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Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité: 225 Years of an Unchanging Left

Plus ça change, say the French, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is certainly true of revolutionary rhetoric: 225 years after the French Revolution, the demands of the Left can still be summed up in the three words of the Jacobin slogan — liberté, égalité, fraternité. Not only do those words sum up the Left, they provide a vivid contrast between the values of a civil society based on biblical morality and the Left’s skewed views.

Liberté: Thomas Jefferson saw “liberty” as one of the fundamental, natural-law rights of man, enshrined alongside “life” and the “pursuit of happiness” in the American Declaration of Independence. The Constitution was later designed to preserve and protect natural rights.

Yet “liberty” does not mean freedom from discipline or restraint. John Adams declared of the American Constitution that it was fit only for a “moral and religious people.”

This principle derives from the biblical morality common both to Judaism and Christianity, but it is perhaps best encapsulated in the Oral Torah, the living, beating heart of Jewish teaching and practice. The mishna teaches us: “The Torah says, ‘The Tablets were the work of G-d and the writing was the writing of G-d, engraved (haruth) upon the Tablets’; read not haruth but heruth (“freedom”), for none can be considered free except one who occupies himself with the study of Torah” (AvothVI,2). Only people who are self-disciplined and self-restrained, who recognize a higher authority than any government of men, can be considered truly free to exercise their G-d-given talents and opportunities in the pursuit of happiness.

Contrast this with the Leftist view of liberty, which is “license”: “freedom” from all moral constraints without heed for the consequences to society at large. Freedom, indeed, from all responsibilities or duties to oneself or others. The State knows best, the State will take care of all your needs, and — by definition — if the State does not provide it, you don’t need it.

Egalité: “All men,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “are created equal.” As every elementary school student will point out, this does not mean that all men have equal abilities, equal circumstances, or equal opportunities; I have been known to play the piano, but no one would confuse me with Arthur Rubinstein or Oscar Peterson.

Rather, what Jefferson and his fellows meant was that all people should be equal before the law, and that no one should be above the law. This too is a biblical principle, as evident from Exodus XII, 39: “There will be one Torah for the native-born citizen and for the convert who dwells amongst you” (the Hebrew word gér, used in this verse, refers to a foreign-born convert, i.e., a “naturalized” citizen; cf. Mëchilta on this verse). The kings of Israel were explicitly not supposed to be above the law (cf. Deuteronomy XVII,14-20) and were personally obligated to write their own copy of the written Torah for their own study and personal reference (ibid., and Sanhedrin 21b).

Contrast this with the view of the Left, who conceive “equality” in terms of equality of results and outcomes.

Achievement of anything like this goal requires the Leviathan state to enforce such “equality,” which stems from the Left’s badly flawed economic model, under which wealth is a zero-sum game, a total amount which never expands. The pie has already been baked, in their view, and all the ingredients used; what remains is for some authority to determine how large a slice everyone gets. The effect is that the vast majority of citizens of the Leftist utopia are equally and hopelessly poor and miserable, and inevitably (as history has shown with monotonous repetition) those wielding the pie-knife get a larger slice. Per George Orwell’s grim pronouncement, “Some animals are more equal than others.”

Fraternité: It is perhaps paradoxical that the traditional civil society’s fundamental building block is not the autonomous individual after all, but a totalitarian, collectivist state called the nuclear family in which Mommy and Daddy are the ultimate, unappealable authorities imposing their will upon the “citizens,” the children. Of course, the imposition is, in the normal case, tempered by love and experience. The parents are older, have been through it all, and are guiding their children toward maturity and ultimate independence. Adults who have been raised in this “totalitarian” regime are emotionally stable and able to consider their options and learn how to offer goods or services in the marketplace which others will value and for which they, in turn, will part with their own goods and services, the whole to be regulated by contracts freely negotiated and entered into by the parties. The court system exists to referee disputes and questions of interpretation which may arise.

All of this is, of course, well-represented in the well-springs of biblical morality. The absolute authority of the parents is plainly and clearly established, not only in the famous if inaptly named “Ten Commandments” (there are in reality 613 commandments in the written Torah, of which the ten statements are merely an executive summary) but also in the telling formula: “Each of you should fear his mother and his father … ” (Leviticus XIX, 3), and the Talmud emphasizes that one’s respect and awe for both parents should be equal, and equal to the respect and awe of G-d (cf. Kërithoth 28a and Qiddushin 30b). As for the role of the judiciary, cf. Deuteronomy XVII,8-11.

Equally paradoxically, as the Left seeks to undermine and destroy the authority or the parents and make their children the wards of the state, à la Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, (a dystopia far more prophetic of the modern era than Orwell’s more famous 1984, in my opinion), they seek to extend the model of the family to the leviathan state, a fact which was not lost on many citizens of Warsaw Pact countries, as reflected in the following bitter joke:

A teacher asks one of the students in a class: “Who is your father?” The student answers: “The State!” “And who is your mother?” The student answers: “The Party!” “And what do you wish to be when you grow up?” The student answers: “An orphan!”