Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, running second just now in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, has said he wants young people to become “arsonists, spreading the fire of liberty.” That’s red meat for the libertarian-leaning right-wingers who increasingly characterize today’s GOP. It sounds pretty good, too, until you consider what they mean by liberty and what they’re willing to forego in order to have it. Let’s look at a little history.
When Patrick Henry, slaveholder, uttered his famous, defiant demand for liberty, he defined half of the American dream. The other half breathed tentative life when Thomas Jefferson, slaveholder, penned the patent lie that all men are created equal. Jefferson’s sentiment was noble, but Henry’s was honest. Each was powerfully moving, and the two were bound for the conflict seen in history as the Tocquevillian tension of American society.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Liberty and equality were regarded as symbiotic.[/pullquote]
In the 21st century it seems ironic, if not quaintly naïve, that, in the nascent nation of the 18th century, liberty and equality were regarded not just as compatible, but as symbiotic, necessary twin features of the new social order. But it was so. Moreover, the idea retained its place until the Industrial Revolution turned the most savage dogs of capitalism loose on the world, and it took hold again during the halcyon days of the labor movement.
It is gone again, victim this time of widespread, but misguided, theological faith in a market with few rules, no governance and no institutions to seriously challenge its autonomic decisions. It is simplistic to the point of inaccuracy to blame capitalism itself. Unfairness is immoral, but capitalism, while inherently unfair, is not; it is amoral, and has to be controlled and tempered so that some kind of fairness can be achieved within and despite a capitalist system.
The rhetoric of the political right wing is filled with screeds that proclaim an insoluble conflict between liberty and equality, then declare liberty the righteous winner. Here are just a handful of examples from The Federalist Papers Project, the Foundation for Economic Education, the Hoover Institution and Reason magazine.
The gist of the “conservative” argument is revisionist, perhaps radical. As the Reason article listed above, by the towering intellectual John Stossel, puts it, “Opportunity is much more important than equality,” and in fact, both freedom and capitalism result in inequality, and that’s just fine. That view would be a hard one to sell to Jefferson, or even to Henry.
The Founders should not be worshiped just because they were the Founders. Their ideas, however, deserve some serious consideration because they have more or less held up. Maybe the Founders were not wrong that liberty and equality — neither of which is absolute, neither of which is paramount — can coexist. If you believe that, then it isn’t much of a stretch to think, as apparently they did, that the two are, in fact, interdependent. Here’s how:
Without means, liberty is also without meaning. Options, that is, do not exist without the wherewithal to exercise them. If most of the money in a society, and all of the control, are vested in a few, then the rest may call themselves free, but their Tuesdays are not going to be much different from their Saturdays unless they have both leisure time and the money to do more or less as they please on Saturday. Identical days define life in prison.
Conversely, without a considerable measure of equality — that is, when economic disparities are gross and intolerable — the system can be held together only by invasive and coercive government. And liberty loses all meaning. The glibly dismissive argument that opportunity must be equal because wealth is not, does not hold: poverty limits opportunity. Poverty also severely limits access to the courts, so it is an inartful dodge to say that what the Founders meant by equality was only equal treatment under the law.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Without means, liberty is also without meaning.[/pullquote]
Look at it this way: America is both democratic and capitalistic. Capitalism depends on freedom, democracy on equality. If we are to have both, then, the freedom of the entrepreneur cannot be so great that it infringes on the rights and security of the worker. This means economic security for workers whose jobs are not necessarily highly skilled. It means that work — honorable work of any kind — has to be respected, and it has to be monetarily rewarded in something more than poverty-level wages.
It happens that a presidential candidate who is not Ted Cruz is willing to take on the challenge of inequality. He is Bernie Sanders, and he is a socialist, of a kind. His socialism does not entail ripping out the beating heart of a capitalist economy. It does mean the redistribution of wealth and income. To disagree with the idea is to believe that the distribution, as it is, is fair and right, as Stossel claims.
Are we talking about taking money from Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and giving it to homeless people? No. We are talking about taking a lot of money from the Gateses and the Buffetts of America and using it for projects and programs, like highways and schools, that benefit everybody.
That sounds generally consistent with the vision of the Founders. Their economy of yeoman farmers and artisans is long gone. One in which employment is not “wage slavery,” to use Jefferson’s term, is still possible, but it has to be achieved through the political process. Capitalism alone won’t do it.
All this may seem obtuse, a little abstractly philosophic. But so is the libertarian drivel of people like the viciously misanthropic Ayn Rand, mercifully gone but for some reason not forgotten. Her puerile philosophy may not move a lot of people to vote for the guys who are screwing them out of a decent living. It gives them an excuse not to vote against them, though, if something else in their schtick somehow appealing.