Balancing the equalitarian and libertarian impulses

“The two main elements of which American democracy is compounded may be seen united in the familiar phrases of the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ One element is the idea of equality; the other is the idea of liberty. These are not only different ideas — they are in some ways quite contradictory. Equalitarianism implies the individual’s responsibility to and dependence on the community; libertarianism implies the community’s responsibility to and dependence on the individual. … Although the equalitarian and libertarian tendencies were each predominant at one or another period in our history, neither alone defines American democracy. Rather, it is their imperfect fusion, their interconnection, and their interaction.” — from “American Democracy and Music (1830-1914)” by Irving Lowens, in Music and Musicians in Early America (New York: Norton, 1964), pp. 265-266.

The problem with American democracy in the past three decades, it seems to me, is that the libertarian impulse has been slowly swamping the equalitarian impulse.

This problem pervades our society, and our congregations are not immune from it. The question facing us, then, is simple: How can we promote a better balance between the equalitarian and libertarian impulses within our congregations?

5 thoughts on “Balancing the equalitarian and libertarian impulses

  1. Cooper Zale

    To the extent that conservatism has been in ascendancy politically in our country since the Moral Majority, President Reagen and the religious right taking over the GOP, and our first go at universal health care is being greeted with a lot of ambivalence, i agree with you.

    But it is interesting to me, that in the area of education policy, it seems just the opposite. Equalitarianism is in ascendency in our massive standardized one-size-fits-all school system, while the liberty of students and their families to to guide their own education is constrained more and more with every new year and “reform” program.

  2. Bill Baar

    Do you have examples in a Church context to flesh this one out a bit?

    Also, you omit the word “power” which is the key thing here in this kind of debate. If I grant someone the “power” to level inequalities is that leveling worth the loss of liberity from granting that power?

    I can’t quite visualize this conflict in a congregational setting though. Some members give some, some give a lot, are you talking about a Power to level the contribution? At the upper end of giving I suppose instead of the median.

  3. Amy

    Maybe we could begin with a study of communitarianism, which I think balances the two well. Short reading list: Rousseau,
    Alisdair McIntyre, Michael Walzer, Robert Bellah, Amitai Etzioni . . . hm, why are there no women on this list? Communitarianism seems like a natural fit to this woman and feminist.

    I do note that two people who have recently addressed the General Assembly appear on the list (Etzioni as the Ware lecturer). Someone in the UUA thought we needed a push.

  4. Dan

    Cooper Zale @ 1 — I don’t think this is a left-right issue — the left has been extremely libertarian since at least the late 1960s. In many ways, the 60s leftists and the Tea Partiers look pretty much the same. As far as the current state of schooling, charter schools, vouchers, homeschooling, etc. all speak to me of a libertarian impulse — whereas what’s going on in many public schools is neither equalitarian nor libertarian but simply authoritarian.

    Bill @ 2 — When a member storms out of a congregation because they don’t get their own way, that’s the libertarian impulse at work. When people give less to the congregation than they spend on Starbucks coffee, that reflects a libertarian impulse. Your congregation is somewhat insulated from this trend because you have a long-term minister who is strongly equalitarian.

    Amy @ 3 — Since Lowens’ distinction is meant to apply to American culture, I don’t think communitarianism is a good fit — unless you’re willing to trace it back to the Puritans, in which case your reading list should include Americans like the Mathers, Jonathan Edwards, etc.

  5. Amy

    Dan @4: Well, I’m a philosopher, not a historian. Never mind whether we have an indigenous communitarian tradition (though I think we do)–does the idea serve a purpose for us modern Americans trying to balance our impulses (and traditions) of equalitarianism and libertarianism? If yes, let’s learn more.

    Education is a perfect example of the difficulty of knowing what someone is for and against simply by observing what stance they take. As you say, the only free, local option in education is often authoritarianism. So someone who strikes out into homeschooling (obviously a move in an individual-liberty direction) may do so not out of opposition to equalitarianism at all, but out of a desire to escape authoritarianism. Give us schools that practice equality, and how many of us will long to leave them? A lot fewer. So is that a case of libertarian vs. equalitarian at all?

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