Discuss the View That Liberty and Equality Are Incompatible

Discuss the view that liberty and equality are incompatible In this essay I aim to discuss the view that Liberty and Equality are incompatible. This view was put forward by Lord Acton when he said “the passion for equality made vain the hope of freedom”. However, the issue of compatibility relies on how you define the terms Liberty and Equality because, in the words of W. B Gallie, both liberty and equality are “essentially contested concepts” and there are therefore different interpretations of each concepts meaning.

The contemporary political thinker Isaiah Berlin in his book, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, distinguished between a positive concept of freedom and a negative concept of freedom. Equality is split into three interpretations and they are Formal Equality, Equality of Outcome and Equality of Opportunity. I will conclude that in the words of Hobhouse “the struggle for liberty, is the struggle for equality”, hence the two concepts are more compatible than they are different.

The first interpretation of Liberty is Negative Freedom which is concerned with ‘freedom from’-the absence of restrain, interference or impediment and believes that you are only free to the extent you are not being constrained. The first strand of Equality that I will compare Negative Liberty with is Formal Equality which argues that because we are all human beings we are all equal because of a shared human essence and therefore we are entitled to be treated with equal respect and dignity.

Formal Equality is based around treating individuals with equal dignity, in the words of Immanuel Kant individuals should not be treated as a ‘means to an end, not ends in themselves’. Clearly the sweeping redistribution of income would use individuals for a wider aim of providing an equal start in life for all and hence undermine the Kantian Dictate that underpins Formal Equality.

Similarly, Negative Liberty is a not a distributive ideal as it believes in a minimal state and laissez faire free market economics. Indeed, Classical Liberals such as Nozick who would advocate Negative Liberty believe that the welfare state and the taxation needed to fund it is ‘akin to forced labour’. Therefore Negative Liberty is compatible with Formal Equality because neither of them are distributive ideals.

The second strand of Equality to be compared with Negative Liberty is Equality of Opportunity Equality of Opportunity is a conception which believes in giving individuals an equal start in life so that through their natural aptitude and talents they will become unequal and forge ahead of others-this conception is underpinned by the idea of a Meritocracy similar to the one outlined by Plato in ‘The Republic’. Whether Negative Liberty is incompatible with Equality depends on which strand of Equality of Opportunity is being referred to.

Equality of opportunity is divided into two strands; the Minimal Conception which is concerned with equality before the law, and the Substantive Conception which believes that in order to have a genuinely equal start in life adjustments must be made for social and cultural inequalities. The Minimal Conception is compatible with Negative Liberty as neither of them advocates redistribution or government intervention.

Whilst the Substantive Conception is not compatible with Negative Liberty as it requires government intervention and redistribution to correct for inequalities and provide for example, quality education for all to give every child an ‘equal opportunity to become unequal’. The final strand of Equality to be compared with Negative Liberty is Equality of Outcome. Equality of Outcome concerns itself with everyone finishing the ‘race of life’ in the same position and this would involve the equalisation of living standards, social circumstances and wages.

Only Marxists would argue for absolute equality of wealth but not even they advocate complete Equality of Outcome because they believe in allocating resources ‘from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs’ and because people’s needs differ some need more material rewards than others- As Aristotle highlighted in ‘The Politics’, injustice arises only when equals are treated unequally, but also when unequal’s are treated equally.

Therefore the case for Equality of Outcome is really the debate about redistribution, and clearly therefore this is not compatible with Negative Liberty as it advocates minimal state intervention. Positive Liberty however, is concerned with ‘freedom to’ and is split into three strands- Freedom as Autonomy, Freedom as Political Participation and Freedom as Self Realisation. Equality. Freedom as Self Realisation is concerned with giving individuals the opportunities they need to realise their potential which then will make them more free. As most Modern Liberals such as T.

H Green and Hobson or Social Democrats would agree, Freedom as Self Realisation is more the modern strand of Positive Liberty and therefore I will focus on this interpretation of Positive Freedom. When comparing Positive Liberty and Formal Equality I would argue that they are not compatible because Positive Liberty is about giving people the opportunity to realise their potential through the welfare state and redistribution of material wealth whereas those who advocate Formal Equality would argue that redistribution violates the Kantian dictate which underpins the concept of Formal Equality.

However, it could be argued that because Formal Equality is about every single individual feeling self worth and respect, if someone has no opportunity to realise their skills and talents, what will happen to their feelings of self worth? Hence possibly, there is an area of compatibility between the concepts. In comparing Equality of Opportunity with Positive Liberty again, you must consider both interpretations of Equality of Opportunity.

The Minimal Conception would be compatible with Positive Liberty as if you are all equal before the law, and there are no legal impediments then you are able to realise your potential and achieve Freedom as Self Realisation. The Substantive Conception is also compatible with Positive Liberty because by adjusting for social and cultural inequalities will give all individuals the opportunity to realise their talents and skills and reap the rewards from developing and exercising these talents- Freedom as Self Realisation.

In remembering that Equality of Outcome is not exercised in its pure form and is therefore more about moving towards a more egalitarian society through redistribution of material rewards to ensure equal outcomes in life for everyone, clearly there is a comparison between this and Positive Freedom as Self Realisation because it allows everyone to have the resources they need to

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