Do Freedom and Equality Ever Go Together in Practice?

One of the more interesting notions that most of us seem to accept at one or another point in our lives is the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible. 

I have heard that notion advanced in this manner: Jones has many marketable talents, while Smith has few marketable talents.  Thus, if Jones is free to make as much money as he can, he will make more money than Smith.  So, for Jones and Smith to be financially equal, something must done to limit Jones' earnings.  But anything you do to limit Jones' earnings deprives Jones of his freedom. Consequently, you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time.

Now, it seems to me the notion you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time is one of those notions that has just enough truth to it to hoodwink many of us into generalizing from such examples as "Smith and Jones" above to whole societies.  However, the more one examines the notion, the less warranted that sort of generalization might seem.

The problem is history.

The rarest complex societies in history have been those in which most people were more or less free.  But those rare, relatively free societies have also tended at the same time to be more egalitarian.

Tocqueville, for instance, noticed that white males living in the America of the 1830s were both freer and more equal than white males living in either the England or France of the same period.  Again, both male and female citizens of the Roman Republic seem to have been both freer and more equal than their counterparts living in the Roman Empire.

So the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible, while perhaps seeming to have some reason and logic on its side, does not always pan out in practice.  But if that is indeed the case, then why is it the case?

I think the reason freedom and equality often go together in practice -- if not so often in theory -- is ultimately because of human nature.  Plutarch observed 2000 years ago that no republic had ever long withstood a large gap between rich and poor.  It seems that whenever such a gap is allowed to exist, some of the rich inevitably use their wealth to gather to themselves the reins of power.  And, because they are far richer than most anyone else, there are few if any people who can effectively oppose them. Thus, they subjugate the rest of us.

If all of that is true enough, then it follows that equality is not the enemy of freedom -- at least not in practice -- but rather its companion.  For, if there is a relatively small gap between rich and poor, then comparatively more people will be in a position to effectively oppose the usurping of power by another group of people.

At least, that's my guess why history seems to show that freedom and equality often enough go together in practice.  What's your guess?

10 comments:

  1. Most so called democratic countries are plutocracies rather than democracies. The rich rule for the rich and damn be the poor and poorer, especially the poorest considered by the plutocrats to be simply too stupid to succeed thus expendable.
    The U.S. and Harper's Big Oil controlled Canada are prime examples.

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  2. I think the folks who believe the two are incompatible have a rather limited view of freedom. To them, freedom is being able to accumulate as much money as possible. It has little to do with ideas or beliefs. It mostly has to do with being able to become more powerful than others.

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  3. "It seems that whenever such a gap is allowed to exist, some of the rich inevitably use their wealth to gather to themselves the reins of power. And, because they are far richer than most anyone else, there are few if any people who can effectively oppose them. Thus, they subjugate the rest of us."
    So freedom and equality cannot exist because the rich are free to get richer and then subjugate the poor. Freedom without rules has the seeds of its own destruction. As is happening in America today. And in Canada. Potsoc and Cujo359 have it right.

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  4. I think it depends on how we think of the freedom, and what it means. Those on the right are, perhaps, correct that whenever the government imposes restrictions on individuals, there's a kind of freedom that's being limited. (Even anti-trust laws, while obviously necessary, can be thought of us limiting freedom).

    But in another sense of 'freedom', those lacking the opportunities that money can buy in our society (higher education, adequate health care) have less freedom.

    I think that there are trade-offs between these different types of freedom.

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    1. Yes, indeed, Jon- I totally agree about 'another sense of freedom.' I was thinking of expressing it as 'a level playing field.' Access to higher education is a prime example, and one that is increasingly out of reach for the middle class in the US. Without it one can rarely develop marketable talents, much less wield them to make money.

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  5. As soon as one group of people is given the power to rule over another group of people, equality is destroyed and a loss of freedom will follow.

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  6. I think you are all right about this. Without equal protection and opportunity the gap widens. The poor have much less opportunity and, therefore, less freedom. As Orwell put it, "Some pigs are more equal than others."

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  7. I was raised by post-Holocaust immigrants who bathed in the luxury of American freedom and their right to practice religion and work at whatever they wanted. To them, this was freedom and equality. They didn't have to be as rich as millionaires. They only wanted equal rights and got it. Compared to a lot of the rest of the world, this is a lot. They had been slaves in their lifetime.

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  8. I think it depends on how you frame freedom and equality. If you understand them as different facets of human rights, they MUST come as a pair, and cannot exist meaningfully without each other.

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  9. Freedom is required for true equality. Equality and freedom should not be determined by money. Ahab got it exactly right. The freedom of speech is now exactly the same type argument. The right to be free in your speech comes with the equal responsibility to not harm another's rights.

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Comments Welcome -- but no flaming. If you wish, you can email me at paul_sunstone@q.com