Are Liberty and Equality Compatible?

Reconciling Liberty and Equality

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There seems to be an endless debate amongst different philosophers in different political traditions on whether or not the concepts of liberty and equality are reconcilable. Some argues that the two go together and therefore are indistinguishable while others conversely maintain that they are incompatible. In modern democratic societies, the two principles need to be reconciled as they both seem to have a common end of developing the capacity of an individual.

The concepts of liberty and equality seem to be in conflict due to the fact that they are derived from two opposite ideologies which are liberalism and socialism. However, a common argument is that the preservation of negative liberty requires positive action on the part of the state or society to prevent some individuals from taking away the liberty of others (Berlin, 1958). Political scientist Max Dalton clearly argued that liberty and equality are compatible. In his article titled; “Are liberty and equality compatible?” he says that when well reconciled, they support a capitalist state with some re-distributive measures (Dalton, 2014).

However, inorder to reconcile the two concepts, we need to define the two terms on the outset.

What is liberty? Liberty is derived from liberalism which believes in individualism. The term liberty narrowly means freedom, free will or permissive. The doctrine of liberalism stresses that an individual has got the right to live according to his or her wishes provided that such rights do not infringe on the overall good of the community. A liberal believer does not permit the state to constrain the freedom of an individual (Democracy Consolidation Programe, 2004). Liberty is contested concept. Different scholars have defined the term liberty differently. Mill, (1993) defined the term in a negative aspect as the freedom to act and he also defined it in a negative sense as the absence of coercion. Sir Robert Firmer defined liberty as the freedom to do what one likes, to live as one wishes and not to be tied to laws. In general liberty in a negative sense, also known as classical liberalism, means freedom of an individual from outside compulsion or coercion. In this sense, libertarians like Nozick, (1974) argues that any form of interference, either by a coercive authority, any other person or by oneself in form of ‘self-mastery’, ‘self-determination’, ‘self-realization’ or ‘self-compulsion’, is an encroachment in an individual’s space of freedom. Liberalism suggests that people need to be left alone to act on free will and to take responsibility for their actions. It further suggests that a man need to be given a realm of freedom without interference. Professor Isaiah Berlin said “Liberty in the negative sense involves an answer to the question “What is the area within which the subject—a person or group of persons—is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons” . In this sense, negative liberty seems to be a form of rejection of any supreme power or authority. On the extreme, the concept may be identified with a state of lawlessness. According to Johari, (2004) the negative view of liberty is not appreciated in the present time. Johari said that this is so because the liberty of an individual is relative to that of others because and man’s action need to be viewed as both self-regarding and other people regarding.

On the contrary, positive liberty, also known as social liberalism, places emphasis on social structures and is related to egalitarianism. In the positive sense, social liberalism asserts that an individual need to be protected from tyranny and the arbitrary exercise of power. In this facet, social liberalism favors for the establishment of a social structure in a form of a minimal state that will be able to provide the necessary protection of the individual’s rights. T. H. Green as quoted by (Johari, 2004) defined positive liberty as the power to of doing or enjoying something that is worth doing or enjoying in relation with others. Johari (2004) contend that since man is a social creature, his life should be regulated by certain social bonds.

This entails that liberty in its negative view favours lack of restraint of an individual while in its positive view, it permits the existence of a social system that exercises reasonable restraint of individual’s actions inorder to ensure that noone is allowed to enfringe on someone’s liberty.

Equality is derived from socialism, an ideology which believes in equality of all individuals. It stresses that all people are equal and therefore someone should not necessarily get too much at the expense of others (Democracy Consolidation Programe, 2004). In socialism, mutual interest and common good is the main principle of organizing the economy. Self-interest and too much individual accumulation of wealth result in depriving others which in turn creates inequalities. Redistribution of wealth for the sake of common good is one key element of socialism (Democracy Consolidation Programe, 2004). Equality has narrowly been defined as the fact of being equal or the fact of having the same value. Johari, (2004) explains that equality means “equal conditions guaranteed to each for making the best of themselves”. In political science, the term usually means the equal treatment of people irrespective of social or cultural difference and it takes myriad forms such as social equality, economic equality, formal equality, legal equality, moral equality, international equality etc. These forms have been categorized into two main types which are namely positive equality and negative equality.

