Thursday, June 10, 2010

Freedom and Equality: Contested Ideas in the Modern World

I find that in talking to people about ethics and politics, there is a lot of fuzzy thinking about certain key concepts. Many people have a vague idea that socialism is about sharing and capitalism is about the strong exploiting the weak and that is about it. Cultural Marxism has so infiltrated our institutions in the contemporary Western world that our Western intellectual heritage is in the process of being overwhelmed. Freedom and equality are two key ideas in modernity that need close definitions.

Freedom #1: There are two very different ideas of freedom abroad today. First, there is the classical/Christian definition of freedom as the ability to realize one's telos, to actualize one's true nature, to attain one's potential. This idea of freedom requires that the rational part of one's being control the appetites so as to direct us toward the goal of becoming all that we can be. Self-discipline, the cultivation of the virtues and practical wisdom are necessary here and, in a Christian perspective, heeding Divine revelation is necessary as well.

Freedom #2: The second idea of freedom is the late-modern degenerate concept of freedom as the ability to do whatever I feel I want to do at the moment: freedom from constraint. This idea of freedom is what is left when political liberalism is practiced in a totally secularized context by a post-Christian culture. Freedom from constraint is highly individualistic and practically indistinguishable from slavery to one's irrational appetites. It is a self-contradictory notion of freedom because it tries to expand personal freedom in such a way as to destroy freedom by allowing the strong to prey upon the weak with no moral constraints.

Equality #1: The first concept of equality is equality before the law, the idea that there is not one law for the rich and another law for the poor, but one law over all. This is the idea of the rule of law, which is seen as more objective than merely the will of the strong. This idea has deep roots in Western culture: in the Old Testament where even the king was under Torah and in republican Rome where all were under the law. The rule of law is incompatible with absolute monarchy or dictatorship.

Equality #2: The second concept of equality is the animating principle of the French Revolution and was formulated by the theoretician of the French Revolution, J. J. Rousseau. This concept of equality sees equality as equality, not of opportunity, but of outcome. It is equality not under the law, but equality of income under the administration of the bureaucratic state. This kind of equality is not found in nature; it must be created by rational, bureaucratic state.

In order to understand modern politics, it is necessary to distinguish clearly between these two sets of ideas. Freedom #1 and Equality #1 are rooted deep within Western culture and are held by conservatives. But Freedom #2 and Equality #2 are held by progressives, the heirs of the French Revolution. Extreme individualism (in the name of Freedom #2) and extreme statism (in the name of Equality) go together. The all-powerful State becomes the only limitation on the social Darwinism in which the strong prey on the weak. Intermediate institutions like the family are seen as ineffective and the State becomes that Protector of the Individual and Guarantor of Freedom and Equality.

What is confusing is that the progressive agenda is often pushed in the name of freedom and equality and Christians rightly believe that equality and freedom are good ideals, so they do not oppose the progressive agenda. But Freedom #2 and Equality #2 lead to statism, slavery and the loss of personhood, whereas Freedom #1 and Equality #2 lead to democratic governance, personal freedom, the rule of law, limited government and free enterprise.

Christians should seek a politics in which Freedom #1 and Equality #1 are the basis of public law. This is not to impose a theocracy, but merely to cultivate a humane and just politics.

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