Principles Matter, Part 1: by John Barnes

The political gridlock in Washington is rendering our country more and more ungovernable and leading to a dangerous polarization of political forces. To overcome it, we will need to look at the deeper driving forces behind the tug-of-war inherent in our two-party system. For underlying this contest of competing political parties lies a conflict which has not yet been fully appreciated: the conflict between two of the great ideals upon which our nation was founded, ideals that we hold to be self-evident, that we feel very strongly about and are willing to fight for: Freedom and Equality.

As principles, Freedom and Equality are in some ways polar opposites. Freedom unleashes potential — whether creative or destructive, self-centered or selfless, good or bad. This potential radiates out into the world and transforms it. Freedom of thought has no apparent immediate effect upon the surrounding world. Freedom of speech or of the press has more; and the Freedom to drive a car, to develop an industry or to deploy a powerful weapon can have tremendous material impact. The principle of Equality, on the other hand, is often employed as a counterforce to limit Freedom when it impinges on what we feel to be the rights of others. Thus democratic elections were instituted to limit the power of government. Equality before the law, enhanced by civil rights, protects the weak from the overbearing power of the strong. In sum: Freedom is necessary for the unfolding of creative human capacities and is essential to a flourishing cultural life and economic innovation, while Equality is necessary in communal life and has its rightful place in legal and governmental affairs.

How do the ideals of Freedom and Equality play themselves out in our current political polarization?

Republicans feel strongly about Freedom: they want to reduce government to a minimum so that they can exercise their Freedom to the fullest possible extent, unimpeded by government regulation. They abhor socialism because they see it as the abdication of their personal Freedom to a “nanny state.” They especially dislike governmental control of areas such as education, health care, and business. Republicans identify with rugged individualism and value entrepreneurial Freedom, initiative, ingenuity, independence, and hard work.

Democrats, on the other hand, tend to be deeply committed to the ideal of Equality. They are adamant about achieving equal rights for all human beings, regardless of their differences. Democrats want to make sure that justice prevails and the dignity and welfare of the weak and vulnerable are protected. They stand up for workers’ rights, universal access to education and health care, and the protection of the environment. They therefore call for government regulation. They feel strongly that all children should have the same chances in life and should therefore receive the same — or at least an equivalent — education. For similar reasons, most Democrats would prefer a single-payer, universal health care system administered by the government.

There can be no disagreement that Freedom must prevail in such areas as art, science, religion, and journalism. Nor is there any disagreement about the importance of civil rights, Equality before the law, and a just legal system. So there are actually broad areas where Democrats and Republicans agree. There are, however, areas where the principles of Freedom and Equality seem to collide, and it is especially in these areas where the two parties play on the passions, hopes and fears of their constituents in order to gain political power. There is nothing like confusion and demagoguery to generate emotional polarization, and nothing like clarity and certainty to dispel it.

Let us take a closer look at education. Today, perhaps more than ever, it is generally recognized that the future wellbeing of society depends on the quality of education. Yet there is little agreement on how education should be conducted. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that both ideals — Freedom and Equality — play strongly into the field of education. Freedom is essential to education in at least two ways:

Education takes place in the impressionable early years of life when one’s skills and one’s outlook on life are forming.  In a post-communist, post national-socialist — i.e., post-totalitarian — era, education administered by government can no longer be justified. Government-run education runs squarely counter to the democratic principle that the people are sovereign and should determine their government, not vice versa. That the content and methods of education should be dictated by any kind of external authority is incompatible with the feelings of emancipated, modern human beings. Just as there should be Freedom of speech, religious Freedom, and the Freedom to espouse a philosophy, or to read particular books, thus, in a free, democratic society, all parents should have the Freedom to choose the type of education their children receive.

The second aspect of education where Freedom should prevail as a matter of course is in teaching. In free democratic societies government officials do not determine the work of artists, pastors or rabbis, scientists or journalists, nor should they determine what or how teachers teach. Just as artists need to be free to develop their work, so should teachers be free to form their own curriculum, to set their own standards, and to choose their teaching methods. State mandated curricula and teaching methods degrade the teaching profession and undermine the creativity and initiative of teachers. We do not allow bureaucrats to run our businesses, nor should we allow them to run our schools. In the past, public education, overseen by locally elected school boards, contributed greatly to our society. Today, however, public education is increasingly determined by national and even international standards — by centralized government authority, heavily influenced by powerful economic interests, imposed from above and enforced through testing — a top-down, one-size fits-all system that stifles initiative, creativity and innovation. The ones who suffer the most under this system are the children and teachers who are unable to unfold their own creative potential.

On the other hand, as most Democrats will attest, the ideal of Equality also has its place in education: every child has a right to an education, and when it comes to rights, all people are, or should be, equal. Education, like safety, food, shelter, or health care, is something all human beings need in order to live a dignified existence and achieve some degree of self-fulfillment. No one should be deprived of a good education because of their economic status or because of their race or gender. It is therefore the duty of society to ensure that all children — and young people — have equal access to education.  Does this principle necessarily conflict with the Freedoms outlined above — the Freedom of parents to choose how their children are educated, of young people to choose a course of study at a college or university, or the Freedom of teachers to teach? Does the equal right to an education mean that all education must be equal: that all teachers are constrained to teach the same curriculum?

No! Equality in education can only mean equal opportunity. The educational process itself must be free.

Education is expensive, and under the present system, the quality of children’s education generally depends on the wealth of their parents.  To guarantee equal educational opportunity, the necessary educational funding would have to be made available to parents and older students. This would liberate and empower them to pursue the educational avenues they choose. This Freedom of choice would introduce a healthy competition among all schools, which would be run by teachers who are free to unfold their initiative and creativity.

Thus both the ideal of Freedom and the ideal of Equality could be upheld with regard to education. Of course innumerable details would have to be worked out to realize what has just been described in bold strokes. But unless we begin to think about, and implement, the fundamental principles at work in our society we will remain mired in gridlock because we have failed to bring conscious discernment to the problems that confront us. Freedom and Equality are powerful ideals and unleash powerful emotional forces in our society. And if we fail to realize how these ideals apply in areas such as education, these forces will continue to wreak havoc.

If the principle of Freedom were realized as indicated above, Republicans would be happy because education would be liberated from governmental control. And Democrats would also be happy because, for the first time in the history of our country, all children would have an equal opportunity to enjoy a good education. Poor children would no longer be forced to attend mediocre public schools while rich children attend the best private and public schools.

The situation is similar when it comes to health care. For some — typically Republicans — Freedom is paramount: the Freedom of patients to choose their doctors and therapies, and the Freedom of doctors to practice their profession without governmental interference. For others — typically Democrats — equal access to health care is of primary concern. As with education, the important thing here is to recognize the fundamental validity of both demands and then to act accordingly.

When designing a car, one must work with the laws of mechanics; in designing an educational system or a health care system, one must work with the ideal principles inherent in these systems. And just as ignoring the laws of mechanics will lead to dysfunctional cars and dangerous accidents, so will ignoring fundamental principles of social life lead to human strife, suffering and political gridlock.

by John Barnes, 2014