Thursday, February 17, 2005

Freedom and Equality: The Dichotomy? Shut Up, Ms. Roberts.

You all have undoubtedly heard this in some sophomore English class somewhere in your life: "There is an inherent contradiction between freedom and equality."

That's funny, because I though that monarchies and dictatorships were most often characterized not just by curtailed civil liberties, but by stratified classes of people with very different levels of wealth, power and prestige. If I have 10 times the money you do, don't I have innate capacity to cajole, bribe, intimidate and otherwise attack you using my inordinate wealth?

This theory has virtually zero real intellectual value: Instead, it serves an essential institutional role. It lets teachers split their class into two groups, one favoring freedom and one favoring equity. The former group gets to brag about their civil liberties, the latter gets to brag about attacking racism and sexism and making sure everyone is full and has a roof over their heads. It means that if someone likes freedom, they basically are forced to be libertarian conservatives, and if someone likes equity, then they basically are forced to be welfare state liberals. I think that this single example proves that even the relatively liberal schools (though they are far more conservative than one would expect, as I know from being a student activist) serve to reinforce institutional assumptions that are totally facile but make people into good party hacks.

The application of the theory proves this: It is typically discussed as the reason why the Soviet Union had such little material inequity but was so authoritarian. That's odd, because it posits the Soviet level of equity as some aberration, yet Japan and European nations are incredibly equal compared to the US: it's the Third World kleptocracies we eagerly create and support and the US itself that is odd. Nationalist myths get reinforced here too. While the Soviet Union may have had little material inequity, it was still there, and it was also riddled with racism, sexism, and unequal power and privilege aside from authoritarian treatment of civil rights. But even if it wasn't, one society with little material inequity and authoritarian politics does not prove that those are the two choices we can make, QED.

The problem is made a little more confusing by the fact that there is a kernel of truth: Any time we attack privilege, whether it be political, economic, sexual/gender, or racial/cultural, we are inherently delimiting some's freedom of motion. But the Enlightenment and the liberal tradition saw no contradiction here: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were three integral and related parts of a good society. Overthrowing a tyrant accomplishes all three goals: it may reduce her and her cadre's power, but it certainly allows everyone else freedom and liberty. That's because the initial state was one where some people had the ability to make decisions that impeded on other's rights and life possibilities and others did not have the ability to make the decisions that affected their own lives. Changing it may have reduced freedom for some, but it certainly raised it for many.

Of course, rights of minorities are as key as rights of majorities, but the same principle applies. If I have unlimited ability to do what I want, you inherently don't, because some of my decisions will affect you virtually by definition. So the question is, how do we make a system where everyone has as much as liberty as possible and yet doesn't impede anyone else's rights? There is a tension there, but it's certainly not a diametrical or dichotomical tension.

Next time you hear this garbage, just ask this question: According to this principle, a society with one monarch with 99% of the wealth and who makes every decision must either be a society founded on equity or one founded on freedom, right?


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