Chapter 6 - Freedom and Equality Don't Mean What You Think
Growing up in America, the words freedom and equality went together. Both words were good things that pretty much everyone embraced. Both were associated with the American Revolution and both were associated with the Black fight for civil rights. No one spent time defining these words but everyone seemed to agree they were both good and both necessary. Anyone speaking against either of them would be looked at like some sort of fascist.
But the emperor has no clothes. If you take the popular definitions of freedom and equality not only is it possible to not support both without being a fascist claiming to support both is probably the sign that you are a fascist. The two concepts are in direct contradiction. As a society we need to either pursue freedom or equality but we cannot pursue both. And I would argue that the most totalitarian states over the past century have pursued equality to the detriment of freedom.
equality being recognized as a universal good by almost everyone in this
country, I think equality is a terrible thing. It is not something humans
should seek. It is not something governments should work to promote. It is not
something that should be glorified in the media.
Who the hell is against equality? I am.
Isn’t that what our nation was built on? No.
Doesn't this prove that I am a Nazi? No.
Okay, so I am just a troll? Nope.
So why am I against equality? I am against equality because nature is. We are not born equal. And this fact was not missed by any of America's founding fathers. Jefferson, in saying that "all men are created equal," was not saying that there were no differences between rich and poor, male or female, or any other group being compared to another. Jefferson, unfortunately, shared the racism that was common in many Enlightenment thinkers of the day and would be surprised to hear his words being used to promote things he would have thought objectively false. What he meant, of course, was equality under the law and equality in terms of worth before God. In these two senses, everyone is equal. God does not value kings above paupers. He does not value black above white or white above black. He does not view the little old church lady as lower than the powerful corporate executive. And the law should not either. We should not have one set of laws for the poor and another for the rich. We should not have one set of laws for one race and another set of laws for another. Under God and the law everyone is equal.
But equality as it is currently defined and pursued goes far beyond the limited meaning in the Declaration of Independence. In today's society, equality is almost always used as a way of talking about life outcomes. When disparities between groups according to various metrics are identified (crime, income, wealth, literacy, math scores, etc), people bemoan the lack of equality. And it is this sort of equality that is so harmful when pursued by governments.
If we define freedom as the ability to do what you want (not what other people want you to do), then we can expect a free society to have people choosing many different paths in life. And if we acknowledge that the path we choose affects our financial state, our health, our family environment, and almost every other aspect of our life, we can see that being free is opposed to being equal. Freedom necessitates inequality. If I want to be an artist and spend my life painting pictures that no one will buy, I can. I am free. But that choice will, of course, make less money for me than the man who spends his whole life working long hours as an engineer for an automotive company. The automotive engineer chose money and a boring job. The artist choses a more interesting life and a lot less money. Who chose correctly? Neither. They both chose according to their freedom.
But suppose I were to say that we wanted to make these two men equal. It is not right that one has two fine cars in his driveway and can afford private school for his kids while the other one lives in a studio apartment and cannot afford kids at all. Let's make them equal. Let's start by mandating that they make equal pay. How do we do this? How about we make a universal equal wage? Every company must pay the same and for self employed people like our artist, the government will make up the gap. Sounds good. But then, an unexpected thing happens. The engineer discovers his inner artist. Suddenly, there is a nationwide dearth of engineers and a glut of artists who paint pictures no one wants to buy. Hmm. That did not work. Let's try another way. What if we ask both the artist and the engineer to do a bit of both jobs. The engineer gets to paint a bit while working only half time as an engineer and the painter has to start doing engineering a few days a week. Now, they are both doing equal boring work and equal fun work and we can pay them the same. Problem solved. Err... the engineer and the artist are now both being forced to do some things they did not want to do. The artist chose the life of art and was willing to sacrifice money to get it. The engineer chose the life of money and was willing to sacrifice his artistic side to do it. They both made trade offs to pursue what they wanted to pursue. They were free. But not equal.
Making people equal is the opposite of making them free.
But... someone might say... those examples are extreme and unrealistic. No one, someone might say, is actually pushing for absolute equality. Just more equal. Why not take a little bit of the engineer's money (after all who needs two fine cars and private school for the kids) and give some to the artist. Not all of it. Just make the artist's life a bit easier and the engineer will not notice that much.
