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Liberty and Equality

By Peter Hill
We all have values. Many of those values translate directly and easily into political perspectives. But we weigh those values differently. Accordingly, although we all desire such political values as security, liberty, duty, opportunity, equality, excellence, balance, and diversity, we place different emphases on them according to our circumstances and perspectives. We might further distinguish “security” into personal or physical security, income security, or national security.
Conservatives tend to emphasize liberty. Liberty may simply be defined as the absence of outside coercion, particularly from a governmental entity. To be completely free from governmental coercion is to live in chaos and anarchy, and conservatives certainly reject that. But they want the areas where government can coerce others to be limited. Conservatives chafe under new governmental requirements or prohibitions. Their desire, as individuals, families, businesses, schools, nongovernmental organization, private clubs, churches, and other institutions, is to be independent of the government. They want to be free. This is not to say they reject these other values, but in their hierarchy of values, liberty is near the top.
Conservatives want to limit governmental coercion to its proper tasks. Those tasks are themselves limited in number and scope. So, governmental coercion is to be limited. Conservatives fear large, powerful, coercive government not only because that would expand government beyond its proper role, but because they foresee the damage it could do with the worst person in charge of it. The conservative wants to put government into a box and not let it get out. Like fire, government is a useful, even necessary tool, but it is a dangerous and destructive master when uncontrolled.
For the conservative, the main task of government is to restrain and punish evil, primarily in the realms of law enforcement and criminal justice. Government should protect people and social institutions such as families, businesses, and churches from being robbed, defrauded, or destroyed by con men, arsonists, rioters, or looters. Government should preserve an orderly, predictable social environment, including a stable legal environment, in which people and their institutions can operate. But the government should not generally dictate to those institutions how they should operate.
In addition, government should also resolve disputes between people and organizations, such as by providing legislatures and city councils to weigh public policy options and resolve matters legislatively, and by protecting the rights and independence of people and institutions by providing an even-handed judicial system. Government also protects the rights of people and institutions. This role is often negative, but not always so. Negatively, government protects people and institutions from being overwhelmed by another social sphere, as when a church or a business interferes with family relationships. Positively, it can intervene to ensure one is not denied a job or promotion because of one’s skin color, religion, or ethnic identity.
Progressives tend to emphasize equality as their most important political value. If society does not produce an equality of condition, such as training, income, education, wealth, opportunity, housing, or medical care, that is an indication that the society is unjust and the government must use its coercive powers to remedy that inequality. Indeed, “justice” is often defined in terms of equality, or an equality of outcome.
For the progressive, societal inequality and injustice are both widespread and deep. Thus, the government response must be just as widespread and deep, and the governmental task must be transformational, changing all of society. Progressives want to expand the coercive activity of government to remedy inequality wherever it is found. They desire large, powerful, coercive government because they imagine what it could do with the best person in charge of it.

It is difficult for the progressive to conceive of a social institution, or part of a social institution, which is completely independent of government, and which the government cannot legitimately coerce. For progressives, injustice and inequality must be rooted out wherever they are found. The conservative thinks of government as one social institution among many others, and government should not illegitimately trespass on the functions or independence of the other social spheres.

For conservatives, relying on the “best people” to be in government is foolish. As James Madison explained in Federalist 51, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” The problem arises because men govern men, so how can one permit the government to govern men, and also control the government so it does not deprive us of life, liberty, or property? We are not governed by angels, and conservatives do not look for them to run the government. The conservative recognizes that government is and ought to be very powerful, with the ultimate sanction of taking life, but insists that that power be constrained to accomplishing only a limited number of tasks, and with limited means.
Further, giving up liberty for equality is misguided and even dangerous. Should every student receive a grade of C+ regardless of talent, work, discipline, or planning? Should Asian American students be penalized because they work harder and score better than other students? Every teacher knows that assigning the same grade to every student, regardless of ability, discipline, work ethic, or accomplishment, would be unjust. Every parent knows that treating his or her children the same, regardless of age, emotional stability or maturity, handicap, or capacity for self-discipline, would be unjust. Should students be admitted to educational programs, or hired into jobs, in equal numbers, according to some ethnic group proportionality principle? The conservative agrees that these results may emphasize equality and equal outcomes, but rejects the notion that these results would therefore be just. In fact, they are manifestly unjust. The task of the government is to preserve liberty, not to ensure equality.

Threats to liberty may arise from a business, an individual, a church, a nongovernmental organization, or any other social sphere of activity. But the greatest threat to liberty comes from government. For the conservative, the greatest threat to the most important political value comes from government itself. The threats from other social institutions can be avoided or, at worst, escaped from. But there is no escape from a national government that limits or denies liberty.

Liberty and equality are both good political values. But when one must choose, conservatives will choose liberty over equality.