Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’: these words stem from the French Revolution, and became the slogan of contemporary France. In modern liberal democracies, the grinding conflict between liberty and equality underlies many political debates. Liberty and equality often have irreconcilable meanings. The precise nature of the clash between liberty and equality is determined by what definitions are being shrouded underneath these glittering veils.
In the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, liberty “consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else”. The sixth article states:
[Law] must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.
The French declaration was influenced by American founding founder Thomas Jefferson. Under these definitions, liberty and equality before the law are compatible and mutually reinforcing. Legal equality without liberty means all are equal to suffer arbitrary spasms of overbearing governments. Liberty without legal equality means only certain citizens are free to pursue their interests. The realisation of these skyward ideals were fatally flawed within the French Revolution itself, as the 1789 Declaration recognised the rights of citizens – who could only be men. In October of that year, the women’s march on Versailles addressed a petition to the National Assembly to end “the oldest and most general of all abuses”.
In recent times, the notions of liberty and equality sired many forms. Political theorist Isaiah Berlin’s essay Two Concept of Liberty represents one fracture. Classical forms of liberty – the freedom from state interference – are termed ‘negative liberty’. Alternately, ‘positive liberty’ describes the ability to fulfil one’s own desire and potential. The politics of equality has similarly splintered beyond legal equity and the access to public services. Economic equality has typically meant all citizens should have the same or similar levels of income or wealth. Social equality has meant either the equality of social status, equality of opportunity, equality of treatment, or the equality of achievement. Cultural equality seeks proportionate representations of groups within media outputs. Like spinning plates, liberty and equality are being constantly rebalanced. As an example, even actuarial differences are insufficient for gender pricing discrimination by insurance companies, as a 2012 European Court of Justice Ruling demonstrates.
Advocates for economic, social and cultural equality must consider what processes, such as laws and regulatory regimes, should be implemented, to seek these aims. The diversity within the human condition is immense: we contrast in specialised knowledge and strength; we have varied tastes and preferences; we are excited by different ideas. Equal processes can produce unequal outcomes. The political debate centres upon whether unequal processes should be promoted to secure more equal results, despite consequent restrictions on human liberty and the negation of fair processes.
We should be most cautious of volitional public policies being cloaked in the language of inalienable rights.