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Liberty and Equality in Political Theory

Info: 3150 words (13 pages) Essay
Published: 6th Oct 2017 in Politics

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Liberty and equality are the complex fundamental concepts that exist together as important themes of normative political theory that cannot be studied in isolation but need to be reconciled with other political values as they are the building blocks of knowledge that are often contested. These ideals are concerned with how people ought to collectively live together in a society or in a minimal state which is justified. Johari (2004) asserts that the possession and enjoyment of certain rights make the case of liberty and that their possession and enjoyment by all without any distinction on some artificial ground makes the case of equality.According to Heywood (2004) he agreed that the rights can only be enjoyed only if constraints are placed and that individuals are able to make the rational or moral choices. Bae (2002) regarded liberty and Equality as ideal principles that guide the conduct of man which stipulates that all men have the right to be free and ought to be equal as such liberty and equality are necessary in the humane society. In a nutshell,Jonari(2004) describes the concept of equality as a concomitant of the principle of liberty where it has been treated by great thinkers as an integral part of their movement of liberty and social transformation. He further defined Liberty as a man`s right to do what he wants for the sake of making the best possible development and on the other hand Hoffman (2009)described Equality as a complex concept and its core idea is that people should be treated in the same way. Oxford dictionary defined equality as the fact of having equal rights, status advantages where equaltreatment for all is provided and further defines liberty as freedom to live as you choose without too many restrictions from government or authority. According to Mills (1977) liberty was meant to be a protection against the tyranny of the political rulers and at the time he developed this theory he acknowledged that individuals can infringe the liberty of other individuals. This essay seeks to assert, discuss and argue if liberty and equality can be reconciled using the scholarly examples.

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Liberty as a contested ideal provides the rights with their due enforcement by the state that ensures freedom to a citizen which enables them to get the possible development. The question that is needed to be asked isto what extent does an individual need to have freedom? The old adage said that your liberty ends where my nose begins. This implies the willing of people to accept the difference between Liberty and Licence where by individual have a space of their own to exercise their liberty without abusing or infringing other people’s rights. Heywood (2004) stated that the French Liberal Benjamin distinguished liberty of the Ancients which he meant direct and collective participation in political life and Liberty of the moderns which he referred to independence as in the modern era they are used to measure equal justice as democratic principle. Isaiah Berlin (1969) in his essay on the concept of Liberty identified the positive Liberty and the Negative Liberty which has been understood as being ‘free to’do something and being ‘free from’ something. This negative liberty is based on lack of physical restraints on an individual in the course of accomplishing his desires within the sphere of rights which implies that the role of the state is to prevent infringing ‘natural rights’ of others. This is in line with the Libertarianism view which believed on a society that focus heavilyon rights by maintaining that the most important political value is personal liberty. On the other hand positive liberty states that the requirement for an individual is to have equal opportunity for them to act on their choices as it is argued that it embraces some measures of socio economic equality which has been thought to be achieved through collectiveness.John Christman as cited in Bellamy argued that positive liberty or freedom is concerned with the way desires are formed and that the promotion of positive freedom need not to involve aquestion of how a person should live.Knight (2011) suggested that when everyone has liberty to pursue their goals without the absence of constraint by others, there will be situations where the rich can satisfy their basic needs without others interfering but the poor often cannot. In that situation the poor would employ all the legitimate mean to secure their basic needs from the surplus of the rich by arguing that negative liberty suggest that the poor not be interfered when taking from the rich what they need to satisfy their basic needs and that does not obligate the rich to do anything but rather from doing something. Narveson as cited in Knight (2011) is aware that we cannot all have full liberty to engage in any behaviour without potential for clashes of liberties but suggests that in a contractarian framework negative liberty is the liberty to be left alone from aggression or coercion.

MacCallum (1972) in negative and positive freedom proposed a single value free concept of freedom. He helped to clarify the thoughts about freedom suggesting that the question of`are we free?Is meaningless. As a result, this madesome individuals argue that freedom can be restricted only by physical or legal constraints while other still insist that a lack of material resources and social deprivation may be a cause of unfreedom since freedom suggests the absence of constraints or restrictions. This made Rawls tobelieve that if freedom includes absolute property rights then such freedom will be limited by the egalitarian measures though he was also criticised for including many of the underserving poor as the least advantaged and the idea of maximising the prospects of those who choose to be non-productive does not cohere with our moral sensibilities. Bellamy (2003) believed that the concept of liberty concentrates on the external sphere in which individuals interact as it promote the existence of a sphere of action within the sovereign of an individual to enable her pursue her own projects.The Belgian Political Philosopher Phillipe Van Parijs appealed to equality of resources to justify a citizen’s unconditional basic income which he termed as real freedom where individuals are free to choose various lives they might wish to live though the stance difference with Dworkin is on benefits conditional (Farrelly 2004). This made him to argue that liberal like Rawls and Dworkin are violating a central tenet of liberalism when they make willingness to work a precondition of receiving benefit which is known as liberal doctrine of neutrality where it stated that government should not favour certain conceptions of the good life of others.

