FREEDOM AND EQUALITY Radical Bleeding Heart image


So when we are told by conservatives that equality restricts freedom, their concern is that equality will somehow constrain the freedom of wealth to wield its power as it likes or the freedom of the wealthy to acquire more wealth. The belief that the power of wealth should be unfettered, so popular with conservatives, is sometimes confusingly called “neoliberalism.” This is the creed of Milton Friedman and others: the absolute freedom of private property. And the equality that they so fear is equality of income or of wealth.

But what should we mean by equality? The word equal means “the same”, and we are obviously not all exactly the same. Sometimes it is interpreted to mean equality of opportunity. The good thing about this notion is that it attacks obviously artificial forms of inequality: those based on class, race, and other factors determined by accidents of birth. But it implies that our purpose here on earth is to grab as much as we can of the world's resources, and that God put us here to gobble up as much as possible before the other guy gets it. This is questionable philosophy and even more dubious religion. It also means that talents for acquiring wealth are privileged and all other talents, however valuable they might be in themselves, are diminished, even to the point of worthlessness.

Actually, most of those claiming to believe in “equality of opportunity” are being dishonest. If they really did believe in it they would advocate eliminating all of the advantages that present wealth confers. They would favor a confiscatory inheritance tax, for instance. Why should Gottrocks Jr. get an huge head start just because Gottrocks Sr. acquired an enormous pile of loot? And they would advocate universal free education to whatever level an individual's talent and perseverance could achieve. They don't of course. They like to pretend that the advantages of wealth are really innate personal advantages, although that is like bragging about winning a foot race after having hacked off your opponent's right leg with an axe.

If we look within to ask why the vague and slippery idea of equality so appeals to us, we will probably discover that it has do with our rejection of the idea that certain groups of people are intrinsically better than others. It stems for the instinct we do-gooders have to see others like ourselves. When we talk about equality, we really mean Equality of Worth. And this notion goes back to the fundamental bleeding-heart idea: that the world is not divided into good people and bad people.

As was noted elsewhere, there is no such thing in the objective world as justice. And if justice itself is an illusion, so is economic justice. No one deserves more of the world's wealth than anyone else.

Absolute freedom is both impossible and undesirable; the difference between conservatives and liberals is about what sorts of freedom should be curtailed. Both claim that they seek to limit freedom only to prevent harm, but conservatives want to limit what one can do in one's bedroom and to curtail the expression of ideas that they feel undermine authority. Liberals see harm rather in the unrestrained freedom of economic power.

So conservatives actually want to enforce what Mill called the tyranny of the majority. That sounds like they really do not like freedom at all. But aren't conservatives constantly yammering about freedom? What do they mean? The great threat to freedom in their view is the spector of government programs like . . . Social Security. Medicare. Medicaid. Unemployment insurance. Now government is powerful and can be intrusive. But it turns out that conservatives like government when it is telling people what to do — when it is enforcing conformity; they dislike it when it helps people. They want us to fear government when it is helpful and idolize it when it tells us how to behave. So do conservatives really value freedom, or do they just use the word, in Orwellian fashion, to gild its opposite?

They are not crazy about equality either. Because their values incline them to a Manichean view of the world, conservatives are not really very fond of the very idea of equality, although they do not usually come right out and say so. Since they love aggression and competition, if they talk about equality at all, it is generally about equal opportunity. They like to see life as a contest, but one that is rigged by unequal riches.

So when we go to the roots, we see that freedom and equality, properly understood, are liberal values. Untrammeled freedom of wealth is merely a way to preserve the power of the few. It is a rationale for tyranny.

Inequality of wealth gives the rich enormous power over everyone else. Power to harm. When the freedom of wealth is favored over all other freedoms, inequality of wealth means freedom itself is gathered into the hands of the few. But how then is wealth to be distributed?

So again we are looking at economics.

(Return to The Independence Illusion).