In a review of David Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, Gerard Reed reminds us of the tension that exists between the conservative/libertarian ideal of liberty and the leftish abstraction of equality:
The path the leftist boomers (such as Mamet in his youth) follow was identified by Hayek as “The Road to Serfdom. And we see it in operation here, as we are in the process of choosing, as a society, between Liberty—the freedom from the State to pursue happiness, and a supposed but impossible Equality, which, as it could only be brought about by a State capable and empowered to function in all facets of life, means totalitarianism and eventual dictatorship” (p. 61). Egalitarian Liberals constantly stress the importance of sympathy and compassion, of caring for others. Translated into political action, however, these feelings frequently prove destructive, fully evident when Big Government imposes its agenda.
Emphasis added. (H/t Westside Republicans e-newsletter) In the book Mamet noted how politicians (and their activist) allies tout the abstraction of “Equality” as an excuse to increase the power of the state: “the prime purpose of Government is to expand Equality, which may also be stated thus: to expand its own powers”.
While we should strive to be compassionate in our personal lives, to look out for those around us, Reed’s commentary reminds us of the dangers of state compassion. Since governments don’t generate income, save by what it expropriates from citizens, when a state strives to be compassionate, it often sets its people on a road to serfdom.
There is much the adjective that Mamet uses to modify “Equality,” “impossible.” The ideal of liberty is much easier to define, but equality is much more abstract notion. How does one achieve “equality” in a nation of diverse individuals, each of whom places different values on different aspect of our lives? Should we compensate a man more who chooses to work fewer hours so he has more time to devote to his family than we compensate a woman who chooses not to have a family and work long hours so she can be a successful (and powerful) attorney?
And anyone who is that “we” to decide what someone earns? It’s one thing to use the pronoun to make a general statement about humanity, but it becomes troublesome if humanity in general decides how we live our lives. (Hos do we determine who speaks for humanity in general?) If that “we” becomes the state, then we have indeed entered the realm of tyranny.
NB: I read Mamet’s book and highly recommend it; perhaps I should have blogged about it.