Freedom and Equality: Is Either Possible?

Pictured above: A message from communist swine. That’s it. This message was literally written by communist swine. As in pigs. The communists who wrote this were pigs. I feel like I’ve belabored the point.

5 October 2017

The Philodemic Room

In the wake of a presidential election cycle that, among other things, spurred national conversations about the nature of equality and freedom, the Philodemic Society gathered to for the sixth time this semester to debate:

“Resolved: Individual freedom is a greater social virtue than equality.”

Beginning his keynote by asking if “Patrick Henry stuttered]” in saying “give me liberty or give me death,” Mr. Marrow accepted that both liberty and equality are valuable but explained that “we are talking about trade-offs.” “Is that an inherently different society,” he asked, if Sgt. Finkenthal were given $11 on a desert island in which the rest of us were given only $10? If Mr. Ma, “tall and strong” as he is, were much better than the other weaklings at collecting coconuts, why punish him by limiting his ability to make for himself? After all, “we are born unequal,” Mr. Marrow argued, making equality an ultimately unattainable goal, even though “every country should aspire to greater equality.” Freedom, an “absolute good” (compared to the “relative good” of equality) is “what gives us society in the first place” by “recognizing the value in humanity,” he concluded.

Rebutting that “relational goods are just as valuable as goods that exist in themselves,” Mr. Morton argued that “society exists in relations.” Anything that “holds one person above another is wrong,” he explained, lamenting the “disparities in how much we can control one another” inherent in inequalities of purchasing power. Concerned that “inequality is a violation of proper relations,” Mr. Morton contended that valuing freedom above equality undermines the fundamental basis of society. Achieving equality isn’t a matter of punishment, he noted, but, rather, it necessitates “remedial options” that seek to restore “respect for everyone” in society.

Beginning the floor debate, Mr. Poling argued that the only way to achieve true equality would be with a leviathan to enforce it. While “equality can be good,” the changing nature of the world means that equality “isn’t always” without such a leviathan. Encouraging the Society to abstain, Mr. Thompson argued that “you can’t have one without the other” and that these are “very difficult qualities to grasp.” Mr. Brownfield, however, contended that individual freedom should be valued more highly. Since the only ways to achieve equality are by raising some up or bringing some down, seeking equality requires us to “prioritize one group,” an obvious social ill. In the end, he noted, nobody takes “equality as an end in itself,” unlike with individual freedom. Mr. Webb, noting that he believed some on the floor to misunderstand the resolution, argued that there are times when liberty and equality to, indeed, clash. In the case of religious bakers in Colorado refusing to furnish cupcakes to a same-sex wedding, he argued that there was a conflict between the liberty of the bakers and the equality of the same-sex couple, even though he believed that the freedom to discriminate should always be trumped by equality. This debate, he argued, was about where liberty and equality do come into conflict, when choices must be made between them.

Noting that “what is social is also economic and what is economic is also social,” Mr. Gonzalez explained that, despite its flaws, free market capitalism has massively reduced poverty at the same time as income inequality has skyrocketed. In fact, this economic freedom “benefits society far more than equality,” he explained since freedom bears “better societal implications” than equality. Mr. Reinking questioned “how we can be truly free” in poverty. Since so many benefits in society are confined only to an “exclusive social group,” freedom doesn’t ensure that we are all “equal in dignity,” which equality would. That fact that all of us at Georgetown have equal access to the opportunities of our university despite our differences of personal background, Ms. Gleyzer contended, is what makes us equal. She juxtaposed this example of freedom achieving equality with its converse: Communist Russia, where “everyone may be equal but no one’s free.”

However, “individual freedom comes at a high cost,” Mr. Lark argued. Even in Communist states, he noted, differences in “political capital” mean that people aren’t truly equal. He expressed hope that we could “suppress urge to make ourselves unequal,” but he noted that true personal freedom isn’t possible since true personal freedom only exists in a state of nature. Sgt. Hu pushed back, noting that speaking of “individual restraint speaks of freedom.” She noted that we should trust ourselves to restrain ourselves more than we should trust a Leviathan to restrain us, which naturally places freedom as more valuable than equality since true equality is only able to be achieved, if at all, by a Leviathan. The Civil Rights Act, Mr. Appel felt, proved that the “federal government is better than individuals” at protecting equality. He noted that, responding to Ms. Gleyzer, “we are not all here equally” and that, responding to Mr. Webb, liberty and equality often don’t conflict. Rather, equality is about taking liberty and “spreading it around” to create a more equitable system with liberty for all.

Reminding the Society that both freedom and equality must exist together, Mr. Boling argued that our highest goal should be the equality of opportunity, in which all of us strive to achieve and allow others to achieve our full potential. We are, after all, “endowed by Providence with different abilities,” so achieving those different abilities is a virtue, not a vice. Ms. Reilly pushed back, noting that ensuring true equality of opportunity “requires curtailing of personal freedom.” We have to acknowledge our privilege, she argued, acknowledging that “there are many people who are just as willing to do what I am” doing but don’t have the opportunity because of their relative lack of privilege. But we must prioritize self-help, Ms. Smith explained. After all, “when we can’t put ourselves first, who will come after?” The great virtue of liberty, she argued, is that from securing it first “will stem equality after.” Sgt. Finkenthal, however, contended that “liberty can come from equality” too. The problem with prioritizing freedom above equality is that we need equality in order “to actualize freedom,” she noted, citing her improved personal freedom that stemmed from the equality of being helped in learning to read in fourth grade despite her learning disabilities.

As the bells of Healy Hall tolled the top of the hour, Ms. Hayley Grande (COL ‘21) began the non-member speaking time by arguing that “the driving factor” behind societal progress and change “is freedom.” We “can’t have equality for more than an instant,” she contended, noting that “some will always have that new idea,” a fact that should be celebrated and not stifled. Focusing on the “end game,” Mr. Renny Simone (SFS ‘21) argued that “it’s difficult to parse out” the conflicts between equality and freedom. Still, when freedom is “preserved in the short term,” we ensure “more equality,” the ultimate goal. However, “we all know everyone is born different,” which is what makes equality impossible, Ms. Ellie Yang (COL ‘21) held, just as some of us are “more artistic [and] some better at labor.” We cannot bring some people down for “so-called equality,” she concluded. Mr. Luke O’Grady (SFS ‘21), however, countered that “freedom is [only] good when it is good-willed.” Because true freedom allows self-sustaining inequality, the true goal should be “fairness,” which is only possible through equality.

In China, Ms. Jessie Fan (MSB ‘21) argued, internet censorship suppresses all free speech, instead of just dissident speech, out of a sense of equality. The cost of achieving equality, she noted, is incredibly high since it requires the “suppression or limitation of everyone.” How can we say someone is free, Mr. Drew Alfonso (COL ‘21) questioned, “when they can’t live their life because of who they are as a person?” In order to achieve liberty, he contended, we need equality. Mr. Alex Mitchell (SFS ‘21) noted that what makes one value ultimately better than the other is if we would be less willing to give it up than to give up the other value. He asked the Society to consider which option—total equality but no freedom or total freedom but no equality—“is the best dystopia,” to which he thought the answer was clearly total freedom since, even with no equality, we “can always express morality” when we have freedom. I’m also excited to note that Ms. Provo announced to Mr. Mitchell after the debate that he would be my mentee. Mr. Will Cromarty (COL ‘21) pushed back against Mr. Mitchell’s paradigm, arguing that “you can have both” freedom and equality and that this debate was about which to promote, not which to give up.

Returning to the member portion of debate, Ms. Provo rejected the notion that we are on a “trajectory from primitive to elite.” True progress is “building something up or adding something new,” but even this progress brings both change and reaction to that change. Mr. McCarthy asked the Society to consider the example of Heaven, where people are totally free from their biggest fear: that of death (which, by the way, no one should fear). Despite this freedom, can those in Heaven, he wondered, “sit comfortably knowing others are suffering?” Ms. Wu, explaining that the government of China is more than just Communist, argued that the success of her family is due to their willingness to go past equality and “fight back within the system” to express personal gifts and liberty. After all, “we are created differently,” and just as she “[is] not Warren Buffet,” we cannot expect all to be the same. Agreeing that the Chinese Communist Party seeks primarily to ensure its own power and not equality, Mr. Hinck contended that “freedom is a dangerous idea” because it allows a vastly unequal society despite apparent freedom. France, which he noted is “close to Heaven on Earth,” provides a useful paradigm of how it is possible to prioritize “human dignity” and achieve better outcomes as a result.

“Good debate. I like this debate,” Mr. Mullaney began before reminding the Society that true freedom is built on equality of opportunity and, therefore, lacks class inequality or systems of privilege. We didn’t care about income inequality when everyone was gaining from economic growth, he explained, noting that the root of our concern with the issue now is the limitation of freedom because of it. After all, “true freedom doesn’t oppress.” Pres. Ernst, taking his prerogative and leaving Ms. Wu to the chair for her first time, began by noting that we must weigh the virtues of equality and freedom and not the vices of each virtue. “We cannot actually get to equity without equality before the law,” he explained, arguing that the foundational ideology of the United States claims that “equality comes first.” It is from this equality of creation that “liberty comes from,” which makes equality the greater virtue since it is the “virtue we already have.” Noting that the Supreme Court’s main facade reads “Justice the Guardian of Liberty,” Mr. Pullin argued that the true goal of the United States is liberty. In fact, “we talk about equality as an end to something,” that something being liberty. It’s also important to note that Mr. Pullin is, in his words, “not bald.”

Returning to the rostrum, Mr. Morton reminded the Society that we defined freedom as non-interference. The USSR and China, he argued, weren’t equal societies because democracy requires that “there is equal control over the laws.” Invoking Mr. Mitchell’s dystopia test, Mr. Morton noted that with total freedom we can’t “compel people to provide for” useful institutions like schools. Society is, at its core, a set “of obligations to our fellow man,” which is why a “lack of equity, of equality, is a harm.” Arguing that the negation had a “cynical view of freedom,” Mr. Marrow argued that “you can actually achieve true liberty,” unlike equality. Despite this, “it is easier to be equal than to be free.” Still, institutions like “public education [don’t] limit anyone’s liberty” since their entire goal is about “raising people up.” The negation, he contended, is not “an enabling, uplifting equality,” which true liberty can well be. Concluding, he argued that “liberty is what makes us Americans” and urged the Society to affirm.

By a vote of 26-2-28, the resolution was negated.


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