Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

By: Robert Scott

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The American Revolution inspired many nations to rebel against tyrannical governments, including our country’s oldest allies, the people of France. Having succeeded, the French Republic took as its motto “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” – Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood, that last term to be understood not in a gender sense but in the sense of the Brotherhood of Mankind. But those three ideas themselves have independent, often contradictory, meanings; trying to reconcile them even in 21stcentury America is a politically fraught concept.

What is “liberty”? Is it the same thing as “freedom”? Our national heritage embodies a description straight from the Declaration of Independence: that all people are “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The concepts of liberty and freedom are often seen as among the tenets of free market capitalism. I have the freedom to work, to prosper if I provide a valuable product or service, to purchase property with the results of my toil, and to spend my prosperity however I wish, up to the point of beginning to infringe on the liberty of others. Those who do well in our society may do very well, indeed; but those who fall behind risk having nothing at all at the end of the day – other than their freedom to try again tomorrow. But those at the short end of prosperity have little with which to pursue happiness. “Liberty” taken to the extreme often results in extreme inequality.

What is “equality”? Does it mean, as some say, equality before the law: that the law treats rich and poor alike, that each person has the same voice regardless of their circumstance? To some extent, this is only a theoretical equality, one which is difficult if not impossible to maintain, given for example that good lawyers are expensive and not everybody writes a newspaper column. Does “equality” imply that there is, or ought to be, equal access not only to the law but also to law enforcement, to safety, to security? Should such equality of security include more than just one’s property, but to the security of one’s family? Or equality of opportunity to education, of access to a job, of basic health care, of recovery from natural disasters not related to any individual, such as hurricanes or tornados? Equality taken to the extreme – “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” – can, and has, led to the complete loss of liberty.

What is meant by “the brotherhood of mankind”? Does that go beyond merely loving one’s family, to caring for all fellow Americans, to caring about victims of war, pestilence, famine, and death anywhere and everywhere? Do we have an obligation to do something about that, wherever it occurs? Is that a moral obligation alone, or one that the government can enforce by taking some of my property? Does it imply that my own work must be dedicated to the betterment not just of myself and family, but of all mankind?

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité are laudable goals, but each of them can be utterly wrong if taken to the extreme. In today’s politics, Republicans seem to lean more toward liberty at the expense of equality, and Democrats more toward equality at the expense of liberty. What both need now is to take in the other entry in that tripartite motto. As morality and religion both tell us, we are, indeed, our brother’s and sister’s keeper. The ideals of America began in the 18thand evolved in the 19thand 20thcenturies. In the 21st, we need to look beyond liberty or equality alone, to that brotherhood of mankind – seeing neighbors well beyond our own circle of “people like us” – for our multi-ethnic and multicultural nation to continue to succeed and to prosper.