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.