In a Cave

I wrote a post a couple of months ago about the loss of equality and justice as political ideals in this country, in favor of an exclusive reverence for the ideal of freedom. In particular, I advocated for economic equality and social justice as ideas that need to be reintroduced into our public discourse. Since there was some uncertainty as to what I meant by those terms—my fault—allow me to define them now. By economic equality I mean, not that everybody has the same, but that everybody has the same chance. And by social justice I mean that everybody has enough.

Economic equality, in other words, is nothing other, in my understanding, than equality of opportunity—a goal that conservatives claim to support but one they are conspicuously uninterested in doing anything to further. Realizing it would necessitate fundamental changes in the way we do things in this country—the way we fund our educational system, to start with. Realizing it, that is to say, would mean dispensing with the privilege of class. It would mean creating a society in which where you end up does not depend on where you were born.

As for social justice, the other name for that is Christianity. Jesus says almost nothing about freedom (which scarcely existed as an ideal in his day, beyond denoting the opposite of slavery) and a very great deal about the least among us.

Freedom is a relationless ideal. In fact, especially in its cruder contemporary forms, it is an ideal of relationlessness—of being independent of any obligation towards others or any conditioning by them (by their laws, by their needs). Passed to the limit, it envisions the absence of others. Its icon is the cowboy, alone on the open range.

Equality and justice are, precisely, relational. They speak of what we owe to others, and of our need to order our lives in cognizance of them. We did not fall from the sky in business suits, ready to negotiate a social contract. “We came crying hither.” We were born into need: into dependence, into obligation. “Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” The cowboy may be alone, but his existence is enabled by a myriad of others (starting with the federal government, in about 18 different ways). Freedom, said George W. Bush, is God’s gift to us. Well, maybe. But equality and justice are our gifts to one another.

Freedom is the ideal of adolescence, the desire to be quit of restrictions. (“Leave me alone!”) Adulthood demands that we ask ourselves what we should do with our freedom. It means accepting limitations on our freedom. It means establishing new obligations, new responsibilities. But we have done with adulthood in this country, just as we have done with relations.

The word autonomous appears in Homer. He uses it to describe the Cyclopes. Autonomous means that you’re a law unto yourself, auto-nomos. It is the antithesis of civilization, the most horrible thing that Homer could imagine. The Cyclopes are free, all right. “They have no laws nor assemblies of the people, but live in caves on the tops of high mountains; each is lord and master in his family, and they take no account of their neighbours.” They sound like libertarians. And when one of them gets his eye poked out, the others shrug and say, “tough luck.”

Political theorist Isaiah Berlin said that the tragedy of politics is that our ideals are not perfectly compatible and so cannot all be fully realized. Freedom has to compromise with equality, equality with justice, and so forth. What would he have said about a polity that chose to deal with this dilemma by discarding all of its ideals but one?

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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