Many people hold the poisonous view that liberty and equality are opposites.
Some see liberty and equality as “antithetical, not complementary and certainly not identical”. (Walker 1981, 138)
It is true that total liberty would allow skilled people to rise above the unskilled, leading to inequality. And total equality would mean that skilled people would not have the liberty to profit from their skills. Even the early American colonists were aware of this seeming contradiction:
Henceforth their society would be governed … by the principle of equality…. The doctrine [of republicanism] possessed an inherent ambivalence: on one hand it stressed equality of opportunity which implied social differences and distinctions; on the other hand it emphasized equality of condition which denied these same social differences and distinctions. (Wood  1998, 70)
It was widely believed that equality of opportunity would necessarily result in a rough equality of station.… [I]t would be impossible for any artificial aristocrats or overgrown rich men to maintain themselves for long. (Wood  1998, 72)
The Revolutionaries who hoped for so much from equality assumed that republican America would be a community where none would be too rich or too poor…. (Wood  1998, 73)
Liberty is the ability to control those resources you reasonably need. Equality is having the same liberty as everyone else. Whenever you and I cross paths, there is a chance that our rights could clash. To provide both liberty and equality, the judicial system should impartially decide between us. That has worked reasonably well in our current system, but couldn’t it work better, especially for the poor?
The idea that “none would be too rich or too poor” was common during the American Revolution.
Today we know that idea was only a pipe dream. With hindsight we know that our system allowed people to grow fabulously rich and maintain their wealth through numerous generations. For example, John D. Rockefeller became a billionaire in 1916, only 140 years after 1776. And his descendants, and a lot of other people, are far richer today. It is beside the point whether you view Rockefeller as a captain of industry or as a robber baron. The point is that our Constitution assumed that such extreme inequality would never exist in America. So it made no attempt to address it either positively or negatively. Are you and Rockefeller’s descendants truly equal before the law?
Obviously, the Constitution writers totally ignored the extreme inequality of slavery. Thankfully, that horrendous injustice was later reversed, but prejudice between all races still exists. And inequality of opportunity still exists along many divides, including racial ones, too often leading to poverty.
We know that unrestrained liberty means that the strong, the bright, and the rich will tyrannize the weak, the dull, and the poor. We also know that unrestrained equality means that the strong must be weakened, the bright must be dulled, and the rich must be taxed into poverty. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote a short story called “Harrison Bergeron” about the forced intellectual dulling of citizens of above average intelligence. Government social engineers – who secretly exempted themselves, of course – did this to force equality of outcome for everybody else. (Vonnegut  1968)
I contend that true liberty and true equality are not only compatible, but that each is necessary for the other.
(That concept came from Alexis De Tocqueville as I described in an earlier post)
But we cannot solve the apparent contradiction until we learn how to think outside the political and ideological box that binds us in a vise between conservatives and liberals. Our choices are infinite, but we are led to believe in a false choice, that we can have liberty or equality, but not both.
Do you think liberty and equality are compatible or do you think they’re opposites?
This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.
Vonnegut, Kurt.  1968. “Harrison Bergeron”. In Welcome to the Monkey House. United States: Delacorte Press.
Walker, David B. 1981.Toward a Functioning Federalism. United States: Winthrop Publishers, Inc.
Wood, Gordon S.  1998. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Copyright © 1970; new preface copyright © 1998. Used by permission of the publisher. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.