The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


Civics: Liberty or Equality

“Perhaps society must bite its lower lip and admit defeat: We can have freedom or equality, but not both. I submit that such resignation is unwarranted and is based on mistaken assumptions about actual persons.”

Daniel N. Robinson | January 24, 2017
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Civics: Liberty or Equality



“The evils that freedom sometimes brings with it are immediate; they are apparent to all, and all are more or less affected by them. The evils that extreme equality may produce are slowly disclosed; they creep gradually into the social frame; they are seen only at intervals; and at the moment at which they become most violent, habit already causes them to be no longer felt”. (Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Bk. II, Ch. 1)

Among Toqueville’s most discerning insights is the civic tension arising from the largely incompatible aims of freedom and equality.  Life’s lottery is a patchwork of chance, health, genetics, opportunity – a long and varied list to say the least.  The combined contributions of such factors work to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others, the individual person often having little responsibility for resulting fame or blame.  Even when personal initiative clearly accounts for high achievement, some will argue plausibly that initiative itself is a species of gift, a set of dispositions planted by a nurturing childhood and unimpeded by illness and natural impediments.  In the circumstance, freedom may well generate conditions of gross inequality beyond one’s powers of resistance. 

Consider what philosophers refer to as “constitutive luck,” roughly how one’s overall physical assets favor or limit achievement.  Barring costly prosthesis, the child whose gangrenous leg must be amputated will never run a four-minute mile.  One whose height does not exceed four feet will not establish scoring records in the NBA.  And what of those with robust or severely limited neural processes?  Could Einstein be Einstein with diminished brain function?  Again, the lottery favors some and seems to target others right down to the level of biochemistry and anatomy.  Even when one is favored at the biological level, there may be such culturally backward conditions as to render the very spirit of self-perfection neither felt nor exercised.

Of the many conditions working hand-in-hand with such factors, surely the most directly influential is freedom!  A society setting no limits on the lawful deployment of one’s physical and cultural assets is a society likely to feature instances of extreme inequality.  This, as it happens, is unacceptable in democratic societies.  Toqueville continues,

I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves, they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.”

 We have not solved this problem, for we have not recognized it.  Slogans abound.  Thus, we learn that equality of opportunity does not promise equality of outcome.  But does not the lottery frustrate the goal of “equality of opportunity?”  Perhaps society must bite its lower lip and admit defeat:  We can have freedom or equality, but not both.  I submit that such resignation is unwarranted and is based on mistaken assumptions about actual persons.  The lonely figure in the café, pondering the options in a difficult crossword puzzle, persists until the establishment closes, continuing his labor under a street lamp.  This confirms Schiller’s insistence that man is never so authentically himself as when at play.  We all seem to be moved by an inner impulse toward a species of self-perfection.  The freedom that counts removes barriers to the expression of that impulse.  What it offers is not some ultimate and meaningless end-state in which everyone is in some vague sense “equal” to everyone else.  What it offer is not transport to the ultimate goal.  Rather, it offers the journey itself.

SAIL ON…