Basil was a good friend of mine when I was in college at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in the 70’s. We did everything together. We studied together. Played racquetball together. Played saxophone together. We talked about women together. We were partners for a year in a human anatomy dissection lab as a way to prepare for med school. We had all the same scores and grades. We were like brothers. We applied to the same med schools. On the first round of applications, Basil got into med school and I didn’t.
For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why. I was happy for him, because I knew how hard he worked and I knew he would be a great doctor. But, I couldn’t figure out what he did that I didn’t.
SIU had an Affirmative Action program that accepted Basil’s scores for admission, but not mine. I eventually got in after another try. I’m still glad Basil got in when he did. I have no resentment about it. My point is to illustrate the on-going struggle every democratic society is involved in: finding the balance between Equality and Liberty.
One of the main functions of democratic goverment is to make sure the conditions needed for self-improvement are equally distributed. If we are going to race, we have to start from the same starting line and finish at the same finish line. This post is not about Affirmative Action. But, Affirmative Action is a good example of the country wrestling with the balance between Equality and Liberty. It’s an example of an attempt to level the playing field of opportunity for those who have been historically denied access to resources to advance themselves.
Equality is about equal conditions for progress applying to everyone. We can discuss whether Affirmative Action is the best way to achieve Equality. We can debate if there are ways to fine tune the system, but the basic premise of needing to establish a level playing field should not have to be defended. Equality is a necessary “self-evident” good in society, as Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence.
Since government sets the rules that create the conditions we live under as we pursue our happiness, government is responsible to establish Equality in a democracy. Equality is a necessary good. A healthy society requires it. But, it is not an unlimited good. At some point, a government’s intervention to create fair conditions in society will eventually infringe on the ability of some to rise on their own merit. Equality, in the extreme, infringes on individual Liberty.
To say government is the problem in all circumstances is to fundamentally misunderstand the essential role government has in establishing equality. So, on the one hand, we must have a social contract that provides for equal opportunity and access to resources. But, on the other hand, we must be sensitive to government intrusion beyond what is healthy.
In my case with Basil, the government’s effort to establish social equality had a direct effect on my progress. More exactly, it opened the door more easily for Basil. (I’m fine with that.) Some have argued that government interventions like Affirmative Action are unfair “reverse discrimination” to “punish” those who are not from an historically disadvantaged group and withhold their entry into jobs, schools and social positions, due to factors they have no control over, like their race, religion, ethnic group, etc.. Others might argue that the sum of the advantages and privileges of the majority are such that to allow for easier access of the historically oppressed is an act of historic correction, and therefore, justifiable.
I’m not argung for or against Affirmative Action. I’m simply raising the point that the discussion about Affirmative Action is a perfect example of a society trying to find the balance between the need for social Equality and the right to individual Liberty.
There is a famous court case, “The University of California v Bakke,” in which the Supreme Court decided in a situation, not unlike my own, that schools could have special preferences for accepting minority students as long it didn’t also infringe on the rights of majority students. This is a great example of how a society should grant Equality to all, but in proportion to what is Just for all. Equality is balanced by Liberty to create Justice.
It is when the pursuit of Equality is excessive that we see bizarre and tyrannical intrussions into our private lives. Here’s a great example from my former home-state. A U.S. District Court judge slapped a 500 dollar fine on a Massachusetts fisherman for untangling a whale from his fishing nets. The whale would have died without his intervention. His crime? According to the court, he was supposed to call state authorities and wait for them to do it. The right of the state to regulate the equal access of the public to wildlife, however good that goal might be, was carried to excess by an irrational egalitarian law.
The point is made again with the British Petroleum/Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. Good friends of mine own a series of hotels along the Gulf Coast in Pensacola, FL (The beaches are pristine and gorgeous! Check them out on your next vaction: here). In this situation the Liberty of a corporation to pursue its goals went without adequate safeguards of the public interest.
Here, the idea of Liberty went amok. Liberty is a necessary good. It is your right to use your God-given talents and abilities in your pursuit of happiness. But, at some point, your pursuit of happiness is going to run up against someone else’s pursuit of their happiness. So, while Liberty is a necessary good, it is not an unlimited good. Liberty has to be moderated by the requirements of Equality: the need for protecting the “public commons” so everybody has the same shake in life.
BP was running its business in an under-regulated environment. That led to hotels, like my friend’s in Pensacola, shrimping boats, restaurants and all manner of businesses having their Liberty to conduct business and pursue happiness infringed upon. The excessive Liberty of BP led to the denial of Liberty to tens of thousands of others.
So, Liberty, while it is a necessary good, is not an unlimited good. It requires the moderating effects of Equality to stike the balance of Justice. The balance a country strikes between the pursuit of Liberty and the conditions of Equality is that nation’s position on Justice. Justice is the balance between these two necessary but opposing natural goods: Equality and Liberty.
