Liberty vs. equality

Robert Samuelson loves this country and everything it stands for, to the point of saying “America is my religion.”  Most Americans also love America.  But he notes how love of country is dividing us instead of bringing us together, mainly because of a conflict between the ideals of liberty and equality:

This intense love of country defines Americans and, compared to many, sets us apart. A 2004 study of 33 countries by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago ranked the United States first in national pride. You might think that this powerful allegiance — what I and no doubt millions of others call a religion — would bring us together. Often it does. But on this July Fourth, we face a disturbing paradox: Our love of country increasingly divides us.

Our national debates now transcend disputes over this or that spending program or tax and have become — in the minds of the combatants — a climactic struggle for the nature and soul of America. One side is allegedly bent on inserting government into every aspect of our lives and suffocating individual responsibility and effort. The other is supposedly beholden to the rich, committed to “survival of the fittest” and indifferent to everyone else.

If you believe these are the stakes — and that defeat would extinguish America’s most valuable and virtuous aspects — then the other side is to be despised and demolished. Your very love of country impels you to extremes of rhetoric and belief. It nudges you, increasingly, to hate the other side.

The backdrop to this struggle is long-standing. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, Americans venerate both liberty and equality. Our entire history involves this tension between preserving freedom and promoting equality. If you are defending either, you naturally think that you are the legitimate heir of the country’s core beliefs.

In a democracy, de Tocqueville argued, Americans would ultimately favor equality over freedom, because its material benefits are more immediate and tangible. Not so, countered the late political scientist James Q. Wilson. Americans strongly value freedom, far more than do citizens of any other democratic country, he argued.

There’s plenty of evidence he is right. A recent Pew poll asked people to pick between “freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference” and the “state guarantees nobody is in need.” Americans selected freedom 58 percent to 35 percent. European responses were reversed: Germany’s 36 percent to 62 percent was typical. By wide margins compared with Europeans, Americans believe that “success in life” is determined by individual effort and not by outside forces. Yet, in their voting habits, Americans often prefer security.

The inconsistencies and contradictions won’t soon vanish. But in today’s politically poisoned climate, righteousness is at a premium and historical reality at a discount. Each side, whether “liberal” or “conservative,” Republican or Democrat, behaves as if it has a monopoly on historical truth. The fear that the existence of their version of America is threatened sows discord and explains why love of country has become a double-edged sword, dividing us when it might unite.

via Is the U.S. a land of liberty or equality? – The Washington Post.

The American ideal has always been BOTH liberty and equality.  I don’t think that equality ever was construed to mean equality of income.  Rather, it had to do with social equality.  Social classes existed, but they were not supposed to bring special privileges or a sense of superiority.  Both sides of these debates today are arguably falling short here, with the cult of wealth on the one hand and the cult of the cultural elites on the other (which are not the same thing).  But what do you think of Samuelson’s analysis?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    I believe in equal opportunity, but not equal outcome. If that is what is meant by equality, then I have no problem with it. But it is impossible, even on a natural level, to have true, total equality.

    Not everybody can play for the NFL. Why? Because we do not have an equality of physical talent. Not everybody can be a physics professor. Why? Because we do not have an equality of intellectual capacity. It’s really that simple.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    I believe in equal opportunity, but not equal outcome. If that is what is meant by equality, then I have no problem with it. But it is impossible, even on a natural level, to have true, total equality.

    Not everybody can play for the NFL. Why? Because we do not have an equality of physical talent. Not everybody can be a physics professor. Why? Because we do not have an equality of intellectual capacity. It’s really that simple.

  • Tom Hering

    It would be nice to have elections again where neither side talks about “taking our country back.” Good grief. Who took it away? A foreign power? Or 51% of Americans? Oh wait, I forgot – that’s 51% of Americans manipulated by sinister powers of the left or the right.

  • Tom Hering

    It would be nice to have elections again where neither side talks about “taking our country back.” Good grief. Who took it away? A foreign power? Or 51% of Americans? Oh wait, I forgot – that’s 51% of Americans manipulated by sinister powers of the left or the right.

  • Cincinnatus

    Actually, this authors reads Tocqueville a bit too optimistically. For Tocqueville, democracy is synonymous with (i.e., his very definition of democracy is) the dogmatic love of equality and only equality. Since equality is the inviolable rule of democracy, there are two possible outcomes for egalitarianism in the democratic age: equality in liberty and equality in servitude. In other words, it’s not an either/or situation between liberty and equality, and if such a choice were ever presented to a democratic nation, Tocqueville believes we would always opt for equality over liberty.

