The conflict between liberty and equality
They are the cornerstones of any foundational conception of justice—but there are also reasonable ways of interpreting them that can put them at odds
In A Theory Of Justice, John Rawls advances two fundamental principles as being constitutive of any reasonable interpretation of justice as fairness. Rawls’ first principle of justice demands that each person is to have an equal right to the most widespread liberty compatible with a like liberty for all. The second principle—the celebrated Difference Principle—emphasizes the primacy of maximizing the advantage (in terms of an index of primary goods) of the worst-off person: specifically, “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity”. In this perspective then, equality and liberty are the cornerstones of any foundational conception of justice, or more generally, of any inclusive view of political morality.
Given this, it should be cause for concern if the principles of liberty and equality were found to be in mutual conflict. Indeed, it turns out that there are seemingly reasonable ways of interpreting these principles such that they end up being mutually incompatible. Specifically, the potential for such a conflict always exists if we were to defer to the dictates of equality in terms of a version of Amartya Sen’s Weak Equity Axiom, and to the dictates of liberty in terms of his principle of Minimal Liberty (ML).
Sen’s Weak Equity Axiom, which was originally postulated in the context of income distributions, was subsequently advanced in more general terms by the Stanford economist Peter Hammond in terms of a principle that one might call Minimal Equity (ME). Sen’s axiom demanded that in an optimal distribution of income between two individuals, the person who is worse off in both distributions deserves a larger share of the total income.
In a more general setting, one can formulate the principle of ME as follows: given a pair of states of affairs which differ from each other only in terms of the personal features of two individuals—call them 1 and 2, respectively—if, say, person 1 is worse off than person 2 in both states of affairs, then the social choice between the two states should depend only on the preference of the more disadvantaged individual (that is, person 1, in this case). The general principle underlined is that equity must privilege the preference of the more disadvantaged individual in collective choices.
ML defers to a very weak requirement of the recognition of what John Stuart Mill called a protected personal sphere, in which personal preferences are socially respected. More specifically, ML demands that for each of at least two individuals in society, there should be at least one pair of social states each which differ only in a feature personal to that individual, such that the individual’s preference over the relevant pair of states is also accepted as the social preference over that pair. The general underlying principle is that liberty requires personal choices to be collectively respected.
Now it is possible to show that there is a specific sense in which, under certain well-defined conditions, the principles of ML and ME can clash. A demonstration of this is available in work I have done elsewhere (“Can we possibly subscribe to both Liberty and Equality at one and the same time?” Think, 2012). The specific technical details of demonstration are beyond the scope of this article, but the conflict between equity and liberty is a common enough theme in political and moral analysis.
How should we view this alleged conflict between equality and liberty? A particularly appealing interpretation is available in the important book Taking Rights Seriously, written by the late Harvard philosopher and jurist Ronald Dworkin. For Dworkin, the notion of a conflict could be a misplaced one if one allows for a conception of liberty and equality in which the one value is both constrained by, and subsumed under, the other. Indeed, for Dworkin, it is a moot point whether people have any “generalized right to liberty”, as such. Liberty, in Dworkin’s view, is compromised by equality only when the former is interpreted as licence: it is one’s generalized “right” to liberty (as licence) that Dworkin questions.
It is useful to distinguish between two notions of a “right” to something: “wanting” something (such as, say, chocolate cake), on the one hand, and “being entitled to” something (such as, say, admission in a college if one has the requisite marks), on the other. For Dworkin, libertarian rights fit more readily into the first category of rights, and equalitarian rights more readily into the second category.
One may be disposed to imagine that the frustration of desire is less serious than the frustration of entitlement. In line with such a view, it could be held that people have a right to liberty in the first, and weak, sense, while they have a right to equality in the second, and strong, sense. Pitting liberty against equality, in this context, could be misconceived.
Dworkin believes that what “political morality” should demand is “the liberal conception of equality”: this is a conception of equality, not of liberty, and requires that all citizens are entitled to being treated with the same respect and concern as all others. This principle acquires a particular salience in the context of discussions on inter-personal and inter-group inequalities.
S. Subramanian is an economist.
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