How Equality Came to Challenge Freedom
“[Liberal democracy] celebrates certain values: reasonableness, conversation, compassion, tolerance, intellectual humility and optimism.” —David Brooks
“Nice guys finish last.” —Leo Durocher
As I noted last week, the American governmental system in particular, and most modern liberal democracies in general, were well-designed to manage the tension between the two most fundamental rights we have as citizens: freedom and equality.
That said, when the granddaddy of and template for them all—the United States of America—declared its independence and, later, organized its government, it was freedom that was foremost in everyone’s mind. The citizens of the American colonies wanted to be free from England and they wanted to be free in general. America would be, and remain, “the land of the free.”
Even in circumstances where equality might have been the primary motivating issue—say, the enslavement of African Americans across the American South—the battle was fought not in the name of equality but in the name of freedom. A horrendous Civil War was fought to free the slaves, but few pretended that freed slaves would in any realistic way be perceived as equal to white Americans.
Indeed, many of the most prominent abolitionists, much as they hated the institution of slavery, did not believe in their hearts that blacks and whites were equal. Consider John Quincy Adams, a great and effective Abolitionist, who could write about Shakespeare’s “Othello,” “The great moral lesson of the tragedy of ‘Othello’ is, that the black and white blood cannot be intermingled in marriage without a gross outrage upon the law of nature.”
If racism ran deep among abolitionists, imagine how deeply embedded it was among the rest of the American public. Consider that interracial marriage was still banned by a large majority of states at the end of World War II, and didn’t become legal across the country until 1967 (via the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia).
The same was true in many other facets of American life, including education, voting rights, access to public facilities and so on. During World War II, no one thought the Allies were fighting for equality. We fought for The Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear and freedom from want.
And here is Martin Luther King himself on the subject, speaking at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 (his “I have a dream” speech):
“And if America is to be a great nation this must come true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
* * *
“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Americans, in other words, have long had a great enthusiasm for freedom. For equality? Not so much.
But the emphasis on freedom, and the de-emphasis on equality, began to change at the end of World War II when people began to focus much more on equality and, moreover, to think about equality in a radical new way. Previously, people had thought in terms of equality of opportunity, but now people began to think in terms of equality of outcomes.
What caused this sudden change of emphasis?
The horrors of the Holocaust certainly had an effect. The fact that certain kinds of people (Jews, homosexuals, Soviet POWs, disabled people, gypsies and so on) were selected for extermination—and by a major European nation—so shocked the human conscience that the old ways of thinking had to be reexamined.
It’s also important to remember that in the post-war world almost every nation was either socialist or Communist: Continental Europe, the USSR, China, India, much of Latin America and Africa. And at the core of both systems is the equality of every citizen: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.
The insistence that capital, goods, and services could be distributed evenly to citizens and that everyone would be well off was based on a crucial assumption: under socialism, economies would produce great abundance. “All the springs of cooperative wealth [will] flow more abundantly” than under capitalism, as Marx put it.
That assumption would prove to be flat-out wrong, but at the end of World War II people didn’t know that. Perfect equality seemed to be within reach for the first time in human history.
The opening shot in the battle for human equality was fired by the United Nations, which in 1948 adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UN’s Charter already specified a firm commitment to human rights, committing the organization to a “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”
But “fundamental freedoms” were no longer perceived as sufficient. What the drafters of the UN UDHR wanted was a much more specific list of rights designed to create equality among all the peoples of the world, regardless of race, creed, gender or, for that matter, anything else.
Thus, following hard on the footsteps of the UN UDHR, an ever-growing list of new rights was adopted by the UN and similar agencies, all designed to ensure perfect equality. For example: the International Bill of Human Rights, the International Covenant on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and so on.
What was happening here was a rising-from-the-dead of Jean Jacques Rousseau and his fellow Continental thinkers. We’ll examine that issue next week.