    France did, culminating in the Terror. America hadn’t yet, according to Tocqueville, because it maintained fragile institutions that preserved the possibility of liberty in a context in which difference and hierarchy were intolerable–institutions like township government, robust family structures, organized religion, and associational life. Liberty is a consummately aristocratic virtue (true statement!), and these institutions are characteristically aristocratic institutions. America preserves equality in liberty because, unlike France, she is willing to broach institutions and habits that reflect “aristocratic” principles of difference.

    In short, we will have equality one way or the other. Beware those who feel the need to talk about it, then.

  • Cincinnatus

    Actually, this authors reads Tocqueville a bit too optimistically. For Tocqueville, democracy is synonymous with (i.e., his very definition of democracy is) the dogmatic love of equality and only equality. Since equality is the inviolable rule of democracy, there are two possible outcomes for egalitarianism in the democratic age: equality in liberty and equality in servitude. In other words, it’s not an either/or situation between liberty and equality, and if such a choice were ever presented to a democratic nation, Tocqueville believes we would always opt for equality over liberty.

    France did, culminating in the Terror. America hadn’t yet, according to Tocqueville, because it maintained fragile institutions that preserved the possibility of liberty in a context in which difference and hierarchy were intolerable–institutions like township government, robust family structures, organized religion, and associational life. Liberty is a consummately aristocratic virtue (true statement!), and these institutions are characteristically aristocratic institutions. America preserves equality in liberty because, unlike France, she is willing to broach institutions and habits that reflect “aristocratic” principles of difference.

    In short, we will have equality one way or the other. Beware those who feel the need to talk about it, then.

  • Cincinnatus

    Tom@2:

    Actually, a colleague of mine is writing an historical dissertation on this very question. He looks at those early nation-states that pioneered modern constitutional democracy (especially England and Holland, with France serving as a failure, and Russia as an abortion).

    How did these former monarchies establish popular democracies? Why, precisely by using rhetoric of “taking their country back.” From whom? Who took it away in the first place? The monarchs, of course. But the monarchs are, by default, “ours,” and almost all medieval kings were validated by popular acclaim!

    Indeed. Hence, these nations constructed narratives in which the king was depicted as an encroaching foreigner, an illegitimate interloper, an alien tyrant trampling on the native liberties of the people. England began to refer to the “Norman yoke” suppressing its ancient “Anglo-Saxon” liberties. France referenced its ancient Gallic and Frankish parlements, which had been trampled by the Romans and their Romanizing monarchs–a national mythology later co-opted to bad ends by the Jacobins. In short, these nations could only dispense with their kings by presenting them as foreigners, as invaders–even if, in actual fact, they weren’t (except in a centuries-dead past).

    As it happens, according to my colleague, such mythologizing worked in some cases, and it is thanks to the mythologizers that these nations actually have constitutional democracy in the first place. You’ll note the parallels in the American experience, of course: we’re English, but Parliament effectively comprises a cabal of foreigners who don’t represent our own liberties.

    We can do the same today, of course: who is ruining America? Not “real Americans.” No, it is a motley collection of rootless banksters and CEOs who, with fortunes that are completely liquid, have no home country. It is a class of detached politicians in Washington who have no meaningful connection to America or Americans. It is a cartel of encroaching special interests (many of them foreign) who are alien to the concerns of “real” Americans.

    Let’s take America back…?

  • Cincinnatus

    Tom@2:

    Actually, a colleague of mine is writing an historical dissertation on this very question. He looks at those early nation-states that pioneered modern constitutional democracy (especially England and Holland, with France serving as a failure, and Russia as an abortion).

    How did these former monarchies establish popular democracies? Why, precisely by using rhetoric of “taking their country back.” From whom? Who took it away in the first place? The monarchs, of course. But the monarchs are, by default, “ours,” and almost all medieval kings were validated by popular acclaim!

