FREEDOM AND EQUALITY Radical Bleeding Heart image


The enemies of equality love to tell us that freedom and equality are inevitably in conflict; you cannot, they say, have equality without sacrificing freedom. They also like to say that equality is a hopelessly unrealistic idea because we simply are not all equally talented, intelligent, or even ethical.

There is a grain of truth in those assertions and much falsehood. To sort out which is which you must start by asking for specifics. Whose freedom? Freedom to do what? What sort of equality?

Freedom and equality are grand abstractions. That is, they are distillations of many more specific meanings. They are great for slogans because they sound so glorious. Who could possibly be against freedom?

Actually, we all are. Freedom must be limited. It is limited first by ability. I am not free to fly to the moon because I lack the power. But more to the present point, all societies limit individual freedom, as they must. What sort of freedom are we talking about? The freedom to murder? To steal? To rape?

The most famous formulation of those limits was made by John Stuart Mill in his 1859 essay “On Liberty”. Mill's thesis was radical for the time: he demanded freedom of the individual from authority and society — what he called the tyranny of the majority. But in attempting to maximize liberty, he was compelled to describe its limits. This was the Harm Principle: people should be free to do as they like so long as they do not harm others; “Your fist's freedom ends where my nose begins.”

The problem is that people do not agree about what constitutes “harm.” Some people argue that restricting sexual expression in various ways is necessary to prevent the destruction of the fabric of society, or the sanctity of marriage, or some other supposed social “harm.” Or they claim that the expression of radical ideas must be suppressed lest they lead to the violent overthrow of the nation.

Those are generally conservative positions. When it comes to sexual behavior or the expression of ideas, conservatives worry greatly about the need to protect society and the consequent need to limit individual freedom.

But when the topic turns to money, they become stalwart champions of individual freedom. They agree enthusiastically with Margaret Thatcher, who notoriously declared that there is no such thing as society, only individuals. Since there is no such thing as society, those individuals owe nothing to “society”. Their view of the Harm Principle has a privileged place for money. While they agree that those with physical power should not be allowed to inflict physical harm, they want the power that money endows to be utterly untrammeled, regardless of the misery and pain it may produce.

And its ability to hurt is enormous. The power bestowed by money can inflict starvation, cause death from curable diseases, and even deprive the innocent of justice.