But this is no solution. It still reduces freedom. A few more engineers might become artists. A few fewer artists decide to sacrifice their art career for making automobiles.
Freedom and equality are a continuum. More equality always means less freedom. And we have already turned that knob quite a bit in our nation. We went from being an almost completely free economically to implementing the New Deal, the Great Society, and countless other government programs aimed at promoting equality. We have given free education. We have given free health care. We have turned and turned the knob. Artists already get money from the engineers to pay for school, healthcare, and libraries.
question is, do we want to keep turning that knob toward equality and away from
freedom? Do we value the artist who can sacrifice all for his art and the
engineer who sacrifices in a different way to provide us with good cars? Do we
want a world where everyone is the same (equality) or do we want a world where
everyone can do what they want?
And how equal do we need to get? How (equally) rich does everyone need to be? If everyone in the world was richer than a king from two hundred years ago, is that rich enough? Or do we all need to be equally rich to satisfy? Because almost everyone in the US has a life that is much better than a king from two hundred years ago. The poorest person can go to an Emergency Room and whether or not he or she has health insurance can get medical treatment for gangrene. Gangrene killed the king of France, Louis XVIII, two hundred years ago. Every American today, can get plenty of calories. Comedian, Chris Rock, had a bit that said (I paraphrase),“In America, we have poor people but our poor people are fat.” And he is right. One indicator of being poor in the US is obesity. We are literally so rich as a nation that our poor people are fat. And if our poor people are fat and have more healthcare than kings from two hundred years ago, are they still poor?Are you comfortable with people having different wealth levels? Some are going to be poor. Some are going to be rich. But all will be free to do whatever the hell they want to do.
why do we keep pushing for equality? It is part of human nature. It is what the
bible calls covetousness. We have our own lot in life. We choose our own path.
And then we look over the fence and see the green grass our neighbor has and we
want it. Without, of course, giving up our freedom to get it. Alexis de
Tocqueville in his classic Democracy in America (1835) wrote, "But
one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels
the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men
to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom."
And you know who wants slavery over freedom? Fascists do.
In his "Road to Serfdom," author F.A. Hayek argues that any efforts to plan an economy (as we see above) necessarily move towards a totalitarian state. Think again about the artist and the engineer. Think about what we talked about as we tried to push for equality. We talked about making the artist work as an engineer. We talked about whether the engineer really needed two cars. We talked about taking their free lives and controlling them with the power of the government. The government is the only institution in modern society that can literally enforce its will at gunpoint. As we casually tried to make the engineer and the artist equal, we were really talking about forcing them to do things they did not want to do at the point of a gun.
This is is pretty much the definition of totalitarianism. And that was a very mild case discussing only two variables. Imagine how much government control would be needed to try to equalize educational income, wealth, health, and educational results for an entire society?
But there is another problem with equality as most modern societies pursue it. It has to do with what exactly we want to equalize. This brings us to the question of why we are here? What is our purpose? What should the government be trying to help us find?
A few years ago, I sat in a giant hotel hall for a conference. Over 200 of my colleagues sat and listened to an economist speak. He gave a five year forecast for the global economy (that happened to miss the global meltdown of 2020) and then opened it up for questions. Hands went up and a guy asked a question about increasing government involvement in the economy via the health care law and used the word 'socialism' in a negative way. The economist responded and explained in a condescending way that socialism and capitalism were simply tools. Either can be used to achieve the goal of bringing happiness and health to the population. I held my tongue at the time but now regret doing so. The quiet nodding of the crowd was exactly what his response did not deserve. Never mind that socialism in all its forms almost never works. That is not why the statement bothered me so much. The statement bothered me because it assumed something about life that much of our society assumes. It assumed that the goal of life is financial and physical health. I disagree. I say that a people obsessed with keeping themselves happy and financially secure is a boring and weak society. I say that we need a society that is not so risk averse. If you want to live in a world where no one ever gets hurt, freedom is not for you. A free society is a dangerous society. Freedom means letting people make stupid and dangerous decisions.
But I think there is a reason why we as a society seem to be moving further and further from the concept of freedom. It has to do with what our purpose in life is.
