If there’s one thing Americans are passionate about, it’s liberty. But tax laws that favor specific socioeconomic groups and health care laws that diminish our personal choices should cause us to ponder what liberty actually means. Liberty is undermined or supported according to the way in which we understand equality.
Abraham Lincoln is known as the champion of equality and liberty. In a speech to Union soldiers, Lincoln said: “Nowhere in the world is presented a government of so much liberty and equality. To the humblest and poorest amongst us are held out the highest privileges and positions.” When a government strives for liberty and equality by protecting the rights of its citizens, it creates the environment for individuals to thrive and accomplish their noblest dreams. Universal and equal ownership of natural rights, Lincoln believed, is the definition of equality. This may sound similar to popular political thought today, which says that all are equally entitled to the same things. However, this was not Lincoln’s definition of equality.
He said about the founders: “[T]hey did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal — equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. …” Lincoln never advocated an equality of outcome, but solely equal protection under the law.
“Inequalities” unique to individuals didn’t excuse slavery. In a letter to Henry Pierce, a congressional representative from Massachusetts Lincoln wrote, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.” Equality is not ruling others, which eradicates our right to liberty; it’s simply self-rule.
Lincoln, a poor American farm boy, is a stark contrast to Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, but they were contemporaries and both lovers of freedom. De Tocqueville studied and wrote extensively on the U.S. His ideas on equality and liberty present a different side of Lincoln’s argument. De Tocqueville believed that equality isn’t some political issue, but rather a condition, or a social fact. It’s not simply equal rights, as it was for Lincoln. The government cannot give or take true equality or freedom from individuals — it is inborn. De Tocqueville wrote: “For it is something one must feel and logic has no part in it. It is a privilege of noble minds which God has fitted to receive it, and it inspires them with a generous fervor. But to meaner souls, untouched by the sacred flame, it may well seem incomprehensible.”
De Tocqueville believed freedom and equality in the heart and soul is essential for liberty to function in society. No matter the economic status of different citizens, each one is endowed with the same rights and privileges. Protection, but not dictation, of those rights is the government’s job; the sense of freedom and equality originate only from within.
Without understanding Lincoln and de Tocqueville’s views of equality, it’s easy to think equality means that if I’m working hard and barely making ends meet, my neighbor is not entitled to the luxury of buying a new yacht. Today’s commonly accepted view of equality attempts to offer not only equal protection of rights to citizens, but also an equality of lifestyle through the tax structure and health care options. To many, equality now means entitlement. By striving for more of this definition of equality, liberty is lost, making government, comprised of one faction of “we the people,” the ruler over others.
While every citizen is entitled to the same protected rights as every other, the government has no place offering free healthcare as a step towards equality of lifestyle. Nor is it the government’s place to “level the playing field” by burdening richer citizens more than poorer ones.
Politicians today seek to redistribute wealth in an effort to reach their skewed view of equality. Focusing on this type of equality negates liberty and places the government in the role of master. The spark of liberty within us should clash against political changes like ObamaCare and selective tax laws. True freedom comes from the inside, and those who love freedom should not accept repression of it. As government expands, freedom contracts.
Americans are passionate about liberty. Our understanding of equality determines whether freedom thrives or dies. Equality is equal rights, not the entitlement of wealth. If freedom isn’t burning within, liberty and equality will perish.