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Dear Ed,

Welcome to the next instalment in the weekly series about Liberal Democrat political philosophy. After freedom last week, this week it's time to look at equality, briefly touched on in the freedom piece but deserving of a whole entry on its own both for its inherent importance and because the tension between focusing on freedom and focusing on equality is at the heart of many debates.

I hope you are enjoying this series. Please do let other people know that they too can sign up for the series

The content draws very heavily on an excellent pamphlet edited by Duncan Brack for the Liberal Democrat History Group and by contributors to the group's (now sadly out of print) Dictionary of Liberal Thought. In particular, for this week's email, thanks are due to the contribution from Richard Grayson.

If you aren't familiar with the group's work, particularly the website and quarterly Journal of Liberal History, I'd highly recommend taking a look.

If you like elements of the emails that follow, most likely Duncan and colleagues deserve the credit. For the bits you don't like, the brickbats should come my way.

Best wishes,



A concept which is more often associated with socialists and social democrats than with liberals, but which is crucial to all liberals in terms of equality before the law. The broader relationship between equality and liberty is also important to liberals who believe that inequality in the socio-economic sphere can be a barrier to self-realisation and consider that the pursuit of greater material equality in order to advance freedom and demonstrate equal concern for all citizens can be justified.

Liberals are committed to equality, but in a very different sense to the socialist or communist aim of equality of outcome; rather, liberals are committed to equality of justice. As the constitution of the Liberal Democrats expresses it, the party exists "to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity".

This liberal commitment to equality derives from the liberal commitment to freedom, and the corresponding belief in a diverse and tolerant society, where individuals are able to exercise freedom of choice, conscience and thought. Since such a society cannot exist where individuals are treated differently by the law or by government institutions because of their nature, equality before the law has been one of the great rallying cries of liberalism from the earliest days of the Whigs. In modern times, the work of John Rawls on social justice and Ronald Dworkin on equal concern as a sovereign liberal virtue have been important in providing a theoretical basis for the concept.

Historically this liberal belief in equality before the law has often been tempered by factors which now seem very anachronistic. For example, for much of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, many liberals (though a diminishing proportion) were prepared to restrict the suffrage (right to vote) on the basis of property holding or gender on the grounds that only citizens who had a stake in the country (through the ownership of property) and were truly independent could be expected responsibly to exercise the right to vote (women, it was then argued, were too easily influenced by their husbands, fathers or brothers).

However, laws which specifically allow or require the different treatment of different groups of people are relatively rare in the UK. More of an issue since the 1960s has been legislation specifically to protect individuals against discrimination, for example on the grounds of gender, disability, race, sexuality or, more recently, age. On these issues, and in line with the concept of equality before the law, liberals have been strongly supportive; the legalisation of same-sex marriage is one of the achievements of the 2010–15 coalition government most commonly cited by Liberal Democrats.

More contentious is what might be described as the ