The “Liberty/Equality” Conundrum

In my classes, when I get to the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, I generally begin with a discussion of what Americans mean by “equality,” and the perceived tension between equality and liberty.

Clearly, if we are talking about the operation of law and civil government, we are bound to understand the call for equality as limited to those areas in which government operates, and not surprisingly, there is a pretty substantial literature exploring what it means to be “equal before the law”– to have equal civil rights and liberties.

It isn’t simply us lawyer types, either; political philosophers have argued for years–okay, centuries!–that government efforts to nudge us in the direction of egalitarianism–that is, in the direction of material equality— diminish liberty and are ultimately immoral, because advocates of redistribution tend to ignore the issue (near and dear to more libertarian hearts) of merit or desert.  Those who see it that way read the famous Marxist admonition: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” as support for expropriation — a system where productive and conscientious workers would be taken advantage of by the ineffectual and/or lazy.

Americans have a deeply-rooted cultural belief that people are poor because they are morally defective, and it didn’t start with the Tea Party. I once traced Indiana’s welfare system back to the 15th Century English Poor Laws- laws that prohibited giving “alms” to “sturdy beggars.”

So here we are, stuck, policy-wise.

We have a longstanding (and probably insurmountable) concern about the fairness of taking money from people who have (at least theoretically) earned it in order to help people who–for whatever reason–have much less. In more selfish eras (like now) that distaste for redistribution jaundices our approach to taxes for even the most traditional civic purposes. Paying more taxes than absolutely necessary (i.e., police, fire and maybe the sewer system)  is seen as state-sponsored theft, or at the very least, a deprivation of liberty.

As I previously noted, it isn’t difficult to find people arguing that efforts to narrow the gap between rich and poor (redistributive taxes) are assaults on liberty. If there is one thing Americans appear to agree upon, it is the pre-eminence of liberty over other values. What we don’t see discussed very often, however, is what we mean by liberty–and the extent to which government is responsible for ensuring that citizens can access it.

Liberty, at its most basic, is my ability to live a life of my own choosing, so long as I am not harming someone else–my right to live where I like, marry whom I love, choose or reject a church, vote for candidate A rather than B, raise my children as I see fit, opt to spend the weekend at a museum or in the garden….But there are a lot of people in my state (as elsewhere) who do not have liberty in any meaningful sense, that is, the ability to make these minimal choices, because every waking moment is spent simply trying to survive.

Every person struggling to make ends meet is not a “sturdy beggar,” trying to pull a con. (If research is to be believed, relatively few are.) But rather than trying to change this stubborn cultural meme, or reminding ourselves of the multiple ways we all benefit when societies are more equal, let’s ask a different question.

If a 10% increase in your taxes could be shown to provide public services  allowing every American to enjoy at least a minimal level of liberty/self-determination–would you pay it?

Or is the liberty you cherish limited to your own? If it’s the latter–I think that’s privilege you are valuing, not liberty.


  1. There is a cartoon going around where the first frame shows 3 kids at three holes in a fence watching, I think it is a baseball game. The first kid is just the right height for the kid, the second kid is on tiptoes barely able to see through the hole and the third kid can only see the sky. This frame is labeled equality. In the second frame the two shorter kis have boxes to stand on just the right height for them to see through their holes. This frame is labeled equity. ‘nuf said.

  2. There are many ways of saying this same thing.

    I think that at their core many adults think: I have worked pretty hard through my life, it was never easy but I managed to pull it off and take care of myself. Why should I accept less from others?

    The limitation of this thinking is that it doesn’t recognize that we were all given, or not, certain things and it was those things AND what we did with them that allowed us to do what we’ve done.

    So the question is what do those of us who were dealt winning hands owe those who were not?

    One answer is nothing. Let them fail. Blame them for not rising to the occasion of winning with a losing hand.

    The conditions that belief leads to are easy to find around the world and are evidenced by great wealth disparity. The hands that are dealt are that important to the lives that they play out to.

    We all know card games that are all luck vs those where good cards are less important than skilled playing. Life turns out to be more than half good luck but we are reluctant to accept that because it doesn’t adequately credit our hard work. Our ego.

