Freedom without Equality and Responsibility

written by H. Michael Hartoonian

The United States may be ready for a new motto. My recommendation: Freedom, Equality, and Responsibility. The definition of each of the three concepts is contained within the other. The necessary attributes for freedom are equality and responsibility; equality demands responsibility and freedom; and responsibility requires awareness of freedom and equality. Thus, any society that claims democratic DNA must have a deep understanding of the synergistic relationship among these values of Freedom, Equality and Responsibility. The principles of Freedom and Equality can only be achieved when those principles are aligned with individual and institutional civic Responsibility.

IMG_1054How can we achieve personal freedom within a contemporary context where, arguably, the definition of freedom has morphed into privilege, ignorance, and greed? Let’s be clear. The logical extension of freedom, when understood as privilege, is anarchy. The cry of freedom without attention to equality of opportunity and ethical responsibility is without democratic meaning. It does little good to be free without equality of opportunity. Just ask the Americans who became free after the Civil War, or women who had to wait another fifty years for voting equality. Our present motto, E Pluribus, unum, means that the one can enhance the many and the many can inspire the one. But, we seem to have never learned the deeper meaning of the need to connect with one another in a way that benefits the many as well as the one.  

Another way to consider the 3 concepts of freedom, equality, and responsibility is to understand that true self-interest is achieved when individuals and groups compete with the best that society can generate. It is this wisdom of cooperative competition that Adam Smith stated in his concept of “self-interest, properly understood” and what Jefferson meant in his words “the pursuit of public (1) happiness.” In fact, the ideas of public happiness and shared responsibility were so integral to the meaning of life and liberty that the early leaders called Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky-Commonwealths.

Union-High-football-players-tend-to-weeds-as-part-of-their-community-service-work-en-route-to-reinstatement-Deseret-NewsA democratic society with a market driven economy depends on everyone properly understanding their self-interest. We need to pay attention to equality as well as freedom, for without opportunity shared, we breed poverty. Poverty kills democracy- poverty of education is most dangerous, but so too is economic poverty. A republic like ours should not worry that there are too many rich or middle class citizens. What all of us must worry about are too many citizens living in poverty-of education, of family, of spirit, of hope, of wealth.

Now, let’s add a word about responsibility. A republic, in order to be free, needs enlightened leadership. These are people who, by virtue of their abilities and character, become elite. All of us can be leaders in different contexts and are elite on diverse stages. All of us can be people who practice stewardship and ethical business and political interactions. A republic needs intellectual, business, government, and other leaders, who are ethically mindful of the care and nurturing of a commonwealth and understand ceo-and-data-analyticshow real wealth (excellence) is created. This we call responsibility. The idea that a CEO is only responsible to the stockholders is an anathema to capitalism and an insult to the Republic. This sort of power may know how to make money, but has little understanding or interest in creating wealth, either private or common. Few have made inquiry into the causes of the wealth of nations. They have no contract, no covenant, with their past or future. They hold a belief that the United States is just theirs for the using; yet, many call themselves patriots. This mindset can also apply to many other institutions, particularly today’s government agencies. The old concept of a “public servant” has greatly diminished over time. On a weekly basis we read reports of another “civil” servant moving to the private sector to take advantage of a substantial opportunity to make money. We all must consider the question; why do citizens think and behave this way?

From personal and media observations to empirical research studies, it is abundantly clear that we have paid little attention to the balance between freedom and equality, or to the resulting destructive divisions in our country among people with different incomes and education, from different regions, races, and different political ideologies. These divisions are diminishing our individual courage and our ability to take interest in wider economic or social issues. Studies such as those done by Raj Chetly; et al (2) suggest that chances for upward mobility (equality of opportunity) among children from the bottom 95% of American families are so small that the data should be seen as “alarming.” For these citizens, there is not freedom, there is not equality.