Subsequently,equality being the most complex concept has many definitions and it is defined as social economic equality which is an idea that all people should be entitled to an equal income and equal access to ways of spending it which at the same time implies social continuity and cohesion which is known as a formal equality (Heywood 2004).An egalitarian conception of justice considers the principle of justice that satisfy social economic equalities where inequalities must attach to offices and positions to all under conditions of fair equality where people who have equal talents must have equal chances to attain desirable positions (ocw. Mit.edu/courses). This made Dworkin to believe that people’s fates are determined by their choices and that this must remain a fundamental insight considering what constitutes a just distribution.

Johari(2004) made an emphasis on the claim of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal in dignity and rights. We have to ask ourselves a question what it means to treat people asequals. How can this be achieved and possible? The idea of treating people as equals means live equally well and have equally desirable lives though some argued as stated by Mark le bar that institutions ought to be arranged to ensure equality of welfare though socialism believed that if equality is to be justified to justify political institution liberty is quickly extinguished. Farrelly (2004) argued that equality is a bench mark by which other possible distributive arrangements are judged such that an equal distribution of social primary goods is not necessary a good thing. In addition to this Dalton (2011)alludes that equality of opportunity is the slightly different concept that each individual should be given the same chances be it in employment, education and society. As suchthe right to equality has been defined as the most fundamental claim a citizen has against government and the right to be held in equal regard.This conforms the liberal equality conception that still has limits to solve inequality by natural contingencies though Gauthier rejected any appeal to the notion of moral equality.

Equality like Liberty also has the positive and negative view. Egalitarians believed that resources and goods be equally distributed amongst the individuals (Johari 2004). This made Dworkin as stipulated in Farrelly (2004)to formulate theories known as equality of welfare and equality of resources to be used in distribution equality and thus made the equality of welfare fares well with respect to the principle of equal importance because it requires that the needy receive more resources though this failed to accommodate the principle of responsibility.Johari (2004) stated that the positive equality means the provision of adequate opportunities for all though it does not provide for identical treatment on the other hand negative equality means no discrimination on some artificial ground that it can be made only when the reason behind it is valid.

According to the Liberals the most value to them is Liberty as such they cannot harmonise equality since Liberty has an upper hand against equality though they are both used as the principles of justice. Rawls as cited in Bae (2002) regarded Liberty as for classical Liberalism and that equality as an ideology of socialism. These two values needed to be compromised as social inequality can cause social unrest conflict and disorder, so that even Liberty cannot be guaranteed.Like all normative principles the ideals of Liberty and Equality are subjective at heart as they are a matter of opinion where by the notions of justice vary from individual, group and societyDalvies (2011).The tension between equality and liberty as the main cause of crisis of modern society still exists in normative political theory.Nozick as a libertarian argued that Liberty and equality are incompatible because if one is truly committed to the value of freedom then any attempt to enforce through the coercive means of the state,be it egalitarian will violate the freedom of individualsand thus be unjust since his argument is premised on absolute property rights.

Rawls principles of justice help to realise the values of liberty and equality where by one of them is Justice as fairness. This implies that individuals have an indefensible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with liberties for allan alternative to utiliarinism. Bellamy (2003) further agreed that the right to equal basic liberties and distributive fairness take priority over maximising general welfare even thoughRawls and Nozickrejected utilitarianism as they believe that a public philosophy that permits the loss of freedom is a deficient theory. He further called for an initial original position which is the starting point of people that can be different due to economic conditions hence creating inequality which contributed to the need of having an equal and fair starting point. Rawls further assumed that people create asocial contract in the original position where there is an agreement to contract the state of nature.

Conversely, this made Kant to believe that when a personis acting autonomously the principles of his action are chosen by him as the most adequate possible expression of his nature as a free and equal rational being. As such each person is assumed to be a rational being who seeks to maximise his well-being by being self-interested and self-actualisation and this is because when an individual is maximising the resources they also maximise the minimum value of liberty. Davies (2011)in complementingto that stated that there is need for basic liberties to equally apply to all and that absolute liberty should be restricted to ensure equal liberty.Rawls further said that there is need for justifications of limiting a basic liberty by showing the proposed limit which helps in the protection of basic liberties by restricting the well-off and improve the better-off.

