The War between Equality and Individual Freedom

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

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 and Republicans 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 Progressive redoubts being bombarded by Conservatives.

Whether or not we are aware that there is a contradiction, at this time of year many Americans turn to A Christmas Carol, written by “the man who invented Christmas” as an early Victorian plea for equality. In the story, two gentlemen visit Scrooge—Dickens’ spokesperson for liberty, and a character who could also be a surrogate for contemporary Conservatives—and ask him for a donation for 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’s Ghost is Dickens’ personification of equality that can serve as a surrogate for contemporary Progressives…

“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 battle—between equality and liberty in much of his work, but as Harari notes, the battle lines had been drawn since the French Revolution in 1789, and one-hundred and seventy-seven years after A Christmas Carol was penned the battle still rages.

For which side are you willing to go to the streets: for the Democrats, the Army of Equality, who 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 Republicans, the Army of Liberty, who will lower your taxes and end universal public education, which interferes with the American promise of equality for all?

Instead of manning barricades, isn’t there a better way somewhere in the Radical Middle? Compromise used to be a hallmark of American Democracy, but it is no longer. Why?

I suggest that what is missing 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 interest provides a reason for persons of differing views to work together; unfortunately, the election of a black man to the Presidency seems to have marked the beginning of the end of American Fraternity.

Historians will someday decide why it happened, but my hypothesis is that too many white Americans were jolted by the face of a black man representing them to the world. This was aggravated by the rise of an intractable Tea Party, the ascension of Fox News and MSNBC (each of which created echo chambers that ignored or distorted the views of those on the Right and Left), social media that provided safe havens from which rocks could be safely thrown, Mitch McConnell’s documented vow to oppose everything Obama, and now a reciprocal vow on the part of Democratic congressional leadership.

Donald Trump did not invent the tribalism now tearing America apart, but he has exploited and exacerbated it. One only need spend a short time on Facebook or Twitter to see there are few if any voices calling for fraternal compromise; instead, there are citizen voices calling for the humiliation and even literal death of their opponents.

It does not have to be this dire. Improving Public Education could provide the vehicle we need to get America back on the road to Fraternity. Such a scenario might evolve like this:

  • Conservatives acknowledge that universal public education is a right and not a privilege.
  • Progressives acknowledge that States’ Rights is an issue that is not going away and agree that implementation of the right to universal public education is the responsibility of individual states.
  • Conservatives work with Progressives to identify appropriate expectations of universal public education in order to create an American Education Bill of Rights.
  • Progressives and Conservatives support changing the Department of Education into an agency responsible for supporting research into effective educational practices and for the support of States’ initiatives upon demand, and not a department responsible for insuring compliance to Federal initiatives, which would no longer exist.
  • All Americans support the conscientious implementation of the Education Bill of Rights in each state, and when it is suspected that these Rights are being violated, such issues would be resolved by the Judicial Branch of the Federal Government.

The above 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 side winning” exists, compromise will be impossible. When it comes to education, we should not be concerned about whether one side or the other is winning. We should be concerned about whether or not our American way of life is winning, a way of life that values both equality and liberty and uses the goodwill of fraternity to find a balance within the contradiction with which most Americans can live.

9 thoughts on “The War between Equality and Individual Freedom

  1. For me, equality connotes equal opportunity in the pursuit of happiness and prosperity. Not equality of outcomes. And here is where politicians, on both sides, are far off the mark.
    If we want quality universal public education, then we need to start with some sort of teacher evaluation system that disregards tenure and focuses on teacher effectiveness. Additionally, there must be some level of personal responsibility and subsequent accountability on the part of students to maximize their performance in the classroom.


  2. Here’s a comment, not totally related to this blog, but more of a tangent.
    If we are serious about education as a path to the future, and that all who are in the educational system as students should be also held accountable for performance, then why not …
    conduct examinations for all Division I football and basketball programs/players and consider as indelible any player who cannot read and write at grade level? Suspension period to be not less than 6 months, and to be “rescinded” upon the player’s demonstrating that they are at grade level.
    College should be for those able and willing to work at getting an education. Not as a farm system for professional sports. Nor as a “child care” repository for people who cannot pass minimum literacy qualifications.


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