To be sure, “middle class” is not merely an economic class; it has as much to do with a set of values as it does with income. And, social mobility is also a function of rightful habits and a positive sense of the future. But, there must be a social context that allows the opportunity to access these values and income.

inequalityAs obscene and destructive as radical income inequality may be, a more catastrophic and fundamental disease is at work—the division and intentional separation among our people. The educated separate themselves from the uneducated. The rich play with the rich, the poor with the poor, and from tax codes to educational opportunity, public policies keep people in their places. We have turned freedom into a twisted notion of individual consumerism. The land of the free and the home of the brave, indeed. How brave are we when we refuse to speak honestly to ourselves about social, economic and political conditions? How free are we when we’re afraid to engage in true conversations about gender, race, and class?

We need to imagine a place where, regardless of family income, our youth can engage in conversations and hold jobs that foster respect for people doing different work, speaking different languages, eating different food, and worshiping in different venues. Our end careers may not, perhaps should not, be the jobs with which we start our careers. We may start working for minimum wages and eventually lead large firms. But, regardless of where we start working, we should learn the social utility of all useful jobs and respect the people who do them. We need to see an evolution in our work history, not simply think that our first job will be our last. Our real problem as a nation, and as individuals, is excepting perpetual poverty. The high rate of poverty, not the percentage of wealthy, is our most dangerous problem. But, income redistribution is not an answer. We need to change the personal reality of today’s citizens, meaning that citizens need to think differently and develop a more inclusive sense of reality. We all need to understand the benefits that come to both individuals and the country when we work together with people from other classes, races, and from different parts of the country and world. If isolation persists, many will continue to believe that we are free to poison our lakes and ground water or steal money from fellow citizens through cheating on taxes or creating bogus contracts. We do this, I believe, because we don’t know our fellow citizens and, thus, cannot understand our ethical connections with them.

new-orleans-flag-wrapped-women-post-katrinaIn a free country, freedom is defended best though (earning an) education. Today, however, freedom, or its illusion, seems to be understood as something that is given. We forget that enlightened people make freedom secure through ethical behavior and instituting proper government institutions. Said government derives its just powers from the people. The people, constituting the fourth branch of government, must judge and continually change the government-particularly the agencies and departments. Freedom is earned through civic participation. It is not free. If you don’t believe that, talk to any combat veteran, civil rights worker, labor organizer, or entrepreneur. In general today, individual relevancy regarding freedom seems to be based on money. Money trumps education, ethics, service, and even civility. It also paves the way to state capitals and to Washington.

Within this moneyed context, gated communities and closed minds are ubiquitous. And our children are paying dearly for these vulgar conditions. Who are the poorest among us? Who have the poorest diets? Who have the worst health care? Who are the most abused? The answer is the same to all questions – our children.

This simple negative consistency regarding our children speaks volumes about our faith in the future, fragility of our generational covenant, and our understanding of freedom. The great question for all citizens today, particularly leaders, is: How can we enhance our commitment and connections to each other so we can create real wealth for ourselves and our country?

To this end, consider the following four points for discussion and policy work. Again, if we need to explore a deeper understanding of freedom and its relationship to equality and responsibility, what practices would you add or subtract from these four?


America is a school. We educate ourselves and our children every time we walk down our streets, turn on our TV or computer, attend a movie, or visit a park. The culture teaches. The key question is what is our culture teaching?

The answer is that our culture is teaching us to embrace personal image and consumption. Even our public schools and universities offer little intellectual protection here, as they timidly fulfill only marginally their public and state constitutional responsibilities. Simply stated, they no longer consider civic purpose within their mission. When we turn to those outside of education the situation is even worse. While profoundly unsupportive of teachers and the Liberal Arts curriculum, our business and public officials hold tight to the corrupt objective and attending policies that the school’s purpose is vocational and self-oriented. Thus, we are graduating “elites” who cannot speak a second language, are innocent of their county’s history, ignorant of economics, devoid of the aesthetics art, music, and literature, confused regarding the geography and cultures of the world, and illiterate in mathematics and science. All international evaluations show this to be the case. But, the picture is even bleaker when you consider federal surveys and state data on graduation, where nationally almost thirty percent of our children do not finish high school, and many who do only function at a knowledge and skill level that is no higher than the eighth grade. This is not an environment that can develop enlightened citizens. This is not an endorsement for democracy.


light rail constructionWe have lost the understanding that our private wealth is only as healthy and secure as our common wealth. With proper infrastructure policies and a flat tax of, say, fifteen to twenty per-cent (with an appropriate income floor), and absolutely no deductions (loop-holes) in place, there would be little need for welfare programs including subsidies for individuals, businesses, farms, athletic teams, and bailouts for unethical business/government/education practices. We all understand the political minefield that such a change would have to cross, but the corruption of our present tax laws and the unethical compliance by “citizens” is a cancer in the body politic.