In every society equality can exist which implies that it is impossible to distribute social and economic goods to everyone that needs justification for doing that though Rawls believed that all people can obtain a favourable result by inequality(Farrelly 2004). He further stated that in unequal distribution good positions should be opened to all in the system of natural liberty where people can participate and compete freely; as such liberty and equality can be guaranteed.According to Nozick as cited in Farelly (2004) believes that liberty and equality are incompatible values ifby equality one means that some patterned distributive principle should be maintained and established. Certainly because people are rational and selfish they can attain access justice by choosing the safest choices since individuals are mostly concerned with basic liberties, rights and opportunities whilst equality is claimed.

According to Rawls the just society is the one that protects the basic liberties and arranges the social economic inequalities so that the greatest benefit of the least advantaged are attached to positions and offices under the conditions of fair equality of opportunity as complimented inFarrely (2004) on the principle of social and economic inequalities.In agreeing to the above statement Nozick rules out the kind of redistribution that Rawls envisions and he defended the minimal state. Nozick as a libertarian holds that a minimal state is the only justified state unlike Rawls attempt to combine considerations of liberty with those of equality. Bae (2002) further stated that in the capitalist approach the relationship between equality and Liberty is not harmonised because the continuous accumulation of capital of ‘haves’ cannot be limited to guarantee equality of ‘have nots’ and because of that in a capitalist society economic equality is believed to be inevitable and need not to be just.

From a common sense perspective, it seems difficult to reach the values of equality and liberty at the same time, because people think that the principles of equality and liberty are much opposed to each other and they require one another because the notions are regarded to have incompatible characters Bae (2002). It is easy to see the outcome equalisation of equality and liberty as the two conflicts. As such equality tends to make up for individual deficiencies with external help. Libertarians claim that this impedes the exercise of liberty and that certainly from the liberal perspective equality conflicts with liberty. Davies (2011) agreed that the concepts are not as simple as the liberals assume such that liberty stands to simply mean freedom to do whatever one wants to do, just as equality is not also taken to simply mean a total levelling or uniformity of treatment and for that we cannot just say that equality and liberty are incompatible or irreconcilable though they are often at tension. More over equality and liberty are the values that correspond to individual claims and problems. To answer the demand of claims we should consider the values of equality and liberty. This we can say that basic liberties have an absolute weight in regard to other values as such liberty is given a priority over other primary social goods. Why liberty does then takes priority over equality. This is like that because the right to liberty is the necessary condition for the gain of social cooperation. The tension between equality and liberty occurs not by itself but by the arguments philosophical and moral conception of the good as well as the conflicts of social economic interests (Farrelly 2004).

Rawls does not concede the egalitarian position a she claims he supports democratic equality thussome people believe that Rawls theory can be compatible with socialism and capitalism.

However the discussions of Liberty and Equality have proved to be complex ideals, values and notions as their relationship is also complex because their reconciliation will depend on both the negative and their positive view depending on whose view be it the egalitarian and Libertarian point view. As such the negative view is that liberty and Equality are incompatible whilst the negative view takes liberty and equality as compatible. They are still thought to be in tension because to achieve and maintain equal wealth amongst citizens seem to require violations on liberty and that maintaining of equality of wealth will also require the redistribution of resource.This essay because of the complexibility of the terms it has observed that the notions can reconcile depending on the values believed as for the libertarians they can be compatible and for the libertarian view cannot reconcile.


Bae Young soon (2002) Balancing Equality and Liberty in Rawls Theory of Justice Masters Thesis Univesity of tennesse.http//trace tennesse.edu Accessed on 19th May 2014.

Bellany R. & Mason A. (2003) Political Concepts Manchester University Press UK

Berlin I. (1969) Four essays on Liberty: two concepts of Liberty, New york Oxford University Press.

Davies L. & Dalton M (2011) Entry for Lloyds prize (http// ocw.mit.edu./courses

Farrelly C (2004) An Introduction To Contemporary Political Theory Sage Publications London

Heywood A. (2004) An Introduction to Political Theory 3rd Edition Palgrave Macmillan

Hoffman J. and Paul Graham (2009) Introduction to Political Theory 2ndEdition Pearson

Johari J.C (2004) Principles of Modern Political Science New Delhi; Sterling Publisher

Knight K.C (2011) Review of Narveson&Stebas Are Liberty & Equality Compartible Libertarian papers (libertarian papers. Org.)

Mill J.S (1977) On liberty. Ed Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc



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