In the United States in particular we’ve come to identify freedom with the absence of prohibitions. But the absence of legal barriers to our capacity to live our lives as we choose is only half the picture. While modern democratic constitutions have done an excellent job of articulating the limits of state power, our focus on what the state won’t interfere with has produced a blind spot that now threatens the very freedoms our constitutions guarantee.
Philosophers have defined liberty as a two sided coin. On the one side there is the absence of prohibitions or obstructions. This is known as negative liberty, with the word negative referring to the lack of restrictions rather than the quality of the freedom it refers to. The other side of the coin is, as you might expect, commonly described as positive liberty. This liberty refers to a person’s capacity or means to control their own life. Positive liberty requires an individual to have a certain degree of resources at their disposal, while negative liberty essentially requires that an individual be left alone.
As you can imagine, it is with positive liberty rather than negative liberty that most of the controversy lies. The vast majority of us have no difficulty committing to freedom from state regulation of expression, for example. But the fact remains that some people own media megaphones and have a far easier time influencing public opinion and getting the attention of elected officials than the rest of us? There’s no denying that vastly unequal access to the media and public officials via ownership, advertising, and campaign contributions has consequences for democracy, and few of them appear overwhelmingly positive at the moment.
The argument for placing restrictions on anyone’s ability to be heard or to lobby their government is never going to be morally unambiguous. Yet it’s none-the-less problematic for democratic societies when a few people have such disproportionate influence. To simply shrug and pretend these issues either don’t exist or can’t be solved is to engage in intellectual laziness at its worst. When confronted with difficult issues freedom won’t survive long on a diet of mass resignation.
It’s at this point that consideration of equality is, however, often greeted with a species of resignation. The first objection often raised is that obtaining equality isn’t possible. For one thing, strictly speaking we’re not actually equal. It’s often pointed out that some people really are smarter or more skilled at certain things than others. Because society will necessarily reward different abilities differently, economic equality cannot realistically be achieved.
In addition to being unobtainable, others might add that equality isn’t even desirable. If diversity is something we truly value, then we want people bringing different talents and ways of perceiving the world to society’s table. It’s just an unfortunate fact of life that these different abilities and points of view can’t all be equally valued given both nature and culture prioritize certain abilities and personal characteristics over others.
These objections aren’t entirely without merit. While I do think we should aspire to absolute equality under the law, I can accept the fact that economic equality will always be relative. But how relative? That is the question we must grapple with.
There is a level of inequality that societies cannot long endure without facing stagnation and eventual collapse. If too many citizens are struggling to feed, cloth and shelter themselves, they will not be spending their spare time developing new technologies, curing disease, writing literature, composing music, or engaging in other personally and culturally enriching pursuits. Having a society filled with people whose days are focused on survival was hardly what John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine, or any of liberty’s other prominent promoters had in mind.
Those who point out that perfect equality in the narrower physical and economic senses of the word isn’t possible are technically correct. We can’t all be Michael Jordan on the basketball court and we won’t all achieve Bill Gates like status financially. However, perfect equality under the law and sufficient economic equality to empower everyone to move at least a little beyond survival mode is achievable for the first time in human history. Failing to grasp this opportunity would be a colossal moral failure.
Among the pernicious arguments that has been holding the dream of greater equality at bay is the claim that taxes amount to “theft.” In truth, taxes are absolutely essential to social cohesion. In a world without taxation theft would be the norm rather than the exception. That taxes are the dues we must pay for living in a civilized world is a sentiment commonly attributed to the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. However, according to at least one source, it was originally articulated in a 1852 report for the Vermont legislature which read in part:
Taxation is the price which we pay for civilization, for our social, civil and political institutions, for the security of life and property, and without which, we must resort to the law of force.
It may be conceded by some who like to equate taxation with theft that at least some tax dollars are not stolen by the government from our wallets. For example, taking our money through taxes isn’t theft to the extent it’s paying for our local schools, our local roads and highways, our fire and police departments, our military, our national parks, etc. However, to the extent it’s being redistributed to the poor — some of our fellow citizens — it then becomes theft.
A tax is an easy target for ideologues because it makes visible an expense that otherwise would remain hidden, and most people would prefer not to be reminded of some of the less savory bills that life sends our way. Regardless how uncomfortable the reality of extensive and growing inequality makes us, the fact is we don’t save any money by ignoring it. In fact, it costs us a great deal to do so.
Take medical expenses and the whole argument around universal medical coverage as an example. How often have we heard that mandating insurance is an infringement on our right not to buy a product we would never spend money on without being coerced? But here’s the thing. We otherwise will spend a lot of money on healthcare, and we’ll spend a lot more without insurance than we would with it. And all that money we’ll be spending on healthcare because we’re uninsured comes at considerable social cost.
