Religion & Liberty Online

Liberty: An Ideal Rooted in Our Very Humanity

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

This Fourth let’s remember the roots of our republic—the idea of liberty—which slowly spread to embrace every American in every walk of life. No one is promised equality of outcomes in their life. But everyone should cherish the promise that liberty provides as they pursue their vocations.

Read More…

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The idea of equality lies at the very foundation of the American republic. Building our social lives, channeling our economic pursuits, and establishing our political institutions on the principles enunciated in our Declaration of Independence unleashed the entrepreneurial potential of our people that created prosperity for the greatest number. To the extent that other nations embraced the American concept of equality, they also harvested the sweet fruits of liberating the creative energies of millions of farmers, merchants, innovators, artists, and businessmen.

Where did Jefferson get the idea that all human beings are created equal? After all, he lived in a world split between aristocrats and commoners, masters and slaves. Like all the Founders, the primary source of inspiration for his political philosophy was the Bible. “The god who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time,” he once wrote. And although a deist, he nevertheless took seriously what the Bible had to say on the matter. In Proverbs 22:2 we read: “The rich and the poor have a common bond, The Lord is the maker of them all.” In his letter to the church in Galatia 3:28, the Apostle Paul affirms the Christian principle of equality: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

And yet, we live at a time when the marketplace of ideas offers an almost infinite choice of definitions for words, so it is worth discovering what America’s Founders meant by “equality.” During a speech in 1857, Lincoln clarified that they “did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal in ‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’” We are all equal in the sight of God, with inherent dignity and value, regardless of our individual capacities or unique circumstances.

Your natural rights as a human being impose an obligation on your fellow men not to murder or enslave you, or to rob you of your property. Our moral equality requires that each of us gets equal treatment under the law. That is the reason we portray Justice as a blindfolded lady. Those who enforce the law must ignore all factors except the ones that directly relate to the case. This legal equality also includes equality of opportunity understood as removing political obstacles to individual success. Careers should be open to all qualified candidates, selection and promotion should be based on merit, not on, for example, race or sex.

It is neither possible nor desirable to equalize opportunities beyond a certain point. Having good parents is often a major advantage for the child. Even if we take all children away from their families to bring them up in a communal manner, as they did in Israel’s kibbutzim after WWII, that will not eliminate existing inherited differences—some will be born with mental and physical disabilities, others with rare and valued talents. Equalizing opportunities in the pursuit of what some call “equity” would require the implementation of tyrannical measures that hobble the most productive individuals and destroy liberty for all.

“A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither,” warned Milton Friedman. With equal rights as a self-evident truth, we need not obsess about the unequal outcomes. We differ in abilities and ambitions—income and wealth inequalities are fair and inevitable when the freedom of the individual to chase his dreams is secured. The freedom to pursue “our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs,” noted Mill, is an engine of progress and a prerequisite of a virtuous life. Only a free person can reach his full potential and do what’s right when presented with an opportunity to do wrong.

The Christian ideal of “liberty for all” has been around for 2,000 years. The innate dignity of man made in God’s image and the perennial force of God’s law (for example, as expressed in Exodus 21:16, which demanded the death penalty for “man-stealing,” or kidnapping, without which chattel slavery would never have been made possible) led to the slow but inevitable abolition of slavery in the Western world. Nevertheless, until the rise of capitalism in the 19th century, most men lived in servitude under social expectations or legal imperatives to sacrifice themselves for king and country. Real liberty came with only free enterprise during the past two centuries, but the way for it was paved with ideas grounded in biblical truth that coalesced into the philosophy of classical liberalism.

Murray Rothbard extolls the freedom of the individual as a “necessary condition for the flowering of all the other goods that mankind cherishes: moral virtue, civilization, the arts and sciences, economic prosperity.” And yet liberty means nothing for a castaway like Robinson Crusoe. When we live among other people, it becomes the highest political good, noted Lord Acton. Because liberty produces the “glories of civilized life,” we need an effective mechanism to secure its blessings “to ourselves and our posterity.” As Frédéric Bastiat explained: “It was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.”

We are in a state of liberty when we are free from arbitrary political restrictions on expressing our views, raising our children in accordance with our personal values, and entering voluntary contractual relationships at mutually agreeable terms. True liberty can exist only in capitalist societies, where the entrepreneur can profit from serving his customers, even as the socialist can put his money where his mouth is and divest himself of all personal property to live a communal life. The only purpose of government is to be used for the protection of both in choosing their lifestyles based on their preferences.

Personal success and humanity’s progress depend on recognizing and protecting equality of rights and liberty to do what’s right. Exercising our free will in peaceful collaboration with others, driven by our diverse desires and goals, assisted (or hamstrung) by our aptitudes and attitudes, people must inevitably achieve very different degrees of success. As a professor, I will never be as famous as Elvis Presley or as wealthy as Elon Musk. And that’s OK with me. Abusing the government as a weapon in an attempt to achieve equality of outcome by taking what belongs to others will be the death of liberty. And of that I want no part.

Alex Tokarev

Alex Tokarev, Ph.D., is associate professor of economics and philosophy at Northwood University. Dr. Tokarev would like to acknowledge the contribution of his daughter, Kristin Tokarev, B.B.A., M.S., a research assistant, in the composition of this essay.