In America, the protectors of Equality are those on the Left politcally, in party terms, the Democrats. The protectors of Liberty are those on the political Right, the Republicans. Democrats want to ensure that the government protects the common space we all share. They want to ensure equal opportunity for all. Republicans want to ensure that each individual can rise to the heights they aspire to. They don’t want any encumberances on their Liberty.
Once a Rigid Identity takes hold of the notion of Liberty or Equality, it is turned to its extreme: Egalitarianism or Libertarianism. The more political parties become entrenched in either Libertarian or Egalitarian goals, the less are our chances of being able to achieve a Just society. So, the psychology of the Rigid Identity has a a social-political effect.
What has happened in this country is that those on the far Left and far Right have taken a necessary good (Equality or Liberty) and turned it into an absolute good exclusive of its opposite. The result is an out of balance public dialogue that is tragically and unnecesarily conflictual and pushes the goal of a Just society out of our reach. We have especially seen Liberty become worshipped at the expense of Equality. “Drill-Baby, drill!” with little regard for public safety, for example.
In a kind of politcal fundamentalism, no consideration can be given by the far Right to any suggestion of government intervention to ensure the necessary balance provided by Equality. So, we wind up with a privately “regulated” health care system that excludes over 40 million people. That means we endurea real human cost and risk to the nation as inadequate health care and poor health drags on other public services and limits productivity and increases, innecessarily, human misery. It is not, in the interests of a private corporation to provide care for all as its goals are to maximizes its Liberty to make a profit. This is why government is needed to protect the public commons. It is not in the interest of business to do so.
Historically, this is why the government has covered certain areas of our lives under the umbrella of “human services.” These human services provide government support in critical areas of life to ensure that inequalities would not be created in society from excessive Liberty from the private sector that has no motive to protect the common welfare. Education and health care are the two chief examples of areas of the public’s life under the umbrella of human services.
The current health care debate is an example of trying to get more people under that umbrella. There has been a shift in government to curb the Liberty of health care corporations in order to expand the Equality of access to and quality of care.
When we have extremes from the Right or Left, the basic concerns of the other side become minimized or disregarded altogether. For instance, from the Right we see little consideration being given to the possibility of government spending to stimulate the economy while we are in a calamitous economic recession, or to the public obligations of banks and millionaire private citizens to pay taxes.
A nuanced conversation on how to responsibly stimulate the economy and then work to reduce the deficit is not even on the table as rigid partisan positions prevent a comprehensive examination of possibilities to fit our current situation. One-size-fits-all answers are all that can be entertained due to partisan rigidity.
Life just doesn’t work that way. Each situtation has it’s own demands. Partisan politics limits our problem solving approach to one prescribed answer to all illnesses. In medicine, if a doctor prescribed the same thing for all patients no matter their disease, we would consider this malpractice. You wouldn’t accept that from a doctor. Yet, extreme partisans offer the same solution to every nuanced problem. If we wouldn’t accept that from a doctor, why do we accept it from a politician? If a doctor is guilty of medical malpractice if they diagnosis every person that comes to them with appendicitis and prescribes surgery as the treatment to everyone, no matter what the problem, why do we accept from politicians a rigidly simple diagnosis to every social ill and the same prescription to every complex problem? Why is this not political malpractice?
Good arguments can be made to limit government spending, corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy. But, we are in a climate where the need for spending to stimulate the economy and reform corporate and high end personal taxes are off the table simply for ideological partisan reasons. Any time you see this absolutism one has to ask if one is following a dogma that prevents a comprehensive assessment of a problem. The same, of course, can be said of the Left that refusals to consider unshackling entrepreneurs from unnecessary and harmful over-regulation and the wanton expansion of entitlements.
In a growing segment of society, we have a dogmatic-like worship of Liberty to the exclusion of Equality. Therefore, by extension, the country has a fundamentalist-like worship of laissez-faire free-enterprise as the system that is the social expression of pure Liberty. (Just as Communsm is the expression of pure Equality) So, many say health care, for instance, can only be managed by private businesses and not government, even though government is the only protector of the common playing field (and manages MediCare at far less cost and greater efficiency than insurance companies do, contrary to rhetoric to the contrary.)
On the far Left, the opposite situation reigns. Government is seen as the sole arbiter of the economy and social life. The answer to problems is said to only be found in government regulation and the expansion of entitlements to ensure Equality of conditions for everyone. But, if left unchecked, the evils of excessive centralization raises its ugly head. In the extremes, an Egalitarian society eventually becomes entirely centralized and tyrannical, like the Soviet Union.
Of course, the US is nowehere near this extreme, although those on the far right paint any move to establish Equality as a slippery slope toward Communism and a violation of sacred Liberty. There is a naive assertion commonly heard that any effort at promoting Equality will inevitaby lead to Communism, as if people had no capacity to for balance and proportion. In fact, the ideas of balance and proportion are missing from our social and political discourse. What is important is to assess the balance between Liberty and Equality, not to outright condemn any movement to expand Liberty as purely selfish and any movement toward Equality as purely communistic. With an eye toward Justice, we can assess the value of both positions as each situation dictates.