    Indeed. Hence, these nations constructed narratives in which the king was depicted as an encroaching foreigner, an illegitimate interloper, an alien tyrant trampling on the native liberties of the people. England began to refer to the “Norman yoke” suppressing its ancient “Anglo-Saxon” liberties. France referenced its ancient Gallic and Frankish parlements, which had been trampled by the Romans and their Romanizing monarchs–a national mythology later co-opted to bad ends by the Jacobins. In short, these nations could only dispense with their kings by presenting them as foreigners, as invaders–even if, in actual fact, they weren’t (except in a centuries-dead past).

    As it happens, according to my colleague, such mythologizing worked in some cases, and it is thanks to the mythologizers that these nations actually have constitutional democracy in the first place. You’ll note the parallels in the American experience, of course: we’re English, but Parliament effectively comprises a cabal of foreigners who don’t represent our own liberties.

    We can do the same today, of course: who is ruining America? Not “real Americans.” No, it is a motley collection of rootless banksters and CEOs who, with fortunes that are completely liquid, have no home country. It is a class of detached politicians in Washington who have no meaningful connection to America or Americans. It is a cartel of encroaching special interests (many of them foreign) who are alien to the concerns of “real” Americans.

    Let’s take America back…?

  • Cincinnatus

    Actually, why did I start both posts with “actually”?

  • Cincinnatus

    Actually, why did I start both posts with “actually”?

  • Tom Hering

    You forgot the invading Euro Socialists led by foreign-born Barack Obama.

  • Tom Hering

    You forgot the invading Euro Socialists led by foreign-born Barack Obama.

  • Cincinnatus

    Tom@6:

    The “foreign-born Obama” bit is a bit absurd, of course, though it is an example of the mythologizing I mentioned.

    But as for the rest, why not? Socialism literally is a foreign ideology, a Continental creation invented by folks who spoke German and Russian. We don’t want it here.

  • Cincinnatus

    Tom@6:

    The “foreign-born Obama” bit is a bit absurd, of course, though it is an example of the mythologizing I mentioned.

    But as for the rest, why not? Socialism literally is a foreign ideology, a Continental creation invented by folks who spoke German and Russian. We don’t want it here.

  • SKPeterson

    Cincinnatus @ 4 – That is an interesting take on the demonization of the monarchs as foreigners. The tensions in many monarchies that became national before the absolutist phase took hold, often pitted the various estates against one another, most often the cities and yeomanry against the nobility and the Church. Over time, some monarchs saw the value in diminishing the power of the nobility and constraining the Church, the two most ready adversaries to royal prerogative. As a result, there was a natural gravitation toward political common ground between the monarchies and the cities/middle class. This is perhaps best seen in the case of the U.K., but it happened in other nations as well.

    The Frankish case is interesting. I’ve been reading Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians, which traces the ark of barbarian migration flows in the context of frontier relations with the Western and Eastern Roman empires and then the early development of foundations of the (early)modern European nation-states. The Frankish model was one followed by most of the Germanic tribes (Goths, both Ostro and Visi, Vandals, Burgundians, Saxons, etc) which followed much of the pattern outlined above. The Frankish kings emerged by eliminating or coopting the leaders of rival clans or dynasties, coupled with the ability to successfully navigate late Roman foreign policy prerogatives. This later translated into complete administrative and military control of the territory of modern northern France and Belgium, and later into the south as Roman power collapsed. The parlements were hardly venues of universal suffrage – there were often several classes in Germanic societies and it is not at all clear how they actually worked in practice. Leaders of war bands had a voice – their descendants later became the eminent grandees of the nobility, but there were also freemen, freedmen and slaves. The freemen might be the small farmers, the yeomanry or what became the landsknecht of later Germany, while the freedmen were freed slaves. It isn’t clear if freedmen ever moved up, or to what extent they were bound to a feudal lord, or if and how this was passed on to succeeding generations. Also, it is not clear how culturally cohesive these groups were at any given time; they might share language, but they might not (the Vandals had a large Avar component – two different origin locations and linguistic families merged together as a result of Roman pressure, shared mercenary military service under Rome, and the pressure of Gothic and later Hunnic incursions). So, yes the kings might actually be foreigners, even 1000 years ago, but so could most of the nobility and a large part of the free landholders as well. And they might come from several different cultural origin places to boot. Suffice it to say, that one of the main hypotheses of Heather’s book is that most narratives of national origins are often absolute bunk. Most are not supported by either historical written evidence or by the archaeology, especially in the period from ~400 to ~800. Or rather, we have historical and archaeological evidence, but it often tells a different story from that of national mythmakers operating in the 19th and early 20th centuries. What is interesting is why people believed these historical hucksters or why a new national narrative was necessary for national/cultural cohesion. (I can think of several resulting from the aftermath of both the Peace of Westphalia and the Congress of Vienna, but that’s neither here nor there for now).

