The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (3): Freedom, Poverty and Public Life

Freedom and poverty

Is the problem of the contradiction between freedom and equality solved by limiting freedom – limiting the freedom of the strong, thereby providing security against the freedom of the strong, and this equalizing freedom? Not quite. I can see at least three problems remaining. The first one is poverty. Poor people can’t do what they want and the laws which protect their physical security against the free actions of others will not help them. Their situation is not primarily caused by the limitations imposed on them by the free actions of others. And the provision of social security is much more controversial than the provision of physical security, which is bizarre given that both kinds of security have the same purpose, namely the equalization of freedom in the sense of the ability to do as you want.

We see here that the state, by intervening and reducing poverty, can promote freedom. People whose basic needs are met have a whole new world of choices and opportunities opened up to them and can move on to more complicated needs. “Freedom from” (in this case freedom from want) creates “freedom to”.

Freedom and public life

A second problem with limited freedom is revealed by the bigot. Take the example of the bigot who isn’t poor but doesn’t want anything else in life than watching sport, drinking beer and shouting to his wife. He can do as he wants, but is he free? Here we see that it may be necessary to redefine freedom and not only to limit it. Freedom means not only the ability to do what you choose, but also, and in the first place, the fact of having significant choices, the ability to expand the options you can choose from, the ability to make an educated choice between examined options and to choose the options which are best for yourself and for the people around you. In other words, freedom is the ability to choose the options which make ourselves better persons and allow us and our fellow-humans to develop.

Now, how do you widen the available choices, and check if what you want is really what you want? Only if all possible options and choices are flooded with the light of publicity and education. When you see which options are available, when you hear people discussing the merits of different options and objects of volition, only then can you make an educated choice.

Freedom and human rights

This publicity, and hence freedom as the possibility to develop your self, requires a legal system. Legally protected human rights for example open up the world of culture, art, science, history, education, etc. They open up the options, show the merits of all options and hence can improve your volition. Constraining rules are also enabling rules. By limiting certain kinds of behavior they make other behavior possible, for example public discussion of objects of volition. Only in a public space protected by legal rights, where everybody is equal and where everybody can speak and listen in an equal way, can we examine our opinions and options and can we self develop. So we see that freedom needs equality in the sense of the equal participation in public life.

The law is necessary for freedom because if there is no external control, then rights will be violated, security rights but also rights which protect the public space in which choices can appear. Some people will be victims of others and will not be free, not in any sense of the word. They cannot do as they like and they have no public life in which to determine what they like. And we can all be victims in certain circumstances. Laws and obedience are not just obstacles or impediments, limits on our freedom or elements of oppression. They are prerequisites for public life and therefore prerequisites for freedom as well because freedom needs public life.

Laws do not only limit the actions of people; they also link the actions of people because they create a public space. And these links make freedom possible. Laws are rules for public life and should not disappear. The state is a mechanism to coerce people, but this is not necessarily negative. On the contrary, coercion creates possibilities. The state creates, by way of coercion, the prerequisites for public life — such as security and human rights — and therefore creates the possibility of freedom.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (2): Limited Freedom

What is freedom? The ability to do as you like

In the previous post in this series, I described the ways in which freedom and equality can be incompatible. I also mentioned that the reason for this opposition has something to do with the way in which we normally define freedom. In the current post, I want juxtapose this standard definition with another one.

Traditionally, freedom is believed to be the absence of coercion and the ability to do as you want. Hobbes gave one of the canonical descriptions:

By LIBERTY, is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of externall Impediments: which Impediments, may oft take away part of a mans power to do what hee would.

This is a negative definition of freedom because it focuses on the absence of impediments, constraints or limits on actions (limits imposed by other human beings, by the state, by nature or perhaps even by our own passions).

Is this kind of freedom possible? And is it acceptable? It will definitely be a very unequal freedom. If everybody can do as he or she likes, then we create offenders and victims rather than free citizens. Victims obviously cannot do as they like. And we can all become victims. Not even the strongest among us can do as he likes, because he has to sleep now and again and we are weak when we sleep. Unlimited and lawless freedom as in the definition of Hobbes therefore cannot exist, or only in a very precarious fashion. And it should not exist because if it did, most people’s freedom, human rights and other important values such as security would suffer. Hobbes clearly understood this.

What is freedom? The ability to do as you like, within limits

That is why this absolute negative freedom has to be limited. Freedom is always freedom in the state and freedom within the limits of the rule of law. Freedom can only exist together with obedience because only a state with its rules and laws can create equal and durable freedom for all. Obedience to rules opens up a space in which people can be free without fear of insecurity, coercion, domination, intolerance etc. Freedom is, therefore, not incompatible with rules, obedience and coercion.

Strictly speaking, none of this invalidates the definition of freedom as the ability to do as you like without impediments. One can say that the state merely limits our freedom defined in this way, in order to make it safer, more secure and more lasting. So we are still speaking about the same kind of freedom, but now it’s limited.

Much of social contract theory – of which Hobbes is an example – posits a kind of natural, unlimited freedom, a part of which people give up when entering into a contract with a state. And instead of saying that they give up a part of their freedom or their ability to do as they like in order to gain security, one could say that they give up a part of their freedom to make the remainder of their freedom more secure. That’s the same thing. They choose not to do certain things – e.g. break the law – in order to have more freedom to do the other things they want.

According to this definition of freedom, all coercion is bad but some kind of coercion is necessary. If people were always friendly to each other, the state would not be necessary and people would not have to accept a limitation of their freedom. State coercion in the form of laws limits freedom because it forces people to act in a way that is contrary to their wishes. Yet coercion can actually promote freedom. Coercing one person and thus limiting his or her freedom can promote the freedom of other persons. And since we can all be these “other persons”, coercion promotes the freedom of all. Coercion in fact equalizes freedom. It makes it impossible that the freedom of one harms the freedom of another. So it already becomes apparent how freedom and equality are intertwined.

Limiting the limits

However, because of the importance of freedom as the ability to do as you like, the proponents of limited negative freedom want to keep the area of the law and the state as small as possible. Libertarians and conservatives generally believe that the only way in which the state can promote freedom is by guaranteeing the physical security of the weak. The state should only protect the weak against the strong. In this way, it makes it possible for the weak to do as they want. It puts the freedom of the weak on the same and equal level as the freedom of the strong who can do what they want even without protection.

For the rest, they say, the state should not do anything and should keep itself as inconspicuous as possible. It should create an area which is free from state coercion and in which people can do as they like. In a certain sense, this freedom is a stateless freedom even though the state must act to protect it. The area of non-interference must be as large as possible in order to allow freedom to become as comprehensive as possible. Freedom and politics can only go together because and insofar as politics guarantees freedom from politics.

Contrary to anarchists, libertarians and conservatives believe — correctly I think — that the area of freedom or non-interference cannot be unlimited because this would result in insecurity, chaos and war. But in a sense they all believe in unlimited freedom. For anarchists it’s an ideal for the future, for libertarians and conservatives it’s something which belongs to a perhaps mythical past (before the time of the “contract”) and which can only be desirable in the unlikely event that human beings learn to behave and to respect each others security.

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.