To be sure, an unchecked pursuit of Equality results in ludicrous examples of government intrussion into the private lives of individuals.
When Equality has run amok, answers to problems that can come from the flexibility, ingenuity and initiative of individuals are squelched by layers of bureaurocracy and regulation. The goal of achieving a level playing field can cripple the climate for growth and civility, the very things Equality is designed to protect and nurture. Equality and centralization of power need to be checked by Liberty and the rights of individuals.
In America, the functions of Liberty and Equality, the Right and Left, have been relegated to political parties: Republicans and Democrats, respectively. Does this have to be the case? Can the discussion of the needs of Liberty and Equality happen without political parties? I think so.
In fact, I think we could have more effective political discussions without the rigid stances of the parties that set up a conflictual false dichotomy between Equality and Liberty when we should be looking for balance between them.
Partisanship reduces complex issues to two sides. Problems with multiple parts are wrongly squeezed into a duality that misses the complexity of the whole problem. The opposing side’s arguments are entirely discounted. This is disasterous when trying to create laws. HALF of the issues involved in effectively solving a problem can be entirely neglected in would-be solutions arrived at by a partisan legislature. This can only lead to more problems and fanning more extremism.
The quality of a discussion that assumes that a balance can be struck between the demands of Liberty and Equality is far superior to one in which, at the outset, partisan sides have drawn up rigid positions with the intention of doing battle.
Remember, the Weakened Identity and the Rigid Identity create mindsets that defend bias. In the survival mode of thinking they create, the mind is not open to view the world as anything but a threat. So, easily resolvable problems are turned into complex battles. Complex problems are overly simplified into opposite extremes with the expectation of a battle between the two. We have assumed that this kind of conflict is necessary and even good. We assume we are principled when w say we will only stand for pure Liberty (as a Republican) or pure Equality (as Democrat), when in fact we have defined ourselves as rigid extremists. Our goal should be Justice through the balance of Liberty and Equality as either of them exclusively lead to an unjust society.
It’s a good thing to allow differences of opinion to clash to find the spark of truth. But, it is the narrow and biased thinking of Weakened and Rigid Identities when viewed through the lens of partisanship that prevents the search for the sparks.
The solutions that come from an assumption of balance between Equality and Liberty are far more likely to actually solve problems. We’ll talk about how the Compassionate Identity creates this balance in the following posts and in my upcoming book.
There are real limitations in the kind of solutions we can arrive at both in our private lives and politically when we argue from a Rigid or Weakened Identity, and by extension, the Left or the Right, as we see so clearly in the governmental paralysis caused by the partisan clashes of the day. To seek compromise between rigid partisan extremes is not the same as a solution that comes from a comprehensive balance of all factors involved in an issue.
Our partisan system creates solutions to problems that perpetuate the problems we want to solve. What is needed is a new post-partisan approach that seeks to create a movement of balance toward a Just society and not seek the impossible and highly dangerous extremes of a Libertarian or Egalitarian society.
The extremes we see in partisan politics in the US are preventing the natural and necessary discussion about how to balance the requirements of Liberty and Equality. By insisting that any government regulation or intervention must always be resisted, the far right of the Republican Party and especially the extreme elements of the Tea Party have adopted a fundamentalist theology more than a politcal doctrine.
By refusing to allow an assessment of how to relax unnecessary government regulation, the far Left of the Democrats in this country indulges the same fundamentalist excess. Egalitarians and Libertarians both miss the point that Equality and Liberty must be balanced by the other. The balance of Justice is made of the two “pans” of Equality and Liberty.
Washington alluded to this in his farewell address when he said that the “Sprit of Party” was the “greatest enemy” of a government, especially an elected government. “It [partisanship] serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public Administration.”
We are grown up enough now as a country to have the discussion of the balance of Liberty and Equality without the shackles of political parties and rigid notions of Left and Right that lock us into extremes in our political discourse. The false dichotomies political parties set up create in us the sense that there is no balanced whole in our national life.
We are forever feeling as if we must battle each other in our pursuit of happiness. There is nothing inevitable and necessary about partisanship and the conflict it produces. There is a better way. Partisanship is a nineteenth century idea whose time has come and gone. Political parties may have been helpful in the nation’s childhood to frame issues in the public’s mind. But, to Washington, this benefit was outweighed by the negative costs of inefficiency, corruption and divisiveness.
I wonder if we might all benefit from a good look at Washington’s warning to us and find new ways to engage in the discussion of the dialectic between Equality and Liberty in the pursuit of the Just society.
Adolescence is about independence. We have been through our adolescence as a nation. Adulthood is about reciprocity and balance. As a mature nation, perhaps we need a Declaration of Interdependence and a putting away of partisan ways to reach for a more whole and balanced approach to our national discourse.
We’ll start on the Compassionate Identity next with this post: The Compassionate Identity: “What Sue Remembers.”
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All Rights Reserved, John Woodall, MD, Copyright, 2011