Free or equal?

Are equality and liberty compatible, and if so how?

There’s a bold quotation at the top of a page in last week’s Big Issue.

Equality is the soul of liberty. There is, in fact, no liberty without it.

It’s ascribed to a 19th century Scottish writer called Frances Wright.

Is it true? It’s probably there not as a statement of solid fact, but as something that ‘makes you think’. The problem with things that make you think is that most of the time you don’t think about them. This time it set off a long train of thought. It’s one of those easy and impressive things to say that takes a lot of rationalisation: are equality and liberty even compatible? I’ll use the more common word ‘freedom’ rather than ‘liberty’, because it’s more resonant; that’s not going to make the discussion easier but it will at least make me think more of the world around.

Let’s start with the basic concept of freedom. These days we actually have plenty of this, in many ways. It’s hard to think of a mainstream political belief that is suppressed within Europe, though the word ‘mainstream’ is crying out for qualifications I don’t have time for. Perhaps even more importantly, social attitudes are vastly less restrictive than they used to be; there is a good deal less insistence on a narrow range of behaviour and activity over very many different avenues of life. I have a niggling worry that if you ask other countries that live differently or if you could ask our ancestors, they would say they didn’t want that sort of freedom; the disadvantages were too great. Most of us in the developed world, like me, don’t agree, but it does make me wonder about our ability to judge the relative merits.

This basic freedom is probably the first thing that springs into your head when the word is mentioned in writing of this kind: less, presumably, if someone asks you ‘are you free tomorrow’. Basic political freedom has advanced to such a point that questions along the lines of ‘what law would make us unamibiguously more free?’ are almost unanswerable — even without the rider ‘without compromising our world unacceptably’, which, if appended, would make the question almost unanswerable in any age with a degree of self confidence. Almost always, questions related to freedom in the modern public sphere boil down to give and take, surrendering some right or ability to allow someone else another one. Partly this is down to different concepts of freedom, which we’ll come to shortly.

Let’s look at the corresponding basic forms of equality. Some are nowadays uncontroversial, at least if I stick to the sort of society I’m most familiar with, as I will do throughout or we’re going to be here all year. The universal franchise and the existence of rights without regard to race or sex are well enough established that the remaining arguments are over the consequences and future implications, not that these are minor.

Where equality seems problematic, it tends to involve money, maybe at second hand where money is only an element. That might be the status you have within an organisation, or your lack of means to do something we usually think of as a basic right.

Financial inequality, and poverty which is an important subclass of it, are related to the negative freedoms that are counterparts to the positive freedoms I’ve mentioned. The difference was most famously enunciated in Isaiah Berlin’s essay Two Concepts of Liberty, although such basic concepts inevitably have a much longer pedigree. Freedom from want, fear, hunger, and so on, seem prerequisites for the type of equality we’ve just talked about, at least on the assumption that there are others who already have these freedoms: in other words, universal hunger isn’t a form of equality I want to consider. It seems likely this is the sort of association Frances Wright wants to inspire in us.

However, you don’t have to walk down the road of freedom and equality too far to find the way is starting to look overgrown. Let’s attack poverty. One vital way to do this is to improve education. Poor experiences at school, possibly not because of bad teaching so much as a bad atmosphere and lack of family support, are probably the single biggest obstacle for the next generation to improve their lot over the previous one. Recent British governments have removed some of the limits imposed by their predecessors, so that parents have a greater choice of schools, with the intention that better schools will grow and worse schools will improve or disappear. The latest proposals will allow parents to set up their own schools, providing them with the direct ability to improve their children’s education. Fine so far, but it’s inevitable that those who are themselves the most capable and motivated will take the lead in doing so, and they are exactly not those families who are the main target of educational improvements. So freedom in this specific instance is in conflict with equality.

Even so, there’s little argument among politicians of all sorts these days that attacking poverty and reducing the lack of educational attainment that perpetuates it is a vital goal, and that putting things right will improve equality of opportunity at the least and generally remove some of the worst imbalances in society. Actual progress is another matter, but no matter how successful we are in removing poverty and its causes, it doesn’t grant us equality. If I’m comfortably off and you’re mindboggling rich, we’re clearly not equal. In fact, it’s not clear that removing poverty actual increases overall equality. Because of your improved education, you were able to exercise your talents to become richer than Croesus. In a world without the drag of poverty there was no one to demand you give your money to the poor, so you kept it. Your new-found freedom has trashed my equality. Should I be pleased?