Equality in the form of social equality is referred to as the absence of class or caste boundaries and the absence of discrimination motivated by an inalienable part of a person’s identity i.e. gender, race, age, sexual orientation, origin, caste or class, income or property, language, religion convictions, opinions, health or disability that may result in unequal treatment.

In the egalitarian doctrine, equality is referred to as a condition in which all humans are equal in fundamental worth or social status should be treated equally in politics and economics cycles. It advocates for the removal of all economic inequality among people and this is considered to be the classical concept of socialists. Rawls, (1972) illustrates this notion in his Egalitarian theory of Justice where he notes that cooperation under the state is manifested in the sharing of ‘benefits’ and ‘burdens’. He further argues that if individuals acquire wealth at the expense of others, then they shall suffer the burden of having part of their wealth taken by the worst-off.

Equality, may also take another form popularly known as equality before the law or legal egalitarian, which entails that all persons are entitled to equal treatment before the law.

In a positive sense, equality means the provision of adequate opportunities for all (Johari, 2004). Johari further describes positive equality as not simply meaning identical treatment for all since men differ in their need and capacities for their self-development. However, scholars have argued that the provision of adequate opportunity, does not mean equal treatment for all.

Equality in its negative sense is referred to the non-discrimination on the ground of religion, caste, wealth, creed, domicile, descent, sex and the like (Johari, 2004).

But how can the two terms be reconcile in modern society? The fact that the two concepts are different in principle has been clearly eluded to. But however the two concepts shares some form of similarities as they have common foundations due to the fact that they all recognize that all members within the society are free and equal. Scholars have also argued that the two concept provide egalitarian guidance on controversial questions about the distribution of social and economic resources.

On the positive sense, social liberty takes the form of egalitarianism as it places emphasis on the establishment of a social structure such as a state that is able to regulate the actions of an individual so that he or she does not hamper other people’s rights and freedoms. In this sense, the two are perceived to be compactible and inseparable. This is so because positive liberties fully appreciate the need of restraining an individual for the sake of public good as they are perceive as both self-regarding and other people regarding. In this aspect, the desire to have equality, just like the desire to enjoy negative liberties cannot be utilized without a positive state or social structure that would restrain the individual from infringing other person’s liberties. Therefore, the notion that liberty implies that man need to be given total freedom may not be true in our modern society. This fact agrees with the real definition of liberty given by Johari (2004) who contended that libery is not supposed to be identified with the absence of restraints and limitation.

The desire to enjoy equality destroys the possibility of having full liberties while the exercise of full liberty may degenerate into licese and equality without liberty lapses into uniformity.

Liberty is superior to equality because equality serves under liberty. According to Prof. Barker “Equality in all its forms, must always be subject and instrumental to the free development of capacity; but if it be pressed to the length of uniformity; if uniformity be made to thwart the free development of capacity, the subject becomes the master, and the world is turned topsy-turvy” (DasGupta, 2014).

The development of a rich society requires a large measure of liberty and outlaws all attempts to enforce a dead level of social and economic equality. Liberty builds a united society but equality assesses the social hierarchy and contributes towards the stability of the community. Therefore liberty would be dull without some measure of equality and equality would be meaningless without liberty. A quick look at most of the democratic constitutions of the world and many international human rights instruments will review that both liberty and equality have been incorporated and this speaks volume to the fact that the two concepts have a common aim- and that is to develop an individual and to make life worth-living. Therefore, liberty without equality results in license – acts beyond one’s rights to abuse the rights of others; and equality without liberty is dull.


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