Thursday, March 08, 2012

Equality and Freedom - Public Goods?

Two guiding principles of democracy - equality and freedom - are prima facie good things, right? Well, not so fast. Reading some Rousseau and Tocqueville recently (as one does, don't you know) it seems a little less clear. Rousseau was a great proponent of freedom and equality, and his ideas were the very fuel with which the French Revolution burned. His discourse on inequality was (and is) one of the great works on the subject, and of course his "Social Contract" with the general will and all that attempted to codify some of the core aspects of an operationalisation of equality in government. Submit yourself to the General Will, and you will have a kind of moral freedom within which to live your lives, he said. In essence, give up your freedom in order to achieve true freedom. All things are relative anyway, but Rousseau's unapologetic optimism perhaps went a little far in this.

Tocqueville fixated on these ideas of equality and freedom. In his great work "Democracy in America", we wrestled with the notion that equality and freedom were not, perhaps, good bedfellows. Maybe they pulled at each other - the more equality, the less freedom...the more freedom, the less equality. Gideon Rachman's recent book "Zero Sum World" spoke about this international view from the Cold War that America's Loss would inevitably be Russia's Gain, and vice versa, a view incidentally not shared by the current Chinese administration, as applied to the more truely globalised world today (though they would say that, wouldn't they!). In the fledgling American democracy at the start of the nineteenth century (it's only a couple of hundred years ago, folks) the concept of the land of opportunity, of freedom and equality, was growing. But the unspoken truth of that America, and of the greater liberal democratic movement generally, was that - if not quite a zero sum game (the welfare state and socialist / charitable / church influence would blunt the edge of commerce) then at least generally men were fighting over a limited amount of wealth. The opportunity - of which this was "the land" - was to acquire disproportionately over others, to acquire power as much as wealth, and therein lies the conundrum. You all have freedom, and you all have equality, but the exercise of that freedom - all things being equal - will have the effect of subjugating others, of creating unequal social structures.

The king is dead, long live the king, as they say.

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