None of us is getting off this planet alive, and before we go the odds are very near 100% that we’ll spend some extensive time receiving medical treatment of some sort. When that happens, a great many of those lacking insurance, or that have insurance that comes with a high deductible, will end up declaring bankruptcy or just ignoring the bill collector because the huge medical bills associated with their care ended up being too much for them to handle. Even previously comfortable middle class families can easily be done in by unanticipated medical expenses reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars.
When people can’t afford to pay their hospital bill, those with insurance or with the means to pay out of pocket pay more for services to cover the loss from unpaid bills the hospital had to absorb. Though there’s no moral equivalency, from a profit and loss perspective the situation is basically the same as a convenience store raising prices to cover the cost of theft. However, because there isn’t a line on the hospital bill declaring what portion of our bill is going to cover patients that couldn’t afford their care, we typically don’t see the personal cost to us that comes with having a significant percentage of the population uninsured or under insured. And if we don’t see it we can deny it’s there. But no matter how much we claim otherwise, in reality we are as much forced to pay the cost of healthcare for those unable to pay as we ever would be if the government charged for universal coverage via a tax.
In fact, it would be far cheaper to have everyone paying at least a little something into the healthcare pool than it is having some people receive services they can’t pay for the rest of us have to pick up the tab for. If we’re all going to have to pay anyway, I for one would prefer going with the cheapest option. Providing truly universal healthcare that everyone contributes to is the primary reason other nations spend significantly less on healthcare than the United States. Having had personal experience with the Canadian healthcare system for the better part of the last decade (you can read about it here), I can also assure you that just knowing that any healthcare emergency that may arise is covered significantly reduces stress and enhances positive liberty.
It’s always worth noting when raising this issue that citizens in similar countries where universal healthcare coverage is provided generally enjoy comparable to longer life-expectancies than Americans do. Contrary to popular belief, healthcare outcomes in the United States are not what they should be, especially given the amount of money spent on health care here when compared to other nations. But I digress.
Poverty in general, like healthcare rationed according to your ability to pay in particular, costs society a great deal. It naturally takes an immense personal physical and emotional toll on the individuals living through it. As a result, drug addiction is a greater threat among the chronically poor than it is within other segments of society. This addiction adds further stress to an already expensive medical system, leads to higher incarceration rates, while placing families at considerably greater risk. Rather than spending tens of thousands annually to incarcerate an individual or place their children in foster care, it would be far cheaper — to say nothing of just being better for all involved — if we confronted poverty head on rather than waiting until its negative consequences became a public health or safety crisis that we can no longer ignore.
Research shows that when a country has a healthy middle class — and low or at least moderate levels of economic inequality — addiction rates are lowest among the middle class and at least half of them (excepting tobacco) end by age 30, even without treatment. However, when unemployment, tenuous employment and inequality are high and the middle class shrinks, more people are at high risk. And their odds for early-life recovery decline. (Source)
Extreme inequality destroys the social fabric of communities, leaving only despair in its wake. If positive liberty is defined as a greater ability to control or guide one’s life in the direction one desires, then ignoring its poor is perhaps the greatest single thing a society can do to ensure positive liberty is curtailed for a large segment of the population. Poverty reduces the chances children will ever receive a higher education, decreases life expectancy and increases the likelihood of alcoholism and drug addiction, all while robbing entire cities and regions of hope.
Community and equality are mutually reinforcing…Social capital and economic inequality moved in tandem through most of the twentieth century. In terms of the distribution of wealth and income, America in the 1950s and the 1960s was more egalitarian than it had been in more than a century…[T]hose same decades were also the high point of social connectedness and civic engagement. Record highs in equality and social capital coincided. ~ Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone
A country that provides its citizens with a tuition free education, universal healthcare, and guarantees that work pays enough to cover basic living expenses isn’t engaging in theft. It’s investing in liberty. A society that provides every single person with a basic income guarantee ensures that, if nothing else, everyone will have the means to provide themselves with shelter and sufficient nourishment. This isn’t stealing from the rich to give to the poor. It’s liberating people from the threat of exposure and hunger which currently, for many, monopolizes their every waking hour and smothers any thought of higher pursuits.
Many may still fail to reach their full potential even when granted relative freedom from want. Many trust funders fail to contribute much to society or find happiness, proving that having the means to do something is no guarantee someone will do it. Regardless, certainly more will find fulfillment than is currently the case if given the chance, and that means a better world for all of us.
Making sure that everybody’s basic necessities are covered doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with accumulating wealth. It means there’s something right with prioritizing people. Countries that provide for the public’s health, welfare, and education are showing us that the greatest liberty comes not from perfect equality, but from sufficient equality. When everyone has the means to meet life’s necessities, the accumulation of wealth can be accepted by all. But when people are working forty plus hours a week at wages that cannot possibly cover a family’s typical expenses, often even without the benefit of sick leave or vacation time, we’ve simply modernized the face of slave labor. At that point it’s time for a new abolition movement.