Many people assume that the goal of life is to live a long happy life.
So do we really want freedom? I would argue yes, absolutely. But I actually do not think most people do. I think most people when they see freedom, turn their heads in fear.
Freedom is Dangerous
Hemingway once wrote that every story, if told long enough, ends in death. Put
all the government safety nets you want in place and we all still die. But why
not live free? Why not follow the Patrick Henry and say, "Give me liberty
or give me death?"
To have freedom, you have to accept people will be hurt.
I say that a people obsessed with keeping themselves happy, healthy, and secure is a boring and weak society. I say that we need a society that is not so risk averse.
Smoke cigarettes. Ride without a helmet. Put your kids on teeter totters. Ride without a seatbelt. Drink more than 2 drinks a day. Skip the doctor’s appointment.
I say some of this facetiously. I am not encouraging a disregard for life. But I do think that our obsession with trying to pad every toy and take every bit of dietary or health advise in the hopes of protecting ourselves against all the potential risks in life has gone way way too far. It is okay to die.
I was in a grocery store recently and saw a box of whiskey. Not wine. Whiskey. If you buy a box of whiskey, you have embraced your alcoholism. Not even pretending anymore. I am not saying that we should all go out and buy boxes of whiskey. I am just noting that boxes of whiskey are a thing for some people and those people might have a certain sense of personal freedom that makes their life better than yours.
A safe life is a boring life.
God did not put us on this planet to carefully preserve us under a jar. Life is given to be spent not to be protected. Of course there are productive ways to spend our life. Dying in war or as a missionary in a hostile land are honorable and wonderful ways to go. But I don't think dying because you decided to ride a bull in an amateur rodeo is any less honorable than dying at age 89 in with tubes in your nose at a nursing home. And in some ways, drinking deeply from life with joy and celebration with friends is better than carefully measuring out your food with a mini-scale as you travel from the doctor to the yoga studio. There is nothing inherently honorable about a longer life.
And it is fear of any sort of danger combined with a desire for equality that cause governments to trend continually away from freedom.
Create a Government That You Would Like Even if You Hated the Person Running It
The rest of the world is sort of helpless to do anything. Does anyone really want to go to war with China right now on their territory? No. We could pressure them economically and maybe we will but things are already not so good on the US-China trade front so we'd be making an already strained situation worse. Not saying that pressure will not come, just saying pressure is hard at this point.
But China is a good demonstration of what happens when governments have enough power. Allowing the government to get in your business means that you are beholden to the whims of government. Don't agree with the philosophy of whoever is in power? Sucks to be you. The government can tax. They can arrest. They can force. They are the only legal mob of armed men who can show up at your door and take you from your family, your business, and your life.
And it is for this reason that government should be feared more than any other thing. In an upcoming chapter I will discuss why I think we should fear large corporations but at least with large corporations, they cannot legally and physically hurt you.
The founding fathers understood this risk. The US constitution is built to limit, decentralize, and check power. But much of the democratic left (and some on the right) in this country wants to change this. Executive power is growing. Executive orders and regulatory power are consolidated there. Complete control of the military has always been there. The power to appoint (increasingly legislative) judicial nominees.
When you combine these powers with the fact that the government, thanks to Big Tech, now has almost unlimited knowledge about everyone (dirt that J Edgar Hoover could have only dreamed of), you get a scary situation already.
Take a good look at Hong Kong. Look at the desperation of people, once free, now oppressed. Then think long and hard about giving more power to the government. Health care, retirement, education, and etc need to be taken AWAY from the government not given to them.
If you are a liberal, try to imagine a guy like Trump having complete control of your life. If you are a conservative, think of a guy like Bernie having complete control of your life. Don't assume that you will always agree with those in charge. Create a government that you will like even if you hate those in charge.
What all this has in common brings us back to my original point: freedom and equality are in direct conflict with each other. As a society we have embraced both words but do not really understand either. We need to embrace true freedom and accept the dangers associated with it and we need to reject the whole concept of equal results recognizing the dangers of pursuing those goals and building a government big enough to try. Most of what we talk about when we use words like freedom and equality is complete garbage. The emperor has no clothes.