March 29, 2010

Liberty and Equality: Are They Compatible?

by Hal Gershowitz

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Both represent ideals we Americans hold dear. But they aren’t really the same thing and as we have seen in the still acrimonious national debate over the issue of health care and the government’s proper role in providing it, the two concepts come into stark relief.  Moreover, a tension between the meaning of freedom and the meaning of equality will be tested further as President Obama and his newly muscular acolytes in Congress, still intoxicated by the success of their battering-ram legislative strategy, begin to eye other opportunities to (as our president likes to remind us) transform America.  And make no mistake about it; the transformation “party” the president is hosting has only just begun. Think card check, think cap and trade, think compensation control, think regulatory expansion and think, REALLY THINK, about the greatest search in the history of America, through every nook and cranny of our economy, for new sources of tax revenue to pay for the transformation.

To us the word “freedom” embodies the individual right of free choice. The word equality encompasses the bedrock principle that every person should have the same rights to all the protections and rights granted under our Constitution.  Thus, the rallying cry of Patrick Henry, “give me liberty or give me death” exists side by side with the proposition best enunciated by Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech where he envisioned a world “where people would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.”   In other words, the concept of  “equality” defined as Dr. King stated it can, and should, live side by side with the concept of “liberty (an individual’s right to personal choice) as enunciated by the famous remark of Patrick Henry. But with regard to the expansion of government into the private sector the two words can run into conflict.

Those of us who were, and are, appalled by last week’s heavy-handed spectacle of one-party rule mandating the biggest expansion of government in the lifetime of almost everyone reading this essay are alarmed about the ramifications of almost tyrannical rule by a ruling class seeking to expand government into the furthest reaches of what has always been within the domain of the private citizen’s personal choices. Our friends on the left say that we are on the wrong side of history, but it is they who occupy that space.  It is they, including our president and his party, who are racing full speed backwards to emulate societies with entitlement systems that threaten to hobble one nation after another. Think Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain, Great Britain, France, Ireland, Japan and on and on.  The governments and economies of Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain are hanging on by their finger tips, more or less, counting on the healthier members of the EU (e.g. Germany) to bail them out although “not so fast” say the Germans).  We could go back into history a little further and romanticize the failed egalitarian dreams of the Soviet revolutionaries or, perhaps, Chairman Mao’s People’s Republic of China.  But the Soviet Union crashed nearly a generation ago and China abandoned Chairman Mao’s dream as soon as he died (and they have had nothing but robust economic growth to show for it).  So exactly who is on the wrong side of history here?

Make no mistake; the transformation that the left has in mind for America is nothing more than a grab for the redistribution of wealth. They disdain the creation and broadening of wealth. And that is where liberty and equality may very well come into conflict. The left wants to create a society based on some expanded notion of egalitarianism which has nothing to do with equal opportunity under the law, and throw under the bus the ordered liberty which has been the bedrock principle which every generation of Americans has enjoyed, and countless others around the globe have envied. It is what Ronald Reagan had in mind when he correctly described our country as the shining city on the hill. Unfortunately the leftists who now run this nation only know one hill and of course that is Capital Hill from which they dictate their ever-expanding mandates.

We believe that individual liberty, that radical Lockean idea which our founders bequeathed to us, has produced the greatest, most vibrant and most promising society man has ever known and, in fact, actually provides the greatest amount of equality for the greatest number of people.  Our society has prospered because so many Americans were willing to fully participate, to the best of their ability, in pursuing the proverbial American dream.  Wave after wave of immigrants who escaped oppressive regimes or societies that afforded no real hope of achieving their highest aspirations for their children have invigorated our nation and been an engine for constant economic growth and the creation and expansion of private wealth to the betterment of all our citizens. A national policy such as that which appears to be unfolding in America today, the cornerstone of which is the promotion of economic egalitarianism (as we said above, nothing more than a fancy term for the redistribution of wealth) can only be pursued by vastly limiting the personal freedom of individuals to chart their own course through life.

The radical 17th century thinker, John Locke, whose writing so influenced our founding fathers, advanced the notion that the role of government should, more or less, be confined to protecting the people…and their liberty.  His writing, Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government could have served as a template for our own Constitution (and it probably did) with its formulations of checks and balances and representative government. He equated government encroachment on individual liberty as tyranny.  To our founding fathers, that said it all.

Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, George Mason and others enshrined the thinking and, indeed, the exquisite wisdom of Locke in our founding documents including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. That radical thinking generated the energy that enabled a newborn country of mostly poor people to make a dash to freedom and prosperity the likes of which the world had never seen. The peoples and governments of Europe, much of Asia and even many in Latin America were quickly inspired by the American experience.