    So what can be done with the reality of 55% luck, 45% work?

    One answer is from the concept of insurance: shared risk. Rather than only those having been dealt them exclusively carrying the full impact of bad cards spread the consequences among all. Share the risk.

    Of course in the extreme this could be quite impractical. We’d have to put the entire output of our collective effort in a pile and dole it out in equal portions to everyone.

    But there is a middle of the road and many countries have found it. Use money and government as tokens of our contribution to the pile, and taxes to spread the risks of less than average contribution.

    Is this the most functional approach? It seems to me that it is in times of surplus, but maybe not in times of scarcity.

    In times of scarcity it puts the entire species at risk of dying rather than just the “weak”.

    These are hardly those times though. We have huge surplus. Why not keep all lives functional and then divy up according to good fortune the surplus?

    That’s where we are now.

  3. There have always been “takers” in this world and there always will be; often they are part of those in the long line of “the poor will always be with us” seeking assistance. Just as in criminal law; (paraphrasing) “better to free ten criminals than send one innocent man to prison”. Better to give to a few “takers” than let those in need go hungry.

    I willingly accept that fact as I do the fact that my tax dollars pay for better maintained infrastructure in higher income neighborhoods, surrounding churches and businesses with tax abatements and tax loopholes, than those in my low-middle-income neighborhood. I do NOT LIKE IT; I accept it as Stephen King says, “The situation is what the situation is!” We need to identify and admit what can and must be changed and accept “The Liberty/Equality Conundrum” in the civil and human rights as fact. We will never be equal financially or in our living conditions just as we will never be equal in our physical and/or mental conditions. But; in recent years I have watched the scales tipped alarmingly in one direction only, with little or no compensation on the lower end. My daughter-in-law and I talked just yesterday about our personal “needs” – not wants – our incomes on Social Security and retirement are too high for any assistance but too low to maintain our needs at a comfortable level. We also know there are others who have far less than we do and there are those “takers” among those in actual need. We also know that the primary “takers” today are the 1% in this country who need to be reined in on their taking, their discrimination and their Bible thumping resulting in unfair laws which are far outside the limits of Liberty and Equality.

  4. JoAnn, I wish that the primary “takers” today were the 1% in this country. I’d say that the tax free religious organizations and many other tax free entities are the primary takers of today. Think about it. Not only is the money coming into the organization tax free, but everything (except salaries) they spend it on is tax free too. They pay no property tax. They pay no sales tax. They pay no income tax on the money brought in and labeled as donations. Nada. The excesses so often reported in the news (private tax free jets, luxurious homes) are excused with a kind of pious hypocrisy. And we allow this because these organization are, in theory, supposed to be filling some charitable gap in our capitalistic system. Want to see the “takers”? Just look at the supposed “givers”.

  5. Once there was a song
    “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”
    That came to mind reading this blog today

  6. This would be an excellent sermon to be presented at every church in our country. Of course, it would get you promptly thrown out or burned at the stake.

  7. The saying going around, variously attributed, sums it up well: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality seems like oppression.” If you’re a heterosexual white Christian male in Indiana, you have been privileged all your life, no matter your economic circumstances. Our entire Hoosier society was built on that model of privilege—government, business, social culture, all of it. When a person of such privilege is presented with the irrefutable logic that all citizens share the same Constitutional rights to liberty and equality, there may still be a disconnect—even when that person has a law degree. For example, Mike Pence has said he believes that extending liberty and equality to everyone in our society is a “radical social agenda” that would cause societal collapse. But his specific arguments are always informed by his privilege. Christians like Mike Pence say they need to legislate the rights of women and minorities and Muslims in order to protect the country, but what they’re really doing is scrambling to protect the antiquated construct that privileges Mike Pence and his ilk.

  8. I am fascinated by how much energy is spent on focusing on the alleged “takers” who apparently can “take” from the rich at will and how little energy is spent on those who make their wealth “taking” from the poor with low wages, lack of benefits, outrageous rents for substandard properties, usurious interest rates for loans, etc. It is interesting to see how rich people are apparently put upon and poor people are nefarious.

