equality, to quote the title of a 1960 article from the Freeman, a publication of the Foundation for Economic Education. Iconic thinkers on the right adopted the theme and built economic theories around it: Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. But liberals and thinkers on the left — Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin — also assumed a basic opposition between liberty and equality, even if they sought to undo it.
The stakes of this conceptual error are significant. We might, for instance, view our partisan gridlock as the sad result of a conceptual error applied over long duration. The Democratic Party, which now wears the mantle of equality — if any party does — thinks it cannot in a full-throated way befriend liberty. The Republican Party, which wants to style itself the party of liberty, thinks it can give no quarter to equality. But these ideals belong together like hand and glove. If the command economy was an extreme political form, so too is the libertarian counter-vision.
It’s now 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell — long past time, in other words, to dismantle the second wall established by a putative opposition between liberty and equality. We are overdue for a return to the task of ascertaining how those two concepts work in tandem, and what institutional forms can best sustain them as the twinned ideals that they are.
Our own political tradition gives us the resources for doing that, beginning with the Declaration of Independence. I would urge us all to renew our education there, diving afresh into the meaning of equality, and discovering just how it can live harmoniously with liberty.
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