As we watched the well-orchestrated farce played out from the US House of Representatives last Sunday night, we couldn’t help but think of the choices being stripped from the people and their state governments throughout the land.  As has been frequently written in recent months, many healthy, young families choose to allocate their limited resources to other needs besides health insurance. Many of us would view that as a poor choice.  But the choice to buy or not to buy health insurance has always been theirs to make, and the argument that if the uninsured fall ill it is a burden on our economy is not nesessarily true. Friends, families, private charities often cushion the impact.  Not anymore. “You will buy and you will buy the coverage we say you must buy, or we will fine you,” our government will, in effect, soon tell them.  And just in case anyone thinks that might be an overstatement, the government is now authorized to hire nearly 17,000 new IRS personnel to monitor which individuals are, and are not, complying with these and a plethora of other new rules.

An individual or a small business making over $200,000 is now deemed to be wealthy, which is Obamacare speak for those who will find the government’s hand in their pockets to grab extra tax money to help fund this newest of entitlements.  And, if those same people have worked hard enough and have saved some money to invest in dividend or interest-bearing securities, well, thank you very much, the government will tax that income over and above the higher tax already paid on it under the now higher personal income tax they have now legislated for these wealthy citizens.  A variety of businesses will also be (pardon the term) shaken down to help fund the new health-care “entitlement”.  Pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies, tanning salons, medical cosmetic surgery practices, insurance companies and other industries who we presume will be added will be charged fees to help fund the program.

We will leave it for now to others to pick apart the new so-called health-care  “reform.” There is no end to the writers and commentators who are already doing that.  We do, however, wish to advance the thought that the reported 30 million Americans who are uninsured and are, therefore, according to the government’s case for taking control of the nation’s health care, denied adequate medical treatment, can be doctored up for a lot less than the trillions this enormous new medical entitlement is going to cost.  In fact, the government could hire 30,000 new doctors at $200,000 per doctor (more than the earnings of the average physician) each managing 1000 patients a year (less than the average number of charts per physician) and provide doctors for all of the uninsured for about $6 billion per year. And yes, we recognize there will a few billion more required for various tests and procedures, but the trillion-plus-dollar takeover, for the medical-care makeover is an enormous and irresponsible burden to place on the American economy.  We can’t afford it, just as Europe can’t afford it.  But as the President said, that’s what he came to Washington to do.

Perhaps the ubiquitous Reverend Al Sharpton who seems to insinuate himself into every high-profile controversy said it best on Fox as the infamous vote was being tallied. When rhetorically asked by the equally ubiquitous Geraldo Rivera whether he was concerned that the vote was a big step toward socialism, Reverend Al happily responded that when America voted for Barack Obama, America voted for socialism. And he was right…only most Americans who voted for Obama really didn’t know or believe that.

That is why, with this president and this Congress we are facing the possibility that the change Mr. Obama promised could be irreversible. Entitlements, once enacted, become taken for granted. Moreover, they become the baseline for future generations . To those in power, the thinking of John Locke, Adam Smith, not to mention, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and virtually all of the founding fathers are clearly passé. Instead our leaders, seemingly blind to the wreckage caused by regimes which followed the discredited theories of economists who preached about the wonders of state-controlled economies, are blindly heading in the wrong direction in order to take over more and more of what has always been part of the private sector and our private personal responsibilities.  In their view, government knows best.

The president’s audacious but absolutely honest campaign promise that he was going to “fundamentally change America” couldn’t have been more candid.  And as last week’s House vote was evolving toward a nearly certain majority in his favor, he, again very candidly, told the Democratic caucus (and the American people) “this is what I came here to do,” not to simply make health care a government preserve, but to fundamentally change America. Watching all of the back patting taking place following the signing ceremony last Tuesday, it is evident that the President and his administration really believe that America wants him to fundamentally change the country.  As Vice President Biden, whispered to the President (and 300 million other Americans) “this is a big f——deal.”

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

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7 responses to “Liberty and Equality: Are They Compatible?”

  1. mkaback says:

    Do you have some suggestion as to where those 30,000 doctors are to come from? And how long might it take to develop them? And where would they be trained? etc.etc. You make it sound like liberty and equality are completely incompatible. Yes, there must be compromise, but that is a fundamental concept in a democracy. A successful society must have some responsiblity for the least capable as well as those with entrepreneurial zeal!

