Liberty, equality, justice…and income redistribution

The Founding Fathers — most being intellectual peers of the 18th Century Enlightenment — wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. But any schoolchild is aware that some men (and women) are smarter, stronger and faster than others.

People aren't really equal. In 1789, the drafters of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen were more specific. They wrote: "Men are born free and equal in rights." Both assemblies based these proclamations on the notion that these rights were God-given, or were rights inherent in humanity — called "natural rights."

But secular thinkers, then and now, assert (and I agree) that, in fact, these ideas that we call "rights" are only constructs of the human mind — virtuous constructs, indeed — but nonetheless open to further argument.

Part of that argument is: In what rights are we all equal? Protection under the law "¦ certainly. The right to vote "¦ of course. But, how about property? Do we all have a right to the same amount of land or chattels — economic equality? That would seem fair; but because some are smarter or more industrious, they gain more wealth and property than the rest. To ensure the equality of all, the property of some must be taken by the state and redistributed. But in that case, the liberty of the property owners is abridged. Where is the justice in that?

This is one of the most important political and social questions those of us who live together in societies have to answer — the balance between liberty and equality. Total liberty or freedom is anarchy, but total loss of liberty is tyranny. Finding the right balance is what governments try to do. The measure of their success is called justice — "the constant and perpetual will to render to each what is his due."

So then, how much redistribution? Today, this abridgment of liberty usually comes in the form of taxes to fund "entitlement programs." Goodhearted, altruistic people want to help others, to create many "rights" and entitlements "¦ in the extreme called a "welfare state."

Those opposed to these ideas aren't necessarily mean or greedy. The altruists are so emotionally driven to help others that they focus on immediate results — just taking from some and giving to others. This remedy seems fair, but in fact it only makes things worse. People who act more cautiously, with reason balancing emotion, can also be altruistic, they just want to preserve individual responsibility — to help others help themselves, to create a "social safety net."

Now — concerning the health care debate — shall we create a new "right" or strengthen the "safety net?" I support the latter (and progressive taxes to pay for it), and stand ready to pay my fair share for a plan crafted in a truly bipartisan way.

For such major decisions, the broadest consent of the governed is essential. In the pursuit of equality we must take great care not to "create a population habituated to seek their livelihood in the property of its neighbors." This, according to the Greek historian Polybius, is the road to despotism and tyranny. (I would also add bankruptcy.)

The Founding Fathers must have read the commentaries of Polybius on the Greek Democracies and Roman Republic. That is why the Preamble to the Constitution lists as a reason for its creation —¦to promote the general welfare"¦" — not to ensure it.

George Mozingo is a retired FBI agent who's lived in Ashland since 2006.

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