Let’s examine freedom in more detail. We all have massive personal and practical restrictions on us, making the notion of freedom in some cases almost ridiculous. I am free to do many, many things that no human being was able to do until recently. I also have the freedom to be as rich as you, despite your greater talent. I have the freedom to play the piano like Llŷr Williams. I have the freedom to attempt to live forever. What’s missing is the sense of freedom. Without that, freedom is meaningless. Freedom from want typically increases your sense of it; the things I’ve mentioned typically don’t. Beyond that, it’s a tricky business. If you’re a slave and told the law has declared you free, you are likely to rejoice; but it’s hard to think of a likely law passed at Westminster that would give the citizens of the United Kingdom in 2010 an increased sense of freedom. If you had come into enough money to fly to the moon, you might rejoice about your freedom to slip the surly bonds of Earth for a while; but of the many things that money brings, it is proverbial that a sense of freedom is not one. Proverbs aren’t always correct, of course, but I think it’s true that millionaires aren’t usually the sort of people who leave the house on a moonlit night to sit on a hill and gaze at the stars.

What about freedom seen from outside, the sort you might try to measure? If you look at a society and ask if it’s free, you will be asking about both political and social freedoms, and about their consequences. I think you don’t need to be an anthropologist to suppose that, if people are free, they will do different things with their time. If you saw a society where everybody wore the same clothes and did exercises in front of the telescreen every day, and they told you ‘we’re all completely free, we just like it this way’, I imagine you’d be more than a little doubtful.

Unfortunately, some people would be rather less doubtful than I’d like. There’s a lazy assumption, sometimes, that in the absence of social pressure people will somehow gravitate to the same interests. It’s lazy because it’s only assumed by people who have done that and don’t want to look further than their immediate surroundings. I think we can dismiss this out of hand and take it for granted that any truly free society will be highly diverse. This is perhaps the nearest social equivalent to a sense of freedom.

Returning to equality, we can identify two forms: of opportunity and of status. I’ve touched on both already and they are clearly different. The former is related to freedom, as in some of the examples we’ve already seen. Equality of status is roughly equivalent to a sense of equality: if your view of our relative status agrees with mine that we are equal, we will have the sense of equality, thought there are lingering differences that I will ignore for now.

It should already be clear that equality of opportunity is incompatible in practice with a universal sense of freedom, wherever they touch the same matters. Sometimes we will be left behind, and left feeling our limitations. Conversely, and for much the same reasons, equality of status is in practice incompatible with the unbounded exercise of freedom. Although I’m not suggesting you should limit your freedom to play the piano brilliantly to make me feel more equal, I nonetheless don’t think this example is trivial: it just happens not to mention money. If I instead suggested you limit your earnings, you still wouldn’t but you’d be less likely to laugh it off.

The question behind all this, as in any essay that uses the word ‘politics’ liberally, is: what do we actually do? We’ll need some idea of the relative importance of all these abstract properties and our attitudes to them.

First of all, what would we (not just I) really like to see in the world? Let’s go through the various concepts we’ve been discussing and assess them.

Positive freedom, to be left alone and do what you want, isn’t so controversial nowadays. It’s problematic less because there’s any lack of it than because of what accompanies it. We tend to stress rights far more than we stress the corresponding reciprocal obligations they place on us. That’s a different essay.

Negative freedom also isn’t controversial as a basic concept. Unlike positive freedom, we only need whatever supplies it up to a point. To eliminate want, we don’t need people to become retired bankers, just to be able to provide for themselves. This doesn’t sound too hard.

Producing a sense of freedom, however, sounds very difficult. There’s no way you can convince people they are free, any more than they already do, except by offering them something more they can do. Philosophically, a mere sense of freedom may be a poor cousin to Liberty with a capital ‘L’, but it’s what’s going to stop people marching on your Parliament with pitchforks and broken beer glasses. It’s hard to offer people some fundamentally new quality in their life, they don’t grow on trees; anything else you throw out to make people feel free looks like paternalism, which is not highly regarded these days. It also looks suspiciously like you’re taking people’s minds off all the things they can’t do. So I’m not sure how far we want to go along this route. We might entertain the pious hope that a sense of freedom will evolve out of an equality of status; maybe, conversely, the sense of limitation that comes from disparity of status is one of the reasons inequality (not just poverty) has many social effects, which has become a matter of concern in recent years.

