Thursday, 8 January 2015

Strange Bedfellows: Freedom, Equality and Love.

"Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" is the phrase that I once had planned to have tattoo-ed above my heart. That was until I found out it was the motto of France and decided there was something a bit weird about adopting French nationalism having never so much as set foot on French soil.

Digressions aside this little trinity of values, freedom/equality/fraternity, has proved to be a slippery customer for many a political philosopher despite them being the presumed corner-stone of liberal thought. Humans ought to be free, Humans are naturally equal and Humans should strive for a world of love and togetherness. It all sounds rather idealistic and lovely and to be fair when you hear modern advocates of liberalism discuss them, even in a dry academic context, you can't help but fall in love with them.
So where's the problem? What makes this homely triplet so slippery to grasp?

 The crux of it lies in slotting together the ideals of equality and freedom. The argument being that some people naturally are more talented, deserving, resourceful or driven than others and in a society where everyone is free to pursue success and prosperity this makes equality impossible.
Indeed certain philosophers have turned their backs on liberalism for precisely this reason. The libertarian poster boy Friedrich Hayek in "The Constitution of Liberty" keeps his endorsement of equality firmly chained to the backseat, allowing for nothing but "equality before the law".* Where as Roger Scruton, a man of a more traditionally conservative bent, quite early on in his book "The Meaning of Conservatism" argues that the fundamental flaw, right from the beginning of the liberal project, was in thinking that any form of equality could be reconciled with freedom .**

Coming from a political background that is distinctly "anti-liberal" I'm going to attempt to offer a solution to this problem.

Both the terms equality and freedom pull on us and rightly so. They describe conditions of life that most of us, raging ego-maniacs aside, would consider to be quite pleasant.

The problem that liberalism has, and concurrently the problem with the phrase "liberte egalite fraternite", is that it mistakenly suggests that equality and freedom describe two distinct values when in reality they describe the very same project but from different qualitative angles.

In liberal language, freedom is thought of as an individualist value; it is something that exists independently of society and indeed it is almost defined by a lack of influence from society. Accordingly, to prevent this giddy Icarus of self-determination from flying into the sun of tyranny, liberalism tempers it with equality and also fraternity. In short equality works to restrict freedom enough so that it is socially tolerable.
My instinct when presented with these kinds of dichotomies is to assume that we are talking about these values incorrectly rather than failing to achieve the right balance. So here's my assessment in full:

Where as freedom describes the lived experience of acting on ones desires, equality describes the social conditions necessary for freedom to be realized as a political ideal. In short we must be equal or else we have not achieved freedom in the meaningful political sense and conversely if we are not free then we cannot be equal.

One may be tempted to argue that one can be equal and not free just as one can be free and not equal; usually by drawing on a hypothetical society in which everyone was forced to have the same amount of resources or alternatively pointing to the old Soviet Union.

However, in order for someone to take away your freedom they must have power over you. If your fellow man is truly your equal then they would not be able to strip you of your freedom. Unequal societies cannot play host to true political freedom as the freedom of those lower down the social ladder is conditional on the approval of those higher up.

Likewise if your freedom can be unjustly restricted then there must be someone in a position of power who can command you, hence inequality.

The problem with having "liberte and egalite" in the same sentence is not that they are antagonistic but rather that it is a mistake to conceive of them as separate projects.

*For now we're just going to forget that libertarians are, at heart, classical liberals and that there are probably plenty of early liberals who would of accepted Friedman's approach to equality.

** Scruton actually does have some interesting things to say about Fraternity, in particular its potentially suffocating nature, with regards to freedom, when it turns into full-blown communitarianism.  

No comments:

Post a Comment