  • SKPeterson

    Cincinnatus @ 4 – That is an interesting take on the demonization of the monarchs as foreigners. The tensions in many monarchies that became national before the absolutist phase took hold, often pitted the various estates against one another, most often the cities and yeomanry against the nobility and the Church. Over time, some monarchs saw the value in diminishing the power of the nobility and constraining the Church, the two most ready adversaries to royal prerogative. As a result, there was a natural gravitation toward political common ground between the monarchies and the cities/middle class. This is perhaps best seen in the case of the U.K., but it happened in other nations as well.

    The Frankish case is interesting. I’ve been reading Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians, which traces the ark of barbarian migration flows in the context of frontier relations with the Western and Eastern Roman empires and then the early development of foundations of the (early)modern European nation-states. The Frankish model was one followed by most of the Germanic tribes (Goths, both Ostro and Visi, Vandals, Burgundians, Saxons, etc) which followed much of the pattern outlined above. The Frankish kings emerged by eliminating or coopting the leaders of rival clans or dynasties, coupled with the ability to successfully navigate late Roman foreign policy prerogatives. This later translated into complete administrative and military control of the territory of modern northern France and Belgium, and later into the south as Roman power collapsed. The parlements were hardly venues of universal suffrage – there were often several classes in Germanic societies and it is not at all clear how they actually worked in practice. Leaders of war bands had a voice – their descendants later became the eminent grandees of the nobility, but there were also freemen, freedmen and slaves. The freemen might be the small farmers, the yeomanry or what became the landsknecht of later Germany, while the freedmen were freed slaves. It isn’t clear if freedmen ever moved up, or to what extent they were bound to a feudal lord, or if and how this was passed on to succeeding generations. Also, it is not clear how culturally cohesive these groups were at any given time; they might share language, but they might not (the Vandals had a large Avar component – two different origin locations and linguistic families merged together as a result of Roman pressure, shared mercenary military service under Rome, and the pressure of Gothic and later Hunnic incursions). So, yes the kings might actually be foreigners, even 1000 years ago, but so could most of the nobility and a large part of the free landholders as well. And they might come from several different cultural origin places to boot. Suffice it to say, that one of the main hypotheses of Heather’s book is that most narratives of national origins are often absolute bunk. Most are not supported by either historical written evidence or by the archaeology, especially in the period from ~400 to ~800. Or rather, we have historical and archaeological evidence, but it often tells a different story from that of national mythmakers operating in the 19th and early 20th centuries. What is interesting is why people believed these historical hucksters or why a new national narrative was necessary for national/cultural cohesion. (I can think of several resulting from the aftermath of both the Peace of Westphalia and the Congress of Vienna, but that’s neither here nor there for now).

  • Tom Hering

    We saw the narrative play out in Wisconsin, too. With both sides saying it was out-of-state forces trying to save or unseat Governor Walker; trying to undermine Wisconsin’s core values; Barrett and Walker meeting secretly with their out-of-state masters; etcetera.

  • Tom Hering

    We saw the narrative play out in Wisconsin, too. With both sides saying it was out-of-state forces trying to save or unseat Governor Walker; trying to undermine Wisconsin’s core values; Barrett and Walker meeting secretly with their out-of-state masters; etcetera.

  • SKPeterson

    I should add, just as an oddity of modern monarchy: Sweden has a foreign monarch. They’re a bunch of French interlopers! The Bernadottes – one of the lasting foreign policy enterprises of Napoleon Bonaparte.

  • SKPeterson

    I should add, just as an oddity of modern monarchy: Sweden has a foreign monarch. They’re a bunch of French interlopers! The Bernadottes – one of the lasting foreign policy enterprises of Napoleon Bonaparte.

  • SKPeterson

    Tom @ 9 – We’ll see it play out nationally as well: Soros, Bain, caviar and champaign. Influence peddling and financial meddling. To wrest control of the scepter and crown. All to be the power behind the throne. (A little political rhyme to go with the times).