Equality of opportunity is safer ground, as far as the principles are concerned, in that it’s been a policy aim of virtually every recent government. The practicalities are a very different matter, and furthermore no increase in equality of opportunity brings automatic equality of status. Still, there are ways of proceeding, even, from time to time, some successes.

This leaves equality of status as the remaining issue, whether or not it’s the soul of freedom, or even compatible with the actual manifestation of freedom. The general case is difficult. I am not aware of a single direct and effective way of producing it, partly because in some cases it’s impossible or undesirable: I have no wish to run the country or even the company I work for, and egalitarian armies are not spectacularly effective. Can a truly diverse society be equal, except by the citizens piously addressing each other as ‘brother’ and drawing a veil of ignorance (Rawlsian or otherwise) over their individual accomplishments? Perhaps it can, if this is addressing the sense of equality we decided was the equivalent of equality of status. Aren’t we close to some form of brainwashing, muttering to ourselves ‘yes, we are all equal’ three times at morning, noon, and dusk? I hope not, but I have to admit I’m rather confused about how you address this in anything other than a cosmetic fashion.

Let’s move to a more specific and practical question. What sort of equality of status can we actively aim for, that both makes sense in the real world and does not destroy what we already have, accepting that this may not increase freedom, but hoping that it increases a sense of freedom?

Too difficult? Actually, yes, I think it is. Any sort of enforced equality has proved disastrous. Those societies that are more equal tend to be simpler, or at least to have grown up in a fashion that takes a less complicated view of life, or at least to have decided to draw that veil (as we, from our perspective, would see it) over the practical differences that seem to be inevitable in a sufficiently complex world.

Let’s lower the target. Where do we start? Well, we haven’t eliminated poverty yet, so that seems a good place. Given that we haven’t shown any serious signs of doing so, it’s going to remain a good place for the foreseeable future. Attempting to improve education, both at home and perhaps even more abroad, will concentrate minds and also gives you some imperfect way of measuring achievement. There are even economic arguments for poverty reduction; the straightforward one is that poverty is expensive unless you’re prepared to ignore it completely — as we were once, but I think that’s gone for ever. There’s a more subtle argument, actually, though you need to be an economist (which I’m not) to make it properly: the commercial world is driven by people buying things, and the money goes more and more to people who already have it and less to the people who need to be buying to keep the wheels turning, Hence spending enough money to keep the sellers in business requires not just debt, which is an inevitable part of the system, but increasing debt. This, not greater prosperity, is the real concomitant of ever increasing house prices. This is not a stable system; less, or at least a stable amount of, personal debt produces a more stable economy. This is not necessarily the same as having less poverty, thought poverty is where unbridled debt leads.

What else? Suppose we eliminate poverty; we can ask whether, for greater equality of status, we need to eliminate extreme riches, too. I would suggest that there are too few extremely rich people and too many of the rest of us somewhere in the middle for this to be much of an aim. This isn’t because the rich are irrelevant, not by any means: there is a problem with excess power, which comes with wealth. The point is I don’t think taking people’s money away is the key to fixing imbalance of power; it puts us back in the failed world of forced equality. The fix, instead, is to ensure adequate protections against abuse of power. It’s incredibly difficult to get right, but necessary in any case. We can hope for a sense of shame among the rich at not doing enough, but we should note this is incompatible with any notion of freedom whatsover, neither ours nor theirs.

So what about those of us left over, how do we make the world more equal among ourselves? I think the world nowadays is so dynamic that either it’s happening anyway or it’s far out of our control. While some of the claims for modern communications technology are frankly silly, it certainly produces fundamental changes to our way of life (or I wouldn’t be bothering to write this essay since it would be stuck in a drawer for ever). We have to see what comes out…

…and the short answer to the original question is no, equality and liberty are not compatible, unless we actually want to be equal.

Peter Stephenson <>
Last modified: Sat Sep 25 22:02:49 BST 2010