  9. • Do we understand that “Liberty” concerns both “freedom from…” and “freedom to…” ?

    • Do we realize the difference between being “self-centered” and being “selfishly-centered” ?

    • Do we notice the part that “The Golden Rule” plays in sorting this conundrum ?

    It seems to me that until we are competent in these aspects of ethics and morality, we will always fall way too short of Good Government and Civil Society… How do we learn these things? How do we teach them? How do we encourage them in our homes, schools, institutions, cities, states and nations?

    That’s a challenge we face at Universities and Colleges where I teach… I expect and hope that it is also faced in secondary and elementary schools, houses of worship, civic associations…and I wish, in the halls of government as well…

  10. I was born a white heterosexual and son of a coal miner who endured the Great Depression and served in WW II, and I certainly did not feel privileged, as one writer here has suggested. After the war I managed to go through college with an economics degree and then law school, marry and father four children, and am now retired to Florida. My experience, especially that of the Great Depression, made me a lifelong liberal Democrat.

    As to Sheila’s query, would you pay 10% more taxes to bring about equality in our society, my answer is yes, or even more. Those of us who can – should. One of the biggest problems we have today is wage inequality. If corporate employers paid what they should be paying in wages and ancillary compensation, the “poor would still always be with us,” but in far fewer number.

    Capital is overpaid and labor is underpaid for their relative contributions to the economy’s output, thus reducing demand, which helps explain our economy’s doldrums. Underpaid women also helps explain tepid demand in the market. If these problems were solved (and they can be via legislation), an underperforming economy would turn out to be a vibrant economy due to booming demand which would insure that all would prosper. I here parenthetically note that our legislators should work on these problems rather than which restrooms are appropriate for whom. If we paid as much legislative attention to wage and gender suppression as we do the rest room crisis (a diversion), our economy might show signs of recovery.

  11. I’ve always said that my moral superiority, personal insight and ability to plan made it possible to be born at the right time and place with parents who would provide me with the resources and encouragement to succeed, the right friends to model, teachers who would challenge, the opportunities to succeed and people in my profession who made that success possible. Too bad those morally weak people didn’t have the insight to do that.

  12. Few weeks ago Cory Booker was on Bill Maher and he shared a story of his parents trying get to buy a house. They had a white family go to the house and pretend to want to buy the house….that same family may had to act like the Bookers for the bank too….Mr Booker reported their was a great deal of upset when on the day of closing it was not the white family that showed up but a black family. This was the 60’s.. .that struck me…the lengths that a family of color had to go through to buy a house and to get a loan in a neighborhood with good schools.

  13. There will always be takers but the percentage of takers to those in need is small. Just like there may be some great giving business leaders but a higher percent of them when you talk about todays CEOS’ are takers rather than givers. The Carrier CEO is a fine example of a taker. I will gladly give more to the government to take care of the needy even knowing there are takers out there. But I want someone to explain to me why these corporate takers should be allowed to continue to get more of the pie while the employees down the line are paying the price?

  14. Rn; I have said for years that Red Lining and especially White Flight caused the deterioration of neighborhoods. Then the real estate business came up with what they called “creative financing” which put people who could not afford to maintain property into better areas which caused more White Flight as homes deteriorated. When Mayor Hudnut requested a study of abandoned houses in Indianapolis/Marion County in 1991, we set up the initial meeting with contractors, sub-contractors, builders, suppliers, neighborhood group and church reps. The first to speak out about deterioration in neighborhoods was a black sub-contractor who said – to the rousing agreement of almost every other attendee – that school busing initiated the cause of deterioration. He had 3 children in 3 different schools. People began moving to assure their children would attend good schools only to have busing begin in those areas; thus began a more transient society, unsold homes being rented to people who didn’t care, couldn’t or wouldn’t maintain even lawns. When Mayor Hudnut requested the study there were 4,500 – 5,000 vacant properties in Marion County; last count was approximately 10,000 because nothing is being done to change the law that is the basis of the escalating abandonment problem. The crime rate here is at at all-time high and that ties in with the deterioration problem. Liberty/Equality, which is a many faceted situation (conundrum) went by the wayside as more and more areas deteriorated and middle-class areas became lower-class areas, people moved further and further away from once thriving neighborhoods and we all know what has happened to the education system here over the past few years.

