All Commentary
Monday, May 1, 1972

To Be Free and Equal

Mr. Colvard teaches at Clairemont High School in San Diego.

Perceptive students of the freedom philosophy will note the absurdity of my title. Freedom and equality are opposed and contradictory points of the political economy. One extreme is the unshackled and unmuzzled autonomy of personal independence. The other is the leveling tit-for-tat security of collectivism. As individuals or as a nation we cannot have it both ways. One extreme is anarchy. The other is regimentation.

The demand for absolutes, for wanting it all, is an earmark of immaturity. We who would be adult are not surprised when we see an ill-tempered preschool child kick his new tricycle viciously, then scream in his tantrum of fury that “the bad thing hurt me.” He is utterly frustrated by the attendant consequence to him; his toe is bruised. His wails of anguish and rage are designed to bring parental compassion and, hopefully, a new toy to offset the “injustice” of his misfortune. During the past few weeks at institutions of higher education in Southern California, a new year’s glut of academic graffiti has appeared with slight variations in artistry and spelling. This is an example: I AM A PAWN IN THIS CAPITALIST CHESS GAME. When I see this particular epigram, I invariably think of an unruly child and his tricycle. Doubtless I am biased by age if not by maturity. I tend to agree with Milton Friedman’s concept of economics: “There is no free lunch.” As a militant middle-of-the-road high school teacher I mistrust lobbyists for farm subsidies and advocates for welfare rights. Each man’s right to be different is a right. James Madison delineated this point. Writing in the National Gazette in 1792 he noted:

… as a man is said to have a right in his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.

When an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties or his possessions.

Few of our youth, if allowed to choose individualism, will resign themselves to the “security” of mass equality. They, like the great Goethe, know “as soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.” Not only do they see the satirical paradox in: “Be my brother or I’ll kill you”; they see it as well in the vaunted revolutionary concept of Rousseau that individuals must “be forced to be free.” The right of the individual to choose must include the right to choose unwisely. It follows, moreover, that a mature individual will accept the responsibility not only of choosing, but also of the consequences. In a free society each individual does what he thinks is best for him individually.

An acquaintance of mine retired from the Navy as a Chief Petty Officer in 1960. An uncle of his was highly critical. “Twenty years in the service,” the elder kinsman said, “and you’re still only an enlisted man. My son’s been in for just six years and he’s a Lieutenant Commander.”

During the ten years which have elapsed since the incident, the retired Chief has been a high school history teacher. Recently his uncle commiserated with him again for his lackluster showing. “You still stuck in the classroom?” the old man asked. “By this time you should be a principal.” He is completely unable to accept the behavior of his forty-five-year-old nephew as rational. That the nephew may value satisfaction over prestige in his work is wholly incomprehensible.

Let Each Be Responsible for the Results of His Choices

My professor in an industrial management course described an accident which occurred in a cornstarch refinery several decades ago. An explosion in a partially filled railway car caused adjacent cars and loading platforms to be demolished. Fires spread throughout the area. Three workers were killed in the blast, a dozen seriously injured screamed in pain and terror. The manager was in shock, walking about muttering aimlessly: “What will I do? What will I do?” A dispatcher from the shipping office took charge. He quelled the panic about to start, he sent out crews to fight fires, he organized rescue squads to get aid to the injured, he put men at work clearing paths for the fire trucks and ambulances which he summoned.

The professor concluded his lecture a few minutes early and left the room. I followed him to his office. “Look,” I said, “I want to hear the rest of the story. Wasn’t the manager fired; didn’t the dispatcher get a promotion?”

“Of course not,” he said. “The dispatcher, when it was all over, was still a dispatcher. That was his job. The plant manager was still the manager. Why not? He had a Ph.D. in chemistry and a Master’s in Business Administration. He earned his position by ten years of university study, ten years of management training, and ‘know-how’ that saved the company ten million dollars every year. Both men were in their economic positions of their own free choice. Only in folklore would the dispatcher be jumped precipitously to the office of vice-president as the disgraced manager was stripped of his executive washroom key and drummed in disgrace out of the company’s gates. In industry prospective managers choose to become and become high salaried managers because they take on a responsibility to drive themselves toward that ambition.” “I doubt that I’m that ambitious,” I told him.

“Neither am I,” he said. “I know it and I’d rather be here in the university. But there is an important point that you and I, the less intensely ambitious people, must remember: it’s morally dishonest and intellectually shallow for us to blame anybody but ourselves for the responsibility of our choices.”

Self-Respect Comes First

Three hundred years ago the philosopher, John Locke, told us: “He that would have his son have a respect for him and his orders, must himself have a great reverence for his son.” Whenever I point the finger of scorn at my fellows I am acutely aware of the three remaining fingers pointing back to me. We who have chosen to work in the nation’s schools are guilty three-fold in denying students freedom to choose. We arbitrarily determine performance levels for them; we defend our legal public monopoly of pedagogical services; and we demand compulsory attendance laws. Perhaps we need a greater reverence for the business we are in and a healthier confidence in our performance.

Although contemporary legal decisions have weakened the educational concept “in the place of a parent,” the students who come into our classrooms are morally our sons—or daughters—and each of them deserves from us an individual acceptance as an independent, unique, and thinking personality. As teachers we must not beat them down to a placid level of mediocrity. Hopefully, we can, if we try enough, give each of them the elbow room of multilateral awareness, of diversified choice, of unlimited scope, of an unequivocal independent responsibility for his or her own self-realization. We can no longer afford the luxury of blaming an imperfect economic system for our own nonsuccess. As Voltaire wrote, “It is not the scarcity of money, but the scarcity of men and talents, which makes a state weak.”

Faith in Freedom

The lack of faith of so many of us in schools, educators, and school boards, weakens our teaching of personal responsibility by the ubiquitous trust we have in an awesome and benevolent government whose panacea is looming for all our ills. Voltaire, the man of reason, said something also for those of us who are looking to this powerful benefactor for support: “In general, the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one class of citizen to give to the other.” It is unfortunately the commonplace for school superintendents to vie for the Federal bonanza. Their quest for “equality,” at the cost of freedom, causes them to bus “Yellow” students to “Brown” neighborhoods and “Black” students to “White.” Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether equality is a laudable goal or whether freedom of choice might not be more in keeping with the democratic principles in which we claim faith.

If we must err, please God, may it be on the side of freedom.



The Fundamental Political Principle

Now, the cardinal doctrine of any sound political system is, that rights and duties should be in equilibrium…. An immoral political system is created whenever there are privileged classes — that is, classes who have arrogated to themselves rights while throwing the duties upon others. In a democracy all have equal political rights. That is the fundamental political principle.

WILLIAM GRAHAM SUMNER What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1883)