Carling Liberty equality Nlr 16705

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  • 8/18/2019 Carling Liberty equality Nlr 16705


    Alan Carling

    It is widely believed that at some time over the last fifteen years the political

    values of the left were hijacked and the social theories of the left discredited;and that this intellectual reverse bears some relation to the ascendancy of

    Thatcherism. Whatever the merits of this case, four recent books make clear

    how much of the intellectual ground has been retrieved. If ideas count for

    anything, the right does not look that strong; not half so clever. Richard

    Norman’s Free and Equal and John Baker’s  Arguing for Equality are mainly

    about political values. John Roemer’s Free to Lose and Michael Taylor’s The

     Possibility of Cooperation are also about social theories.1 The four books share

    a concern for the institutional arrangements which would realize equality while respecting liberty. The books share something else which is no less

    significant for being a matter of style rather than content. It is something

    like a recovery of common sense and the idioms of dominant expression for

    the intellectual purposes of the left. Richard Norman begins by contrasting

    two traditions of political philosophy: the tradition which opposes freedom

     Liberty, Equality, Community


  • 8/18/2019 Carling Liberty equality Nlr 16705


    to equality and the tradition which does not. Suppose, for example, that freedom is defined purely negatively, as the absence of constraint; that the only options of social organization are the State and the market, and that the State is identified as the only source of constraint. Then freedom will be maximized the more activities are taken from the unfree State and given to the free market. If the operation of the free market generates, or perpetuates, inequalities, then one must choose between

    freedom and equality. This is the kind of decision forced upon us in the first tradition of political philosophy, and it comes as no surprise that the political right tends to feel most comfortable in this tradition. Freedom is recommended as the primary value, with greater or lesser regret at the loss of equality which seems to be entailed thereby.

    Richard Norman insists, and John Baker agrees, that freedom is not so easily counterposed to equality. The core idea of freedom is the idea of choice, and Norman proceeds to collect around this core idea those choice-promoting conditions which have sometimes gone under the headings of negative and positive liberty . . .‘how free one is will depend not just on one’s being able to make choices at all, but on one’s scope for choice—on the range of meaningful choices open to one. This range will be a matter both of what options are as a matter of fact available, and of one’s subjective ability to envisage and assess alternatives. Consequently, the characteristic conditions of freedom include not only the negative conditions of not being coerced or restricted, but also certain positive conditions. These fall into the main categories of political conditions, material conditions and cultural


    The political conditions involve the practice of participatory democracy, the material conditions access to resources, and the cultural conditions access to goods which facilitate personal autonomy, ‘such as education, knowledge, and understanding’. These conditions are connected with freedom characteristically rather than logically—that is, not in virtue of the definition of freedom but because of ‘certain very basic facts about human beings and the nature of human action’.2 If this is what freedom is, and what it characteristically requires, freedom is characteristically

    valued because of its connection with the exercise of the distinctively human faculties: perception, judgement, creativity. This is the experi- ence which makes freedom a recurrently important political demand: freedom is required for that part of the fully human life whose vision  John Mill shares with Karl Marx.

    On this account of freedom, we have obviously come a long way from an identification of freedom with the market and unfreedom with the State. The evaluation of the institutional forms in terms of freedom now depends on how the market, say, or the State allocates political,

    1 Richard Norman, Free and Equal: A Philosophical Examination of Political Values, Oxford, Oxford

    University Press, 1987; John Baker, Arguing for Equality, London, Verso, 1987; John Roemer, Free

    to Lose: An Introduction to Marxist Economic Philosophy, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press,

    and London, Radius Books, 1988; Michael Taylor, The Possibility of Cooperation, Cambridge, Cambridge

    University Press, 1987. I should like to thank Jerry Cohen, Norman Geras, John Roemer and Michael

    Taylor for their critical commentary on an earlier draft of this paper. 2 Norman, pp. 41, 49, 50.


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    material and cultural conditions: a matter for social theories rather than political values, strictly conceived.

    Norman approaches equality from a slightly different angle, and perhaps less successfully. Just as the value of freedom is rooted in the experience of self-fulfilment, so the value of equality is given in our experience of that kind of cooperative community ‘in which individuals freely partici-

    pate and respect one another’s freedom’. People entering cooperative community ‘will be guided by egalitarian principles of justice: (a) that power should be shared equally and (b) that benefits and burdens should be so distributed that everyone benefits equally overall’.3 The egalitarian principles flow from the kind of commitment that cooperation is: cooperative action arises from the free decisions of its mutually respect- ing participants to engage in the common purpose which defines the scope of their cooperative action. (Perhaps Norman thinks free individuals would only agree to cooperate under conditions which made

    them equal.)

    The reach of the ideal of equality is moreover limited by the extent of the implied agreement to cooperate: it is ‘not a general moral ideal applicable to all human actions and interactions’. Wherever cooperative relations prevail, and the principles of equality therefore apply, equality has three conditions—or, rather, ‘components’—which are: equality of power, equality of material goods and equality of access to culture. Perhaps it is no coincidence that these three components of equality are neatly aligned with the three conditions of liberty, for the alignment

    enables Norman to claim ‘that freedom and equality, far from being opposed ideals, actually coincide’. For Norman, equality of (political) power is the most important element of both equality and freedom, and he returns a strong conclusion in his second tradition of political philosophy:4 ‘Property rights may be outweighed if they are themselves a source of power and of control over the freedoms of others. The central thrust of an egalitarian policy, however, will not be the overriding of individual property rights but the establishing of a communal ownership and control of those institutions which constitute the basic structure of a society. To do this will be to found equality of wealth on equality of power.’

    Does Freedom Coincide with Equality?

    It is possible that Norman’s equation of equality with liberty is too strong, and too quickly reached. Given the restricted social range of the equality principle, it is not clear why freedom requires global equality. Why not have a series of internally egalitarian islands of free individuals—a series of cooperative communities—standing unequally

    community to community, or an elite egalitarianism resting on mass oppression, such as Athenian democracy? There is nothing in Norman’s concept of freedom to deny that the freedom an Athenian elite enjoy amongst themselves is authentic freedom, and there is something in his

    3 Norman, pp. 91, 73. 4 Norman, pp. 97, 133.


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    concept of equality which rather invites our acceptance of an Athenian arrangement as a genuine combination of freedom with equality.

    In order to show that freedom overall is maximized where equality is global (this is, I suppose, what the coincidence of freedom and equality would mean), it would be necessary to add an argument of utilitarian flavour. Assume that the freedom-enhancing powers of the resources

    which Norman says enhance freedom show diminishing marginal returns. I always get more choice with more resources, but the extra amount of choice I get (or the value of the extra amount of choice I get) declines with the amount of the resource I already have. If interpersonal comparisons are allowed, and people are roughly equal in the way they convert resources into ranges of choice (perhaps this implies that their needs are roughly the same), then giving resources to the resource-poor will increase their freedom more than taking the resources from the resource-rich will decrease theirs. Hence global equality will maximize overall freedom, as equality ranges over all freedom-enhancing scarce resources.

    It is a pity for the coherence of his full case that Norman rejects this kind of argument on pp. 64–5. The underlying problem is the exclusive connection he makes between the principle of equality and the practice of community, and the consequent neglect of the inequalities generated by the impersonal, long-range operations of State i

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