  2. Our point was not that we should hire 30,000 doctors, but merely (by way of example) that the cost of employing 30,000 doctors would be but a tiny fraction of the cost of the new health care entitlement program. We don’t think we suggested that liberty and equality are at all incompatible, unless equality is defined as equalizing wealth and income. The more redistribution of wealth becomes a national priority, the more individual liberty will be compromised. We agree that society has a responsibility for “the least capable…” but surely mkaback isn’t suggesting that the $trillion+ program just signed into law is required to take responsibility for the least capable.

  3. Bill_H says:

    Our government is a representative democracy, and our constitution is in essence a contract between the American people and its government defining the limits of its powers. What the progressive triumvirate did was a coup d’état on our constitution right in front of the American people. The fact that Castro admires what has been done is all we need to know.

  4. sheila says:

    And this, unfortunately, is what the right wing of the Republican Party has come to: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/20/tea-party-protests-nier-f_n_507116.html.

    You will not convince me that they even remotely believe in freedom of speech (or thought) and equality in this country, let alone in the constitution –rather, they have taken the politics of bigotry and racism back to the days before the civil rights movement. Their behavior is beyond appalling – they have brought shame upon everyone in their party who stood silently while these incidents occurred.
    So – to respond to your question which is actually quite well stated: are freedom and equality compatible? Only when, to paraphrase mkaback, above, this country learns that to take responsibility for those less fortunate is an integral part of our own freedom–of what makes this country great – and that nothing can be accomplished without compromise. From the sound of the article above, we’ve got a long way to go..

  5. Bill_H says:

    The further promotion of statist racism based on a lie by news sources such as HuffPo is totally unacceptable. The MSM should be ashamed for propagating unsubstantiated lies as the truth to promote a progressive agenda that in the long run will be even more catastrophic for this country. Wake-Up sheila, someday you could be in the statists cross hairs next.

  6. JOYCE GRUENBERG says:

    re: OF THEE I SING HEALTH CARE
    DEAR HAL, AFTER READING YOUR ARTICLE ON HEALTH CARE I DIDN’T SLEEP BECAUSE I SPENT THE NIGHT WRITING YOU A RESPONSE. I DIDN’T SEND IT BUT THIS MORNING I READ THOMAS FRIEDMAN AND HE SAID ALL I WANTED TO SAY IN A MUCH MORE PROFOUND WAY. IT SAID HOW I FELT AND WHY I HAVE SUCH A PROBLEM ACCEPTING YOUR PREMISE OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY. OH YES , I ALSO THOUGHT YOU AND MR. PORTER TOOK A RACIAL AND NEGATIVE SHOT BY ONLY QUOTING AL SHARPTON AS THE SPEAKER FOR THE DEMS. ALAS..
    REGARDLESS OF ALL I SAY..I STILL LOVE YOU HAL AND ALWAYS LOVE TALKING TO YOU..FONDLY, JOYCE

  7. Ronald Cherry says:

    The “equality” touted by Socialists is a lie. In order to socially engineer millions of people into something approaching social and property equality, totalitarian government power must be employed – rendering those people comprising such government “more equal than others.” This is the defining contradiction of Socialism and its underlying Marxist ideology.

    “The usual understanding of “equality,” when applied to people, entails equality of rights and sometimes equality of opportunity. But what is meant in all these (Socialist) cases is the equalization of external conditions which do not touch the individuality of man. In socialist ideology, however, the understanding of equality is akin to that used in mathematics, i.e., this is in fact identity, the abolition of differences in behavior as well as in the inner world of the individuals constituting society. From this point of view, a puzzling and at first sight contradictory property of socialist doctrines becomes apparent. They proclaim the greatest possible equality, the destruction of hierarchy in society and at the same time a strict regimentation of all of life, which would be impossible without absolute control and an all-powerful bureaucracy which would engender an incomparably greater inequality.” Igor Shafarevich

    http://www.robertlstephens.com/essays/shafarevich/001SocialistPhenomenon.html

    “It had long been realized that the only secure basis for oligarchy is collectivism. Wealth and privilege are most easily defended when they are possessed jointly. The so-called “abolition of private property” (Communist Manifesto)… meant in effect the concentration of property in far fewer hands than before… In the years following the Revolution it (The Socialist Party of Oceania) was able to step into this commanding position almost un-opposed because the whole process was represented as an act of collectivization… It had always been assumed that if the Capitalist Class were expropriated Socialism must follow; and unquestionably the Capitalists had been expropriated. Factories, mines, land, houses, transport, everything had been taken away from them; and since these things were no longer private property it followed that they must be public property. Ingsoc (Socialist Principles of Oceania), which grew out of the earlier Socialist movement and inherited its phraseology, has in fact carried out the main item in the Socialist program with the result; foreseen and intended beforehand, that economic inequality has been made permanent.” George Orwell – 1984

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