  • SKPeterson

    Tom @ 9 – We’ll see it play out nationally as well: Soros, Bain, caviar and champaign. Influence peddling and financial meddling. To wrest control of the scepter and crown. All to be the power behind the throne. (A little political rhyme to go with the times).

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com John

    I think everyone needs to read Gerhard Lenski’s Power and Privilege.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com John

    I think everyone needs to read Gerhard Lenski’s Power and Privilege.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “Socialism literally is a foreign ideology, a Continental creation invented by folks who spoke German and Russian. We don’t want it here.”

    Some think that the reason socialism so appeals to folks in the upper midwest is due to the relative equality of the tiny countries in Scandinavia that so many of them came from. Rindermann documents the average IQ of politicians and the average IQ of the general population of most nations. Rindermann (no longer open access, but it was when I posted it last year ) shows the relatively narrow cognitive span from the bottom to top in countries like Norway. Combine that with the history of Scandinavia and you have both social and organic pressure towards equality and altruism. It is smart fraction theory. Basically when more than a certain fraction are above some intelligence threshold you see different patterns from the patterns in places that don’t have those conditions.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “Socialism literally is a foreign ideology, a Continental creation invented by folks who spoke German and Russian. We don’t want it here.”

    Some think that the reason socialism so appeals to folks in the upper midwest is due to the relative equality of the tiny countries in Scandinavia that so many of them came from. Rindermann documents the average IQ of politicians and the average IQ of the general population of most nations. Rindermann (no longer open access, but it was when I posted it last year ) shows the relatively narrow cognitive span from the bottom to top in countries like Norway. Combine that with the history of Scandinavia and you have both social and organic pressure towards equality and altruism. It is smart fraction theory. Basically when more than a certain fraction are above some intelligence threshold you see different patterns from the patterns in places that don’t have those conditions.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Tidbit from Norwegian social history.

    http://www.telelaget.com/histcult/land.htm

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Tidbit from Norwegian social history.

    http://www.telelaget.com/histcult/land.htm

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    @12 Okay I looked up that Lenski volume. Not too many reviews. Can you give us a brief summary/review? The book is $35. Can you make a case for that cost? What did you like about it? Does it have charts and graphs? I just love charts and…

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    @12 Okay I looked up that Lenski volume. Not too many reviews. Can you give us a brief summary/review? The book is $35. Can you make a case for that cost? What did you like about it? Does it have charts and graphs? I just love charts and…

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    @ SKP

    The last Welsh Prince of Wales died in 1416.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owain_Glyndŵr

    Yet, when my ancestor was paying his taxes in that region as late as 1630, it was noted that he was a Saxon. So, the awareness of rulers as well as peasants being foreign hung on for a long time.

    It seems that people don’t want to be ruled by foreigners, but why?

    What is that feeling in the gut that makes people feel that way?

    You have to see the irony of people moving to the US and then wanting representatives from their own group. I mean, they had plenty of that where they came from and they didn’t like it!!

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    @ SKP

    The last Welsh Prince of Wales died in 1416.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owain_Glyndŵr

    Yet, when my ancestor was paying his taxes in that region as late as 1630, it was noted that he was a Saxon. So, the awareness of rulers as well as peasants being foreign hung on for a long time.

    It seems that people don’t want to be ruled by foreigners, but why?

    What is that feeling in the gut that makes people feel that way?

    You have to see the irony of people moving to the US and then wanting representatives from their own group. I mean, they had plenty of that where they came from and they didn’t like it!!

  • kerner

    Actually, during the 19th Century some of the major immigrant groups had long histories of being ruled by “foreigners” back home. Notably, the Irish (English), Polish (Germans and Russians), Italians (French, Germans, Normans, Arabs, Spanish), and Jews (almost everybody), were ruled by someone other than their own. To some extent, each of these had some tendency to become a voting bloc in the US. You don’t hear as much about other immigrant groups insisting on electing one of their own. At least, not overtly.

  • kerner

    Actually, during the 19th Century some of the major immigrant groups had long histories of being ruled by “foreigners” back home. Notably, the Irish (English), Polish (Germans and Russians), Italians (French, Germans, Normans, Arabs, Spanish), and Jews (almost everybody), were ruled by someone other than their own. To some extent, each of these had some tendency to become a voting bloc in the US. You don’t hear as much about other immigrant groups insisting on electing one of their own. At least, not overtly.


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