If freedom is a good only because of the value that lies in exercising it, then those who lack the capacity or resources to exercise a given freedom are being denied the enjoyment of it, even though they may not formally be being obstructed. David Beetham (source)
Either freedom is important, or it isn’t important. It can’t be the case that freedom is important for certain people and that it may be legitimately denied to other people. I don’t think that we’ll still find many people defending such a position.
If people should be allowed to enjoy freedom equally, then we should try to remove the obstacles which make it harder for some people, compared to others, to enjoy freedom. Traditionally, these obstacles were believed to be government restrictions on freedom, such as laws against certain religions, laws against the expression of certain ideas, or laws discriminating against people of a certain race or gender for example. Gradually, people began to understand that private actions can also counteract equal freedom: slavery, gender discrimination in the family etc.
A third step was the realization – still incomplete – that equal freedom doesn’t only suffer from active obstruction – public or private – but also from unequal capacities or resources. Equal freedom requires both the absence of coercion and the presence of resources. People who lack a decent income, a basic education and good health will never be as free as their fellow human beings who possess these resources.
The question is then, how can people acquire these resources in case they lack them? Much depends of course on their own efforts. Their fellow human beings may decide to act charitably and in a spirit of “fraternité”. A lack of charity is as effective as discrimination when it comes to restricting equal freedom. And the same is true for governments.
However, people who find themselves at the wrong end of unequal freedom don’t have to count on government or private charity. They have a right to those resources necessary for equal freedom. This right has been translated into the concept of economic rights. Read more.