The Founding Fathers established America on two vital, yet often conflicting, principles: liberty and equality.
Americans tell themselves a wonderful myth where these two ideals go hand-in-hand, yet it is often the case that more liberty leads to decreased equality and vice versa. Take capitalism for instance. In its pure, free-market form, capitalism is about instilling as much individual autonomy and liberty into the marketplace as possible so both consumers and producers can reach the most efficient price and quantity.
Nonetheless, there will always be a certain degree of inequality in such a system that stratifies the population into particular classes. Or, take socialism. Socialism seeks to do the opposite, to guarantee equality at the expense of individual freedom. The key to a just society, then, seems to be to balance personal interests (liberty) with the greater social interestProxy-Connection: keep-alive
The question then becomes: in issues where liberty and quality conflict, which side should we err on?
Despite the resounding cries from some of those on the right that the Obama administration’s dedication to rectifying inequalities is slowly destroying American liberty in order to turn our democracy into a socialist dictatorship, both traditions have been part of the larger American tradition since its inception. They were personified by Jefferson, who believed liberty was the highest ideal, and Hamilton, who believed equality was the highest ideal and the government should be dedicated to improving the socio-economic circumstance of its citizens. Herbert Croly, one of the intellectual leaders of the Progressive movement in the early 1900s, wrote a book in 1911 entitled “The Promise of American Life” with the purpose of identifying whether liberty or equality contributes more to the American democratic tradition.
He began his project by remarking that a democratic state “should endure indefinitely, because it seeks to satisfy every interest essential to associated life. The interest of the individual is protected because of the liberties he securely enjoys. The general social interest is equally well protected because the liberties enjoyed by one or by a few are enjoyed by all.”
At the beginning of our nation’s history, liberty was the primary ideal in the American mindset for two reasons: the fledgling nation had just secured its own liberty from Great Britain, and inequality was relatively low since the country had an economy based on agriculture and manufacturing. Likewise, the open frontier represented new possibilities; therefore, if an individual wanted to start a new life, all he or she had to do was move West and stake out a plot of land.
However, following the industrialization and urbanization of America in the late 1800s, big business developed and consequently concentrated greater wealth in fewer hands, exacerbating inequalities. The principle of equality was established to ensure, as best as possible, that everyone has an equal opportunity to create the life they desire for themselves. Yet, given that our legal system places such importance on private property, it seems apparent that freedom in the economic realm can lead to privileges in the legal/political realm (billionaire Warren Buffet pays a smaller percent in taxes than his secretary and cleaner).
Hamilton (and Croly) believed that since a dedication to liberty inevitably resulted in a process of “social selection” (as opposed to natural selection) in which certain individuals would attain wealth and power and seek to make these privileges permanent, the government should employ the principle of national responsibility and intervene to guarantee a minimum amount of economic power and responsibility to everyone. The idea of Darwinian social selection would not be as detestable if it was primarily determined by individual merit, yet poverty and inequality seem to be more a part of the socio-economic structure than a personal failure on the part of millions of Americans.
What does this mean practically? Croly favored the redistribution of wealth through the death tax (taxing a person’s estate after his/her death), a national minimum wage to guarantee the ability to exercise a minimum of political rights and unemployment insurance to protect the individuals most at risk when larger structural problems in the economy manifest themselves in the form of recessions. Thus, because an allegiance to liberty tends to generate undemocratic results, a true understanding of the American democratic tradition would emphasize equal opportunities to resolve the inherent selection biases prominent in a system that holds individual liberty and private property sacred.
Equality does not demand that everyone’s liberty be curtailed that everyone is forced to be equal; but it does demand that a 16-year old girl in Harlem be able to finish high school if she so desires rather than being forced to take a minimum wage job to help her family pay the rent.
Jeremy Cutcher is a political science senior and the Mustang Daily liberal columnist.