Opinion

The ‘Freedom vs. Equality’ Debate Is A False Dichotomy

George Buskell offers a new take on the supposedly self-evident truth that freedom and equality are opposite ideals, arguing that they are in fact two sides of the same coin.

By George Buskell

The debate between the ideas of ‘Freedom’ and ‘Equality’ has been a hotly contested topic for the last couple of centuries. Philosophers, politicians and economists have often pondered on which of these values should be prioritised for the betterment of individuals and society. Should we emphasise equality at the expense of freedom? Or, should we emphasise freedom at the expense of equality?

This is how the debate has been framed for many years; as a battle between two conflicting ideas, but these ideas are not opposites. ‘Equality vs Freedom’ is a false dichotomy, and it reinforces the harmful idea that equality is somehow bad for human beings. It forces us to make a decision between two things that most people find very desirable, and disregard the other.

During the Cold War this false dichotomy was used to split the world in two, and characterise certain countries as ‘Free’ (the Capitalist bloc) and others as ‘Unfree’ (the Socialist bloc), even though this did not present the whole picture. There’s no doubt that the Authoritarian Socialism of the 20th century restricted human freedoms, but the NATO-aligned Capitalist bloc certainly weren’t saints either. While anti-communist politicians railed against the USSR for its lack of freedom of speech and democratic freedoms, these same politicians passed the Communist Control Act of 1954; which repressed freedom of speech, the freedom to assemble and prohibited Communist Party members from serving in certain representative roles. The way these nations characterised each other was to the advantage of their political cause, because it presented a situation that implied there were no alternatives to Liberal Capitalism or Soviet Socialism.  

Freedom is a value worth fighting for, but so is Equality; and I would argue that there is no need to make a choice between the two, as you cannot have one without the other. True Freedom requires true Equality. While social, economic and political hierarchies exist, both freedom and equality cannot exist. To quote Mikhail Bakunin, “political freedom without economic equality is a pretense, a fraud, a lie”. The root of all un-freedom is authority; vertical power structures necessarily restrict the freedom of the weaker party by virtue of where power lies in the relationship between the two. Even if the master never uses his power over the slave, the fact that he holds this power creates the un-freedom of the slave, the mere potential for coercion by the master is what makes him unfree. We need to rethink and reshape the discourse around freedom in the 21st century, we need to seek out and analyse what shackles us.

So let’s talk about capitalism. Capitalism has traditionally been viewed as a system based on freedom, especially in the Cold War. The problem with this characterisation however is that capitalism creates and maintains vertical power structures and hierarchies, three of particular note being private property, social class and the state. Society needs to challenge these hierarchies and collectively look into ways that they might be dismantled and re-organised. Further, ways in which we can redistribute power and create horizontal institutions and horizontal dynamics between people demand investigation. We need to reshape our current discourse, and dismantle the association of equality with tyranny, and freedom with inequality.

Liberty and hierarchy are mutually exclusive; you cannot have real freedom while the exploitation of human beings continues. To dismantle oppressive power structures, economic hierarchy and class society means to return to individuality; no longer defining human beings by their position on a ladder, but instead by the content of their character and their actions. Only then can freedom exist in reality and not just on paper.

Is this all utopian? Maybe. But the discussion needs to be had, the current discourse needs challenging and the way society is structured needs questioning. Without opposition and critique of the contemporary social order, we risk complacency. We risk acceptance of our position in the world, and with that we risk delving further into Authoritarianism.

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