Freedom vs Equality debate has managed to capture quite a few eyeballs in the past days. Yet, chances of any type of consensus still seem remote.
Let us consider that one explanation for the persistence and tenacity of this dichotomy is simply that it is true. Perhaps there is an inherent, irreducible conflict between the value of free, independent thought and expression on the one hand, and equality of persons and groups on the other.
There unquestionably is a conflict between them insofar as each “side” in the debate asserts a claim to the pinnacle of normative value, claiming itself to be the magic key necessary to unlock the full promise of a healthy society.
But often these terms are misapplied and even worse misunderstood, by the very people who argue for them on the top of their voices.
‘There is no equality without freedom’
– George Orwell
My views may be biased because I am a firm believer of this famous quote by George Orwell. I feel that people who are even the most direst proponents of equality tend to look at it from a mathematical point of view. To them, equality seems to be a rigid social construct which should be followed religiously. They propose that everyone should have everything equally, be it opportunities, respect, money, education, standard of living etc. But, while they fiercely impose their doctrine they make a very irrational assumption that “Everything has the same intrinsic value”, which is never the case.
Everything has different value which clearly implies that the notion of equality is abstract. We should acknowledge the fact that there is an inherent inequality in everything. Rather inequality is the driving force for all the activities that are taking place. Inequality creates that very gradient, which makes or in economic terms ‘incentivizes’ the people and the systems to work.
In order to achieve collective equality some must be “more equal” than the others. How else can inequality be measured and eradicated between individuals? Hence, equality as a political process paradoxically requires an hierarchical structure. Freedom on the other hand is about individual’s right of making choices. This is absolute and without caveat. It is true that exercising basic freedom will result in different outcomes leading to conflicts and inequality by many measures.
However, society that places equality above freedom inherently cannot be an equal society and likely not free while society that favors and respects freedom will seek to expand choices to minimize conflicts thus expanding equality.
Next, it is important to note that equality is often not defined. When speaking of equality, do we mean equality of wealth, equality of opportunity, equality of health, equality of knowledge, equality of happiness… Of course, the general two that are often sited are equality of wealth and the equality of opportunity. But isn’t the equality of choice also important, the equality to choose what path one takes in life, and to then accept full responsibilities for all the consequences of that choice?
Also, in a more practical manner, it has certainly been proven (both logically from economic theory and from empirical evidence) that freedom leads to greater prosperity. Suppose that in one society, no individual is taxed of any amount, and further suppose that there is a society in which all individuals are highly taxed. The individual of the society keeps all that he earns, and is therefore motivated to earn more money. The only way this individual can earn more is by trading with others, and since each transaction is mutually beneficial (due to no physical coercion by a government or private party, as described by this model of freedom) his transaction will benefit the party he is trading with, thus benefiting society. However, in the second society in which people don’t get to keep what they earn, they are less motivated to do so and will be less likely to engage in financial transaction (or work), which thereby does not help society as a whole.
It is not for the first time that, the veil of equality is masquerading the larger evil. In the 20th century this evil was ‘Socialism’. The focus on equality rather than achievement under socialism imposed a huge cost on the world economy. But, the irony is we still haven’t learned enough from our past mistakes.
Our leaders are successful in selling us fundamentally flawed policies under this veil of equality!