    Public transportation and infrastructures deteriorated along with homes and businesses; maintenance seems to be as abandoned as the vacant properties. Liberty and Equality are further apart these days than ever before; the option to move to a better paying job and more suitable housing is bordering on being a figment of one’s imagination, maintaining our property doesn’t mean others around us will maintain their’s so our property values are lowered and we feel trapped. We are trapped! With the majority of today’s elected leaders we have no guarantee that paying that 10% tax would be used to provide our well deserved Liberty/Equality…it probably would guarantee the escalation of the referred to conundrum.

  15. Gerald: “Capital is overpaid and labor is underpaid for their relative contributions to the economy’s output, thus reducing demand, which helps explain our economy’s doldrums.”

    What you say is true but only part of the picture.

    Other essentials in the production of goods and services to sustain and enhance life on earth are materials (matter) of which we have a fixed supply (wealth) of that which is affordable given our energy income, and energy supplied continuously from the sun, virtually our only source. As our energy input is intermittent we rely on our bank account, plants (read space), to gather and save it and we convert it other usable forms as we withdraw it from the bank.

    About 200 years ago we had a windfall from old plants, fossil fuels, from long ago suns and we’ve been wastrals ever since drunk on excess.

    We’ve spent our energy inheritance in the relative blink of an eye.

    Now we must learn to live within our energy income and to manage our raw material wealth.

    Winning the energy lottery has allowed us to, while on our bender, convert much of our material wealth into unusable waste. We’ve moved valuable materials from where they are, converted them to useless waste, and buried them near where we live.

    Time to sober up.

    Now that we’ve trashed our home we not only have to learn to live within our means but also to live within the climate that we created rather than the bountiful one nature gave us.

    We’ve screwed ourselves by our cleverness and only more cleverness can save us.

    But the old world is gone and we now have to create its replacement using the same old tools: monetary wealth and debt (capital), our personal energy (labor), what’s left of our material wealth, and our energy income.

    Now that we have flirted with temporary we have to down with sustainable life.

  16. One other point Gerald. You use the word “demand” which is troublesome from the standpoint that it’s apparently infinite. We consume everything that we produce and divy it up based on conventional inadequate economic systems.

    The replacement that must be developed for conventional inadequate economics is how to live collectively within our material wealth and energy income and divy that up.

  17. Oh, BTW Gerald I’m not picking on you at all, just “conventional wisdom”.

    We also appear to have used up all of the practically available debt as a source of capital. We’re in over our heads for several generations at the beginning of our journey away from temporary to a permanent place that is affordable.

  18. Well, Pete, you are of course correct, but I was not writing with entropy in mind, as your setting would suggest. I am writing only from the perspective of economics from publication of The Wealth of Nations. As for demand, it is a rubbery concept but one that can be measured and indeed is a measurement itself. We know there is not enough money circulating in this economy due to wage inequality and underpayment of women. We know that if wage inequality and treatment of women wages were where they should be, then demand would zoom. Why? Easy. They would have lots more money to spend, thus enhancing demand (and by demand here I mean one for goods and services). Demand is a yardstick, and like other yardsticks, is hardly a forever thing. There, obviously, has to be an economy around for measurement. This concept of entropy will be the ultimate winner – the end as we know it.

  19. Although the USA Constitution is respected Earth around among the now United Nations voting and non-voting members, equality of inhabitants is not measured only by lines drawn in battlegrounds notably in the former inland sea area and Western Farmers areas AFTER in essence, the inhabitants conquered the Slave States of the contained coastal cities. So there were no State laws, rules, regulations of trade 1492 for centuries and continuing still in all the countries with indigenous family members, and recorded natives from 1492-93. Indiana University permanent employees, for example, have their own EOE codes, NCAA rules, transfer credit obligations, military reporting obligations, too. So there were no anti-constitutional laws or corrective amendments added until the 1790 Census at the same year as the Earth around revolutions in all now UN countries’ recent histories. English language is the most popular student-choice, for example, but not a major philosophical and historical, even anatomical scholarship area due to the brevity of literate records at London since 1492. We have many Amendments, but the Articles still stipulate officials’ duties in return for any payments for their IRS:SSA:VA, and 20th C records. Meanwhile, citizens remain silent on many post 1800 popular social language problems in all of the current English-literature libraries Property titles remain those of the inhabitants’ 9/10 law.

