Monday, November 26, 2007
Equality OR Freedom or Equality AND Freedom?
For many years conservatives and communists have been telling us that we can't have both equality and freedom. Even conservatives who themselves were genuinely not racist and who had taken significant steps in end discriminative practices (Barry Goldwater, who helped desegregate the Arizona Air Force National Guard while a general in same, for example) have believed that the government taking action to forbid racial discrimination in the private sector was a violation of individual rights and a threat to personal freedom. They have argued that such legislation served to strengthen government control of people's lives and reduce liberty. They have cited government regulation of business practices as irreconcilable with the economic freedoms of capitalism since Theodore Roosevelt started busting trusts. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the argument, it has cogency. Government power, as the Bush administration has demonstrated repeatedly since September 11 of 2001, can be a threat to individual liberty. This was demonstrated during the Red Scare and the self-promoting demagoguery of Joseph McCarthy.
To argue that government has to be a threat to freedom, however, is to ignore basic historical facts. It was government that ended the brutal cultural genocide of slavery in the United States of America. President Abraham Lincoln began the process with the Emancipation Proclamation and the post-war Republican congress completed the process with the Thirteenth Amendment. Since the early 1800s, when the majority of northern states abolished slavery, only two states would voluntarily abolish slavery prior to the Thirteenth Amendment: West Virginia in 1863 and Maryland in 1864, both of which abolished slavery in state constitutional conventions. Certainly, there has been no greater act on behalf of freedom in the United States before. Since, the only possible rival is granting women the right to vote.
Conservatives argue that in the absence of government interference, free enterprise will promote liberty through the natural forces of competition. It should be remembered that it was free enterprise in the form of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the textile industry, and the commercial plantation economy of the Southern states that established slavery in the first place. As long as it was profitable, free enterprise was not about to shoot itself in the foot to dispose of it.
Now Pat Buchanan, whose motives can hardly be called as pure as those of Goldwater on the issue of civil rights, claims that legislating to end workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation would lead the United States toward tyranny and trample civil rights.
Mr. Buchanan even goes so far as to extol the freedom that men and women of all races enjoyed during the days of segregation. He agrees that racism and discrimination were terrible things, but finds that government action to end segregation violated the rights of all Americans and curtailed their freedoms. He claims that ending discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation would be equally damaging to the rights of all Amnericans. His idealistic nostalgia for the loss of restricted clubs and signs reading 'Whites Only' and 'Colored' somehow fails to move.
Yes, despite the arguments of many of my fellow liberals, this country's legal system and mores were constructed on a Judeo-Christian base. Male homosexual sex (lesbianism is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible, it should be noted) is a violation of Old Testament law and was considered a sin by the Catholic and Protestant churches extant during the American Revolution and the early days of the republic. Contrary to popular argument, the morality of the Deistic faith professed by some of the Founding Fathers did not differ significantly from the Christian morality of the time.
That said, the Founding Fathers were not perfect. The men who drafted the laws of the first thirteen states were not omniscient and morally pure. They distrusted the artisan, small farmer, and laboring class and wished to keep the 'right people' in charge of the nation. Their ideal model, whether they sought a mercantile or agricultural nation, was the timocracy of the Roman Republic where the value of one's citizenship was determined by one's land ownership. They denied women the right to vote and they owned slaves. In nearly all cases, those free blacks of the time were not allowed to vote either. There's a possibility they were wrong about the issue of homosexuality as well.
What the Founding Fathers were right about was the importance of both personal liberty and equality before the law. While we do not have economic equality in this nation and likely never will, we are supposed to believe in the ideal of equality of economic opportunity. This ideal is incompatible with any kind of discrimination not based on merit. Denying a man or woman the ability to work, to support themselves, to support any family they may build is an act restraining their personal liberty.
It's this simple: the government isn't the only threat to personal liberty in the society of the United States. In the system of checks and balances that society relies upon, when another agency threatens individual liberty the government is duty bound to act against them.