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Saturday, December 05, 2015

ISAIAH BERLIN: Equality (The Declaration of Independence)

The United States Declaration of Independence says “all men are created equal.”  That sounds good.  But is it true?  In what sense are all men equal?  Are we talking about political equality only?  Does that include economic equality too?  Or is the Declaration merely claiming that all American citizens have equal rights under the law?  Isaiah Berlin explores these questions in his essay on Equality.  The first thing he does is clarify the concept of what we mean by social equality.  He writes that “complete social equality embodies the wish that everything and everybody should be as similar as possible to everything and everybody else.”  Clearly this is not what the Declaration has in mind when it states that Americans have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  If the goal is for every American to be as equal as possible then no one has the “liberty” to become (in Berlin’s words) “richer or stronger or freer than others.”  On the other hand, if the goal in America is for everyone to have as much personal liberty as possible then Americans should be (in Berlin’s words) “permitted to live as they wish in ways and degrees which set them off from other men.”  Which goal best reflects America ideals?        

Berlin offers two guiding principles to help us decide.  The first one is “the principle of natural rights.”  According to this theory we have certain rights simply because they “belong to all men as such.”  We don’t have to earn them or join any particular political society to obtain them.  We’re just born with them, no matter where we’re from or who we are.  The government’s job is to protect these natural rights.  The other theory is what Berlin calls “the rational principle.”  According to this theory government has to have “sufficient reason for instituting or maintaining” the rights of citizens.  These rights have been established by government for the benefit of society.  The government’s job is to create and protect these political, legal, economic and social rights based on a rational concept of justice.  If circumstances change then the government can also change the dimensions of these rights to maintain the goal of fairness.    
Either of these theories work as a way to designate government’s role in the affairs of its citizens.  But they’re often at odds with one another concerning the nature and role of personal rights and public responsibilities.  Berlin says “Disputes occur about what these rights are; or what reasons are sufficient” to either give, change, or take away those rights.  If rights are given to us by nature then no government has legitimate authority to give, change, or take them away.  The Declaration calls these “unalienable rights.”  Under this theory rights can’t be changed or taken away, even with our own consent.  On the other hand, if rights are given to us by government then they can always be given, changed, or taken away as long as it’s for the good of the whole body politic.  The Declaration says we have unalienable rights but it also says “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  Under this theory we have rationally granted to the government the responsibility for determining which rights are in the best interests of the country.  Government has our consent to establish or modify our rights as individual citizens for the good of the community. 

The Declaration is a foundational document based on both natural rights and rational principle.  Why?  Why not one or the other?  The Founding Fathers knew human nature.  Citizens wanting safety and security (the core of Hobbes’ theory) put a priority on expanding the role of government to protect and take care of people.  Citizens attracted to Locke’s theory put a priority on restricting the role of government to prevent it from taking away private property through high taxes, fines, fees or other means.  Both kinds of citizens live in America so the Declaration has to accommodate both.  Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Equality shows how difficult this is to do.


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