Democratic Values — Liberty, Equality, Justice

Liberty and equality

These words represent basic values of democratic political systems, including that of the United States. Rule by absolute monarchs and emperors has often brought peace and order, but at the cost of personal freedoms. Democratic values support the belief that an orderly society can exist in which freedom is preserved. But order and freedom must be balanced.

The Influence of the Enlightenment

The American government has its roots in the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment in Europe, a movement that questioned the traditional authority of the monarch to rule. What gives one person the right to rule another? Enlightenment philosophes answered the question by acknowledging the importance of establishing order. They were influenced by the chaos of medieval times, when a lack of centralized government brought widespread death and destruction. Protection from invaders was necessary for survival, so weaker people allied themselves with stronger ones. Kings provided protection in return for work and allegiance from their subjects.

As order was established and new economic patterns emerged, people began to question the king's right to rule. For example, John Locke, an eighteenth century English philosopher, theorized that the right to rule came from the "consent of the governed." Montesquieu described three "branches" of government that checked one another's power. Rousseau believed that communities were most justly governed by the "general will" or majority rule of their citizens. The philosophes believed that rulers were important for maintaining order, but they questioned the loss of individual freedom that they saw in European monarchies.

Two Kinds of Balance

One kind of balance is between order and liberty. Imagine a society in which everyone was perfectly free to do as he or she pleased, leading to chaos. Order implies a necessary loss of freedom if people are to survive. Democratic countries cherish individual freedom and generally believe that laws should not be repressive. A little order can be sacrificed in the name of liberty.

Democratic societies also expect another kind of balance: a compromise between liberty and equality. Complete liberty leads to inequality. A strong person might acquire more goods and property than another, leading to more power.

Governments might restrict their citizens' liberty by overemphasizing equality. For example, governments can bring about equality by taxing rich citizens more than the poor, but if they carry their policies too far, they might restrict the individual's freedom to strive for economic success. The balance between liberty and equality is an important cornerstone of democratic government.

In the late 18th century the Founders of the United States government tried to achieve these delicate balances — between liberty and order, and between liberty and equality. Their success is reflected in the continuing efforts to refine them.

Source: Democratic Values — Liberty, Equality, Justice
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