The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (8): Liberty = Freedom From the State + Freedom From Social Pressure + Equality of Opportunity

Libertarians traditionally adopt a negative kind of freedom, and, more precisely, limited negative freedom: they believe that individuals should be free from interference by the government. They seldom accept that individuals can be coerced by private and social constructs, such as tradition, the family, gender roles, cultural racism etc. Here’s a rather long but exceptionally well-written quote that makes this point:

I am disturbed by an inverse form of state worship I encounter among my fellow [libertarian] skeptics of government power. This is the belief that the only liberty worth caring about is liberty reclaimed from the state; that social pathologies such as patriarchy and nationalism are not the proper concerns of the individualist; that the fight for freedom stops where the reach of government ends. … [L]ibertarians for whom individualism is important cannot avoid discussions of culture, conformism, and social structure. Not every threat to liberty is backed by a government gun. … [W]hen a libertarian claims that his philosophy has no cultural content — has nothing to say, for instance, about society’s acceptance of gays and lesbians — he is engaging in a kind of cultural politics that welcomes the paternalism of the mob while balking at that of the state. …

To take a very basic example, at mid-century 5.5 percent of Americans entering medical school happened to have female bodies. This number may well have reflected women’s limited interest in pursuing medicine as a career. But that level of interest also reflected a particular view of women in positions of authority, a certain range of social spaces that girls could imagine themselves inhabiting. Norms that positioned women as wives and mothers obviously functioned as constraints on identity formation. None of this has much to do with limited government, but it has everything to do with individuals struggling to assert themselves against a collective. …

Libertarians will agree that laws requiring racial segregation and prohibiting victimless, though controversial, sexual practices are contrary to their creed. But if the constraints on freedom of association suddenly become social rather than bureaucratic [or legal] — if the neighborhood decides it does not want black residents, or the extended family decides it cannot tolerate gay sons — we do not experience a net expansion of freedom. Kerry Howley (source)

In other words, libertarians are stuck in the first part of the following equation:

Liberty = Freedom From the State + Freedom From Social Pressure + Equality of Opportunity

But there is also a tendency to go no further than the second part. Many accept that society can restrict the freedom of individuals, but don’t grant the same powers to inequality of opportunity. As I stated in two previous posts (here and here), it makes sense to view freedom more positively as the possession of resources and capabilities that are necessary to make a really free choice between alternatives and opportunities. The freedom of those without certain resources and capabilities (such as education, health and a basic income) is futile because they can’t exercise their freedom, not because they are actively interfered with by the state or by their social environment, but because they can’t choose between opportunities. Someone who’s left alone by her government, and who isn’t pressured by her family, tradition or society, may still lack freedom because she doesn’t have a basic income or education necessary to make choices and realize these choices. Amartya Sen has pioneered this view. Hence the importance of helping people to develop their capabilities, e.g. anti-poverty programs, investments in education and healthcare etc. Of course, it’s precisely such programs that often horrify libertarians…

All this is of course a gross simplification, but if you wanted to explain human political ideology to Martians, that’s probably how you could start:

  • Libertarians focus on freedom against the state; freedom against social pressure isn’t very interesting or at least not a priority; equalizing opportunities, resources and capabilities is harmful because it empowers the state and violates property rights.
  • Conservatives agree with libertarians on the first and last part of the equation, but preserve the right to use social pressure to impose their – often Christian – ideology (e.g. same-sex marriage), sometimes even with the help of the state (in which case the freedom from the state isn’t important anymore).
  • Liberals think all three parts of the equation are important but sometimes struggle to find the right balance. So-called “big spending liberals” may accept a large state apparatus.
  • Socialists focus on the last two parts, often at the expense of the first. State intervention is believed to be highly beneficial, without substantial risks to individual freedom.

12 thoughts on “The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (8): Liberty = Freedom From the State + Freedom From Social Pressure + Equality of Opportunity

  1. Libertarians believe more in the ability to pursue our inequalities rather than boxing everyone into a program of supporting equality. None of us is equal in any way. We have equality before the law and equality in the eyes of our Creator, as cited in THE CHANGING FACE OF DEMOCRATS on Amazon, and Our individual freedom led to a free market where people could be nails standing up on the boardwalk bureaucrats could never hammer flat.

  2. This is silly. It’s one way to defend liberalism, sure, but it’s completely disingenuous. Liberals will tell you they are all for freedom, except economic freedom that is. It is as if how one spends, saves, or receives money has no bearing on freedom. It’s taken out of the equation. We have to take your money to, say, subsidize the big corporate farmer in Iowa. Because that’s fair and that’s freedom. At least it is in the liberal imagination. That’s precisely what “positive freedom” entails. It means ignoring the freedom of some for the “freedom” of others. And what exactly is this “freedom” they’re supposedly bestowing upon their benefactors? It’s a very perverse kind of “freedom” that entails reliance upon the state and other power structures, a handed-out “freedom” that come from above. When one looks at it closely, one realizes it has nothing at all to do with liberty.

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  4. opportunity is a random number generator. laws could not possibly govern things having to do with being born to privilege or walking into the right place on the right day.
    People are free to hire and fire as they choose, just as people are free to seek work and quit. There is no such thing as equality of opportunity, and I reject that the idea has merit.
    Opportunity is exactly the opposite of equality. You’re born with your capability to survive and make choices, and your opportunities are usually a direct result of your choices.
    Currently I’m post-op and jobless. So that’s where my choices have put me this year.

    1. Nick, I think everyone agrees that full equality of opportunity is impossible, given people’s choices, talents and luck. But do you also believe that we shouldn’t try to equalize opportunity somewhat more, and that there aren’t any unjust inequalities of opportunity (eg being born in a wealthy family, career advancements thanks to nepotism etc.)?

      1. Filip, I believe we have a duty to serve and help, but I think that is the job of civil society rather than government. With all the best intentions the government may gather the taxes to support the under privledged ( a term that requires a expensive bureucratic assesment) but much of it will fall by the wayside of fraud,waste, and abuse (easy to establish emprically). It happens in all goverment agencies, so its best to limit government programs and plus up these very real needs through independent civil society associations. Local citizens understand local needs better than the central governent (even though many in the Capital seem to know all).

  5. The question is not whether or not there is equality of opportunity. The real question is how equal the outcome is. When there is radical inequality in outcomes, e.g. pauperized masses and a few ultra-rich, democracy doesn’t function (just as Aristotle pointed out ages ago). Many of the great Enlightenment thinkers (including Smith) agree equality of outcome is important.

  6. I have a new book, SAVE PEBBLE DROPPERS AND OUR ECONOMY ( in a couple of months wherein I prove the case against equality of outcome, as I see it. Only in America has our inequalities been so important, allowing us to make waves and produce according to our legitimate self-interests. Obama said we needed to change, to become a nation where the interests of community are more important than are the interests of the individual, which reflects the Old World way things operate. That is a promise he is keeping as he tramples on small business and individual freedom for the sake of the collective.

  7. You have overlooked some key areas of freedom, which makes your argument suffer from rhetorical myopia.

    If you highlight freedom from social pressure and from the state, you need to single out freedom from a rule by the wealthy (i.e. plutarchy) of moneyed aristocracy. This cannot be subsumed under social pressure. Without this distinction, people are unable to separate small business from big business, for example.

    The irony of thinking esposed by Clay Barham, and which your matrix supports, is that today, mega-big business (Walmart, McDonalds or, on an industry level, pharmaceutical, agribusiness) and Christian Fundamentalism are far greater threats to small business and individual freedom than the government.

    To rule by the massive accumulation of wealth under the rhetoric of capitalism and free market (which creates the most anti-free market system without any transparency) is an oligarchy where the wealthy elite actually become the state but use the government to function by proxy.

    Ps: Clay, as far as old world goes, rule by the wealthy and/or the religious is as old as it gets. Its basically (financial) might makes right.

  8. I am a liberal that served 25 years in the army reserve. i believe in freedom and capitalism but I also believe that the “haves” have a moral obligation to take care of the “have nots”. Instead the haves very frequently prey on the have nots, which is evident in the collpase of the mortgage industry and banks. This is why we must always have someone overseeing the private and public sector. The bottom line is greed. The “have nots” steal because they have no ambition to work (in some cases) The “haves” steal because they are too ambitious (in some cases). Reargless government needs to continue to be a monitor because very few play fair.

    The real reson I responded was to fin out if you know of anywhere I can get a replica of the human statue? I would love to have one.

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