Our common wealth is defined by our social capital of well educated, healthy, and ethical citizens, as well as by our commonly owned material structures including things like streets, schools, sewage plants, parks, libraries, and hospitals. When citizens have the access and responsibility to public education from Pre-K through the baccalaureate, child-care, quality health care, clean air, water and food, transportation, Art, and public justice, they feel a common ownership of and stewardship for the community. Infrastructure is simply the deep understanding of the etymology of civilization, city, civic, civility, and citizen. Citizens know this, subjects don’t.


In an ethical society we are encouraged to serve the common good. Policies should flow from that value. To make that service real, all eighteen-your-olds should be drafted into community, national, or military service. We all need to transcend self and have first-hand experiences at getting to know our country and its people. This practice would go a long way in building our common understanding of the interrelationships among freedom, equality, and responsibility. American youth need to face world geography and grapple with questions such as: What issues are being addressed by people outside my community and outside my age group? How ethical is it for less than1% of our citizen to put themselves in harm’s way, while the rest of us think it’s OK to just go shopping? What can I do to enhance the common wealth as well as my own understanding of the nation’s needs? How does community service enhance my personal knowledge and wellbeing? For a while, our youth need to get out of their gated communities, their ghettos, and enhance their adolescent mindset with service.

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporationCharacter

We need to learn how to place less importance on image and more on character. Character is destiny; image is mercurial. Character is doing what is right and often hard, image is following the path of least resistance. Character is asking what I can do for family, school, and community; image is a belief that family, school, and community exist for your benefit. Character means governing yourself—a necessity in a free society. Image means following others and mimicking behavior and taste—a condition in a controlled society. Character means citizen, while image is the defining attribute of a subject.


The United States was created and built on a set of ideas that have atrophied in the minds and behaviors of many Americans. While there is some anecdotal evidence that indicates many young people are working hard to master a rigorous curriculum, some are taking their citizenship responsibility seriously by working on social and environmental issues, and young adults are volunteering to help children and seniors after school and work, it is still the case that the promise of freedom and justice for all is broken and will not be mended until a new public mindset is created through honest discussions around issues like the ones suggested above.

Freedom, like happiness, is not a destination. It is a debate, a way of traveling, and a way of living. It is to see life with sensitive eyes that behold the fullness of what it means to be responsible and just. The United States provides such a context, but, this context cannot just be provided by government policy or law. It cannot be the job of employees or employers alone. It is nothing less than our life-work as citizens, working together and alone within all the institutions to which we are connected. It is our responsibility to create a more perfect union, meaning a society where there is a dynamic and ethical tension between freedom and equality.

End Notes

  1. The idea of Happiness as used in our Declaration at the time of its writing carries the Enlightenment meaning of giving of oneself to enhance the community and establishing governments to ensure those rights that were identified as “unalienable.” The idea of happiness, as understood by Jefferson and his committee, is a public conception with roots deep in Classical philosophy, religious ideology, and in the works of Locke and Montesquieu. Also see the work of Danielle Allen, Our Declaration.


  1. Is America the “Land of Opportunity”? In two recent studies, we find that: (1) upward income mobility varies substantially within the U.S.Areas with greater mobility tend to have five characteristics: less segregation, less income inequality, better schools, greater social capital, and more stable families. (2) Contrary to popular perception, economic mobility has not changed significantly over time; however, it is consistently lower in the U.S. than in most developed countries.



Michael Hartoonian is Scholar in Residence at Hamline University, St. Paul, MN and former Professor and Director of the Institute for Democratic Capitalism, in the (then) Department of Educational Policy and Administration, College of Education and Human Development University of Minnesota. His latest book is, The Idea of America: how values shaped our republic and hold the key to our future; with R. D. Van Scotter and W. E. White, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia (2013). Michael is a past President of NCSS.