Are we too cynical to even try to imagine what greater liberty and greater equality together would be like?
Maybe our current system only seems so wonderful because it’s so much better than the empires and feudal systems that existed before. Maybe it’s only our lack of vision that makes us think we can’t have anything better than we have. Is liberty plus equality even possible? We desperately need the imagination and vision of Henry David Thoreau:
The question is not what you look at, but what you see. (Thoreau 1851, Aug. 5)
To the liberal, inequality produces rich and powerful tyrants. But to the conservative, the politicians who are supposed to bring us equality are themselves the tyrants. The liberal and the conservative are both right and both wrong. Unrestrained power in the hands of either the public or private sector will lead to tyranny because tyranny over others is the natural goal of human nature.
What is liberty or freedom?
We might think it is the opposite of law, but the English philosopher, John Locke, thought otherwise:
[H]owever it may be mistaken, the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom: for … where there is no law, there is no freedom: for liberty is, to be free from restraint and violence from others…. (Locke 1690, VI.57)
And John Stuart Mill described freedom this way:
The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. (Mill 1859, I.13)
Furthermore, equality of opportunity simply requires that everyone have the same liberty to pursue their own definition of “good”. But how many would claim that true equality of opportunity exists in our current political economy?
What if we were truly both free and equal?
The French political scientist, Alexis De Tocqueville, wrote:
It is possible to imagine an extreme point at which freedom and equality meet and blend together.
…nobody will be able to wield tyrannical power; men will be completely free because they are entirely equal; they will all be completely equal because they will be entirely free. (Tocqueville 1840, 2.I.2)
Both conservatives and liberals love to quote Tocqueville because he gave solid support to both points of view. He understood that democracy means everyone must have the liberty to make choices as long as they don’t unfairly limit anyone else’s choices. That’s the conservative ideal. But Tocqueville also knew that everyone must have equal financial opportunity and social power to follow through with their choices. And that’s the liberal ideal.
Tocqueville was right. Without equality, there is no liberty because only the privileged can make real choices. And without liberty, there is no equality because only the ones who rule can carry out their choices. Equality of opportunity is necessary for liberty, and liberty for all is necessary for equality. So we can only have true liberty or true equality if we have both at the same time.
So we can’t actually satisfy conservatives or liberals unless we satisfy both at the same time. Do you agree? Do you believe it’s possible to have liberty plus equality at the same time?
This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.
Locke, John. 1690. Second Treatise of Government.
Mill, John Stuart. 1859. On Liberty. London and Felling-on-Tyne, New York and Melbourne: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd.
Thoreau, Henry David. 1851. Journal II, 1850-September 15, 1851.
Tocqueville, Alexis D. 1840. Democracy in America, Vol. 2, London: Saunders and Otley.