  20. Gerald. My worry is that the reckoning of unsustainable is closer than we think.

    Economists since the discovery of fossil fuels have posited that demand is the driver of the economy and that has been true through most of our era. But science now knows that we must move away from that concept and accept that a sustainable civilization must be based on physical universe limitations not money. We collectively have to live like middle class families always have limited by money but now that we’re 7B and more uniformly prosperous we must live collectively within our material wealth and energy income. Using money to keep score no longer is adequate.

    Conventional economics offers no tools to manage within those constraints, none.

  21. The foundational misunderstanding that provides western society with the notion of people “deserving” what they get is the basic philosophy behind Abrahamic religions: original sin, free will, and good vs. evil. These religions have provided an effective framework to convince savages to become civilized (google Sky Cake), but they now hold us back in many ways, including through the “justice” system, capitalism as an organizational principle, and the “makers and takers” of the republican fantasy world. Until we overcome Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, we will be burdened with the judgmentalism of the ignorant and its manipulation by educated sociopaths. Education is the only answer.

  22. It is equally tiresome when liberals judge all investment 1 percenters by Bernie Madoff and all religious people by Jimmy Swaggert as it is when conservatives claim all welfare recipients are lazy. For the record, some of you have economic stimulus exactly backwards. The populace having more money to spend has nothing to do with increasing productivity. Increased productivity begins when business owners gain confidence in the economy, they expand production. To do so they invest capital, take loans, increase payroll, and increase production. Anything the government can do to increase confidence, will enhance that optimism. If the only thing that happens is that the populace gets more money, the result is inflation. No increases in GDP, no improvement of anyone’s standard of living.

  23. Ken, businesses have one rule: make more money regardless of the impact on others.

    One way to make more money are improvements in productivity. Eliminate waste be it in labor, capital, energy or raw materials. Paying less for any input whether it be due to lower unit cost or fewer units is one type of this. Nothing is needed to do this except innovation.

    Another way is to create additional customers (Sales). As buying is always discretionary in free and open markets the only way to accomplish this is to satisfy more customers or satisfy them better. This is also a function of innovation.

    There you have it. The only interface between business and government are regulations to keep markets competitive and customers and employees and stockholders and suppliers on a level playing field and taxes to pay for the benefits to companies of national infrastructure and services.

    Business innovation has an infinitely greater impact on make more money regardless of the impact on others than government does.

    That’s why when politicians promise jobs they are lying.

  24. Pete! You missed or ignored my admonition to stop judging all business owners by the few that are ruled by greed. You are wrong when you claim no (most) business owners care about anything else but money. Y

  25. What in private business Ken overrules make more money regardless of the impact on others?

    That’s a shortfall of capitalism. Not a fatal flaw. In fact that’s what makes it work.

    That’s what we need to understand and accept.

    Capitalism has strengths and weaknesses and so does socialism. Smart economies try to apply them in ways that builds on their strengths and mitigates their weaknesses.

    That’s what America has been quite successful at, finding the middle. And making capitalism, despite its weaknesses, work for us through regulation.

  26. It strikes me that there are takers across the economic spectrum. The takers at the bottom are not getting much. Most of us would not want to try to live on what they get. The takers at the top are taking way more than they need and they want even more.

  27. Personal integrity and compassion are no less likely in a business owner than in a politician, policy wonk, or bureaucrat. But you never want to consider such qualities in the former and assume they are automatic with the latter.

  28. Word choices are important.

    Instead of the ‘makers vs takers’, try using ‘producers vs consumers’.

  29. Ms Kennedy,

    Just want to thank you for these articles and for saying what I have often thought, but unable to express as clearly as you. I love the example of the 3 boys looking through knotholes in the fence.
    Again, thank you for speaking out so clearly around these issues.

    Walt Dalsimer

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