American Confusion

about liberty, equality, and justice

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Most Americans are pretty sure they know what justice is. Just ask one. (I’m not saying that makes us exceptional, I just don’t know about the people in any other nation in that regard.)

Ask any American about justice and inevitably that person will begin talking about liberty and equality. Some will emphasize the former and some the latter, but all will acknowledge that both have something to do with justice.

Yet, here we are: a nation founded on those ‘twin pillars of justice’ seems to be on the verge of being reduced to rubble by irreconcilable political differences.

How has that come to pass?

The problem is that liberty and equality really are contradictory values: either really can threaten the other.

We recognize that in our politics — halfway. In emphasizing either liberty or equality we become cognizant of the threat that the other value represents to it. Yet we are loathe to acknowledge the threat that the value we emphasize poses to the other.

Liberty threatens equality because the exercise of liberty is necessarily the exercise of personal power. Power can be used to accumulate more power. A nation with vast differences in personal power is a vastly unequal nation.

Equality is a threat to liberty because it seeks to curb either the accumulation or the exercise (or both) of personal power. Indeed, when it comes to the economic form of personal power — income/wealth — people who emphasize equality favor taking some from those who have a surfeit of it and giving it to those who have a dearth of it.

[added on 2/6] It is also true that neither of those values can be implemented to its logical conclusion in any society. In the case of liberty, no society could exist: it would be nothing but isolated individuals doing whatever they wanted (and could get away with). In the case of equality, it is more of a practical limit: how could equality possibly be taken to its logical conclusion?

Until very recently we mitigated the tension between those two values via a kind of unconscious compromise: emphasizing liberty in the economy and equality in the political process, in the form of democracy. Now the tension between those values is beginning to render that compromise obsolete; now those values form the fault line along which our nation is threatening to split apart. So to continue as a nation with liberty and democracy, we have to find a way to resolve the tension between those two values.

It seems obvious to me that the solution to our conundrum must begin with recognizing that neither liberty nor equality nor both together can still be sufficient values for justice. They served well enough up till now, but the time has come that we must rethink the idea of justice.

I think we should recognize mutual respect as our ethic of justice. There is respect that must be earned, but justice can follow from recognizing a measure of respect that every person is due merely by virtue of being a fellow human being. That is respect of the most basic kind: taking one another into account. At bottom, all it means is that people must refrain from killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating other people (lying, cheating, withholding pertinent information, etc.) to get what we want. Is there anyone who would insist that we should be allowed to do those things to get what we want?

I have spent much time learning about the implications of mutual respect as the ethic of justice. I know that a nation governed by that ethic would have the maximum liberty that coexisting people can share simultaneously. I know that nation would also have a political process that is democratic in form [freedom of political speech and a ‘democratic distribution’ of political rights — i.e., any restrictions on people having those rights must be universally applicable and universally applied (which has been realized in the U.S., with age as the only restriction on any political rights)].

I also know how mutual respect can be applied to the economy — any existing economy — as a system, via a “democratically distributed income.” While that sounds radically equalitarian, it is in reality not at all equalitarian. It would eliminate unemployment and poverty — but at no cost to anyone and without having to redistribute anything. That also provides a template for eliminating taxes and public debt — for all levels of government. The economy would then become completely self-regulating. Also, sustainability would be increased — even without additional regulations or any changes in behavior. Those outcomes would seem to be sufficient reason for undertaking that change to the economy, even without any reference to justice.

The U.S. was the first nation-state in the world to be founded on the basis of an approach to justice. At the time of its founding it fell far short of realizing the values of liberty and equality. With the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1964 our political process became fully democratic in form. Practically, the remaining task is to apply the democratic distributive principle to money. Beyond that, to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” and democracy “to ourselves and our Posterity” we need to realize mutual respect as the ethic of justice.

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Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice