The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (1): Impossible?

Freedom vs. Equality, or Equal Freedom/Free Equality?

In this blog series, I want to look for philosophical arguments in favor of the link between freedom and equality and against the traditional opposition between these values. The conclusion will be that the best way of defending this link is by adopting a certain definition of freedom, namely freedom as self-realization, self-development and autonomy. Other types of freedom are more difficult to combine with the demands of equality.

An important part of the link between freedom and equality is the law and the state. Protection by the law, security because of the law, the creation of a public space by the law, political participation in a democratic state based on the law, are all factors which combine in producing an equal liberty for all, liberty in the sense of self-rule, freedom of choice and the possibility to determine your own life and to develop your self.

In this first post of the series, I will limit myself to the statement of the problem. Why should there be a contradiction between freedom and equality? Over the last centuries, it has indeed become kind of a tradition to juxtapose freedom and equality and to view these two important human values as opposing goals, one inevitably leading to the limitation of the other.

Some examples

One can point to the way in which the claims of equality, as they are expressed in economic rights and policies of income redistribution, limit the freedom of the wealthier parts of the population, in particular the freedom to do with their possessions as they want.

Moreover, the struggle against poverty can become the overriding preoccupation and often even an excuse for violations of freedom rights (the Chinese government can be criticized for this). Non-economic injustices are often readily accepted once people are convinced that these injustices are needed to combat economic injustices.

Another example of the way in which the struggle for equality limits the freedom of certain groups is given by some kinds of affirmative action programs. And a final example, the principle of non-discrimination may require limiting the freedom of expression of those who promote racism or other forms of discrimination.

Conversely, freedom can also limit equality. Although I’m all in favor of economic freedom, I have to admit that the unfettered free market and the absolute protection of property – a freedom right – can produce or exacerbate economic inequalities. When the unequal distribution of talent and starting-capital is not checked by government intervention then the outcome tends to be more economic inequality, the exceptional “rags to riches” story notwithstanding. It is obvious that people who are born in wealthy families have more opportunities and less risks than others.

This is true even if we don’t assume that people only use their abilities and starting capital for selfish purposes. There is charity and solidarity, but even if we combine this with so-called trickle-down effects or Invisible hand effects (the wealth of the wealthy benefits the less wealthy because they can work for the wealthy etc.) we have to admit that some people will lose and will find themselves in a situation which is not only economically unequal but also detrimental for their wellbeing.

Economic rights, the rights to these basic resources and capabilities, are not the automatic product of voluntary caritas, free solidarity, economic freedom or the invisible hand. Some kind of government intervention and coercion is necessary in order to redistribute wealth and undo the most heinous forms of economic inequality.

Another example: an absolute freedom of expression which includes the protection of hatred and racist speech, can lead to inequality, discrimination and even genocide.

The choice between freedom and equality

Most if not all people consider both freedom and equality to be important human values and goals. But because of the apparent contradiction between these goals, people tend to make a choice, and prefer one to the other. It is this choice which separates conservatives and liberals, or people from the right and left; the former preferring liberty, the latter equality (simplistically).

No one, however, throws the other value overboard. Either equality or freedom is merely deemed somewhat less important in certain specific cases. Not all things that are good and desirable are necessarily compatible. Sometimes one good thing will have to be abandoned or limited in order to protect another good thing. And I don’t exclude that this can be the case of equality and freedom. However, what I will try to do in this series is to show that things aren’t so problematic and that, given a correct understanding of freedom in particular, conflicts are not necessary.

The Causes of Poverty (8): Lack of Economic Freedom

Open markets offer the only realistic hope of pulling billions of people in developing countries out of abject poverty, while sustaining prosperity in the industrialized world. Kofi Annan

Africa must be allowed to trade itself out of poverty. Bob Geldof

Human rights do not include a right to have economic freedom or to have a free market. But one can argue that economic freedom is a necessary consequence of human rights and that the absence of economic freedom is an indication of a country’s disrespect for human rights. The right to do with your property as you like, to move freely and to associate freely are all human rights and are prerequisites and causes of economic freedom.

There’s also a strong case in favor of the theory that economic freedom promotes prosperity and hence also respect for economic rights.

Economic freedom consists of personal choice, the ability to make voluntary transactions, the freedom to compete, and security of privately owned property. This is the definition of the Fraser Institute. This institute tries to measure the degree to which the policies and institutions of countries support economic freedom. Their index measures:

  • size of government
  • legal structure and security of property rights
  • access to sound money
  • freedom to trade internationally and
  • regulation of credit, labor and business.

They conclude that economic freedom has grown considerably in recent decades and that economic freedom is correlated with income.

 

The complete list of countries is here. I don’t want to suggest that economic freedom should be absolute. There has to be regulation of markets (for health reasons, safety reasons, reasons of fair competition etc.) as well as political corrections of the effects of markets on issues of social justice, poverty and equality.

Moreover, when discussing economic freedom we shouldn’t only think of the internal structure of states but also their interaction: import tariffs, quota, subsidies and other protectionist measures also inhibit free trade, often at the expense of poor traders and farmers in developing countries.