Thursday, January 21, 2016

Liberty, but not Equality and Fraternity

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Noble goals, all, but despite our lip service thereto and our prattle about liberty and justice for all, these three ideals (also piously enshrined in the national motto of France) have proven very difficult to reconcile with one another, especially in our American context.

This is so because, in truth, Americans simply don't believe very strongly in equality (or even in justice, for that matter). Oh, sure, we complain when others seem to have "more" of something than we do, but at the same time, we continue to believe that we have some genuine right to have "more" of that very thing than others less "worthy" than ourselves. (E.g., we bitch that our local school doesn't have as nice a gymnasium as the school in a neighboring town, but we certainly don't want some government agency to step in and make our school equal to that school by, say, building us a gymnasium and taking away our fancy computer lab, something that school doesn't have.)

Moreover, these contradictory feelings are not tempered in any meaningful way by a sense of fraternity--we truly don't feel much compassion or camaraderie for the "others" down the road; heck we don't even think of them as real Americans. In short, Americans want liberty ("freedom") and consequently are willing to tolerate, even support, a great deal of inequality, a preference reinforced by our resentment of "those other people" whom, at any rate, we tend to blame for the inequality. These other people, of course, feel exactly the same way about us--with the result that nearly the only equality we all espouse is our equal right to defend our self-defined freedoms by employing firearms to intimidate or even eliminate pesky competitors with conflicting claims.

Indeed, a willingness to limit one's personal liberty in order to achieve equality seems to go against the very grain of the American dream to "get ahead," unless, of course, we're speaking in very relative terms. To be sure, other countries, notably in northern Europe, have worked hard to limit inequality by also limiting individual liberty--but the degree to which a populace will tolerate such restriction depends substantially, as I hinted above, upon their adherence to that third ideal--fraternity. Individuals who actually have fellow feeling for their compatriots, who genuinely sense that the entire national community is involved in a shared enterprise, these individuals are more willing to accept restrictions upon their personal freedoms in order to benefit the common good (including, of course, their own). But without such a sense of fraternity, any movement toward equality will be experienced by instinctively selfish individuals as an aggravation (at best) or a threat (at worst).

So apparently the key to harmonizing liberty and equality is fraternity--but alas, I don't see very much fraternity on the American landscape. Among those states labeling themselves commonwealths, only the Commonwealth of Massachusetts seems occasionally to manifest any sense of a common good to be served by all citizens. (Forget about Virginia and don't even think about Kentucky.) A few other states or regions may marginally qualify:  Utah (because of the Mormon Church), Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Vermont, New Hampshire, Hawaii, San Francisco, Berkeley, Sacramento, Austin, Madison, Santa Fe, Des Moines, Denver.

But even within these enclaves of "niceness," fraternal feelings are often tenuous and subject to extinction by anxieties arising from social, political or economic uncertainty. Only the most stable and secure of societies can successfully foster a sense of fraternity, and only if that communal spirit can be sustained over time does a community have any realistic hope for an enduring equilibrium between liberty and equality.

Meanwhile, such an equilibrium remains a remote fantasy in gun-toting, individualistic 21st Century America--a country in which we seldom hold fraternal feelings for our fellow citizens and in which we almost never wish to help them achieve equality with us. No: in America, despite "America the Beautiful's" pious assertion that the "good" are crowned with "brotherhood," we really aren't much interested in anything but freedom. With Patrick Henry, the typical American continues to shake his fist and shout belligerently at his compatriots--people he regards as not his brothers and not his equals, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

No comments:

Post a Comment