Liberty & Equality

James Otteson,

Release Date
June 28, 2011


Poverty & Inequality

Two central values of American political life are liberty and equality. Are these two values in tension with one another? As philosophy Prof. James Otteson explains, it depends on how you define equality. He traces two conceptions of equality. Formal equality comes from the form of institutions, such as equality before the law: all laws apply equally to everyone. Formal equality is a central tenet of the classical liberal tradition, and compatible with individual liberty. A second conception of equality is material or substantive equality, which holds that people ought to be equal in wealth or resources. Material equality may be impossible and may interfere with human diversity and dignity.

  • Are Liberty and Equality Compatible? (Video): Jan Narveson and James Sterba address whether the political ideals of liberty and equality are compatible.
  • Equality and Opportunity [Article]: Richard Arneson highlights libertarian critiques of equal opportunity as an ideal (see section 7).
  • Liberty &/Vs. Equality [Article]: James Bovard provides a personal account of how we neglect to remember the tension between liberty and equality.
  • Liberty and Equality (Video): Milton Friedman explains how societies that aim for equality before liberty will achieve neither.
  • This Way Toward Equality [Article]: F. A. Harper explains how equalization of incomes can be accomplished only by moving down the road to serfdom.
  • Equality and Respect (Video): Aeon J. Skoble discusses what we mean when we talk about equality and how it relates to respecting others.

Liberty & Equality
Two central values in American political life are liberty and equality, and the question is, how do those things go together? Can you have liberty and equality at the same time? Usually the question is put this way. If we want to achieve equality, are we going to have to impinge on liberty? Well the answer to that depends in part on the definition of those terms.
There’s more than one way to think about liberty. There’s more than one way to think about equality. But let’s focus on equality for a second. There are at least two central different conceptions of equality. One we might call formal equality, so called because it has to do with the form of the institutions. Formal equality is something like equality before the law. You and I are equal before the law if the law takes no notice of what kind of person I am or what kind of person you are or what kind of person anyone else is. If there’s a law against murder, then it doesn’t matter who the person is who committed the murder, it’s still wrong. That’s equality before the law. That kind of equality is perfectly compatible with classical liberalism and indeed is part of the classical liberal scheme of values.
But there’s a second kind of equality, what we might think of as material or substantive equality. That’s much different. So that notion of equality holds that people ought to be equal in material respects, maybe in wealth, maybe in resources, maybe various other ways that we can actually measure. That kind of equality does pose significant challenges to classical liberalism, and I think it has challenges of its own.
There are at least three central problems or challenges with trying to have a society based on substantial equality. The first one is, it might well be impossible. So think for a second, how would we measure that? What kinds of things exactly are we going to try to make equal? Are we going to try to make wealth equal, self respect equal, happiness equal? Wealth doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody, and for many people—if you just take that one, wealth—for many people wealth is not the most important thing in the world. So wealth will enable some people to get what they want, and other people it won’t enable them to get what they want. So what kinds of things actually are we going to try to make equal?
So first of all there’s this issue of measuring it, but second of all there’s this issue, even if we could measure it and suppose we want everybody to be equally happy. Okay, if we could get past the problem of measurement, how on earth are we going to establish that? How are we going to actually make people equally happy? So there’s the issue of potential impossibility.
The second issue is it conflicts, I think, with human diversity. Human beings are different. That’s one of the great things about human beings. They have different talents; they have different interests; they have different schedules and values. Those differences get reflected in a free society by a great flourishing of all sorts of things, lots of different goods and services and plays and musicals and all the different kinds of activities that people engage in. If we were going to try and enforce a kind of material equality we’re going to have to substantially limit that diversity. Trying to enforce a material equality is going to interfere to a great extent with human diversity and human individuality.
And that leads to, I think, the third and most important problem facing the attempt to create a society based on material equality, and that is that it conflicts with human dignity. What I mean by that is, part of what it means to be a dignified human being, to have human dignity, is to have the capacity and the freedom to choose, to make choices. Those choices are reflected in and actually issue in all sorts of different things that we choose to do. We choose different ways of life. We have different schedules of values. Those schedules of values, those different schedules of values, the things we choose, those are effects of our free choice. And respecting those free choices in other people is respecting their dignity. So the attempt to enforce material equality will end up requiring us to limit human diversity. That’s really its fatal flaw, because human diversity is not something to be complained about. It’s not something to be regretted. It’s something to be celebrated.