In modern society, the terms “freedom” and “equality” have acquired saintly status. They complete slogans, inspire activists, persuade voters and have the ability to stir the moral consciousness of humans across the globe. From Mahatma Gandhi who fought for India’s freedom from British colonial rule to Martin Luther King Jr. who struggled for equality and civil rights for African-Americans, change makers around the world have used the magic words “freedom” and “equality” as their tools to mobilize public support and further their cause.
Popular appeal of these terms comes from the experience of experiencing them. The feeling of being free and the feeling of being equal are so endearing that freedom and equality have come to be the basis for framing rules that govern most modern societies. Countries have gone to wars in the pretext of acquisition or protection of freedom. Revolutions have occurred in many nations in the quest for equality.
The debate of freedom vs equality is very complex. It begins with the premise that one might have to choose either freedom or equality. Freedom is defined in different ways depending on the context. On a national level, it can be defined as political sovereignty and on a personal level, it is the power to determine action without restraint and exemption from external control, interference or regulation.
Equality can be defined as the state of having the same rights, social status etc. On the face of it, both freedom and equality sound pious. But in practice, equality is a grandiose idea which is rarely realized and even if it is, is short-lived, breeds inefficiency and ironically leads to further inequality. To borrow Dr. Parth Shah’s example from his session “Why is India poor?”, most civil servants in India are promoted based on their seniority and not their accomplishments. When all the bureaucrats are treated “equally” with no rewards for efficiency, mediocrity thrives.
To understand freedom and equality better, let us take the case study of models adopted by two countries– South Korea and North Korea. After the World war-II, Korean peninsula was occupied by the Soviet Union in the north and the United States in the south. South adopted the free market economy where the decisions regarding investment, production and distribution are based purely on supply and demand while the North chose rigid centrally-planned system. North and South Korea had a similar GDP per-capita from the aftermath of Korean war until mid-1970s. Today, South Korea is one of world’s wealthiest nations with a developed market and high income economy while North Korea is one of world’s poorest and least developed countries. So, what did South Koreans do differently from their brothers and sisters in the North?
South chose freedom. Park Chung-hee the President of South Korea between 1961-1979, opened up the country’s economy bringing in foreign investments, rapid industrialization and swift economic growth. With a free capitalist economy like in the west, South Korea has achieved one of the highest standards of living in Asia. Millions of South Koreans have been taken out of extreme poverty thanks to economic activity driven by free markets. In sharp contrast, North Korea which chose Socialist/Marxist ideology of income equality, has least-open economy and is facing serious financial problems. In 2011, UNICEF estimated that over six million people in North Korea do not have enough food to eat. The income levels of North Koreans is more or less uniform and one earns the same amount of money regardless of how hard he/she works. North Koreans make just 10% of the money of what their average South Koreans make. One estimate says North Koreans make merely $4 per day. North has achieved income equality among its citizen. But is it a successful state?
Aristotle once said, “worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal”. The prospect of an equal economy society is extremely attractive. But experience and case studies suggest that in the process of achieving economic equality for its citizen, states kill competition leading to monopoly, corruption and bankruptcy.
Take for example the state-owned television broadcaster Doordarshan. In my childhood, DD was the only channel that was available for me to watch. DD national aired its own shows in Hindi and de-linked the broadcast to local stations sometimes for regional programs. Since it was funded by the government, the channel had a social responsibility and aired programs for citizen from diverse backgrounds and interests. From shows on animal husbandry to songs on national integration, DD designed content for the viewers of India second guessing what was important for them. We got to watch one Hindi movie and a regional movie (Telugu in my case) in the weekends. I did not have a choice but to either watch DD or turn the television off. Circa 2015, I have 800 entertainment and news channels to choose my content from. Television content in India got better only after government opened up its economy for foreign investors which in turn brought in competition. Television rating points (TRPs) driven entertainment channels have consumer-centric content as opposed to Doordarshan which decided what was “good” and “appropriate” for people to watch.
Economic freedom allows competition. Competition increases efficiency. Efficiency creates wealth and better services. Equality driven economic models strives hard to put everyone on the same pedestal. This approach kills motivation to work harder and do better. Having said that, it is important to make a distinction between economic equality and social equality, economic freedom and freedom of expression, choice and belief.
A truly mature, modern society must create “equal opportunities” for all its citizen to realize their full potential which includes access to good schools, public infrastructure and healthcare. It is also imperative for all citizen to be treated equally before law. It is impossible to build a truly free-modern society where identity based discrimination thrives. Freedom too cannot be absolute. For instance, freedom of expression doesn’t give one a right to shout “fire..” in a crowded movie theater.
We often confuse economic freedom with political freedom and economic equality with equal opportunities. A nation or a society that aspires to be truly progressive and modern, understands and assimilates the distinction between these different types of freedoms and notions of equality.