Liberty: The Other Equality

By Long, Roderick T. | Freeman, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Liberty: The Other Equality


Long, Roderick T., Freeman


Equality is an ideal upheld by a number of ideologies, but nowadays it is seldom associated with libertarianism or classical liberalism. Indeed, both libertarians and their critics typically think of equality as an ideal in tension with the ideal of liberty as libertarians understand it.

But what is meant by "equality"?

Some thinkers draw a distinction between formal equality and substantive equality, where formal equality means something like mere equality before the law-the same laws applying equally to everyone-while substantive equality requires abolishing, or at least greatly reducing, differences in wealth, opportunity, or influence.

The latter sort of equality-we might also call it socioeconomic equality-is obviously incompatible with libertarianism, at least if such equality is sought through coercive legislation.1 Legislation aiming at socioeconomic equality is rejected by libertarians as an unwarranted and socialistic interference with the property rights of individuals.

Equality before the law, by contrast, is generally embraced by libertarians. But by itself there is nothing especially libertarian about it. Anatole France once wryly remarked that the law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, a line often invoked by socioeconomic egalitarians scornful of merely formal equality. But libertarians have equal reason to find such formal equality inadequate. As economist Murray Rothbard noted: "[T]he justice of equality of treatment depends first of all on the justice of the treatment itself. Suppose, for example, that Jones, with his retinue, proposes to enslave a group of people. Are we to maintain that justice' requires that each be enslaved equally? And suppose that someone has the good fortune to escape. Are we to condemn him for evading the equality of justice meted out to his fellows?"2

If neither substantive socioeconomic equality nor formal equality before the law captures what libertarians think matters in politics, it's tempting to conclude that equality is not a central libertarian value at all.

Yet earlier thinkers in the libertarian tradition placed far more emphasis on equality. Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence famously wrote that "all men are created equal"; in the original draft he went still further, writing that "from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable," thereby making equality the basis and foundation of our rights.3 What sort of equality is Jefferson talking about?

It is generally recognized that John Locke's second Treatise of Government stands foremost among those "elementary books of public right" on which Jefferson relied in writing the Declaration; and Jefferson's notion of equality is indeed derived directly from Locke's. Locke defines a "state ... of equality" as one "wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection . . . "4

In short, by the equality of men Locke and Jefferson meant not that all men are or ought to be equal in material advantages, but that all men (today it would be all persons, regardless of gender) are equal in authority. To subject an unconsenting person to one's own will is to treat that person as one's subordinate-illegitimately so, if we are all naturally equal. Hence any interference with another person's liberty violates the Lockean conception of equality: "(Bjeing all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions. . . . And, being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorise us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. …

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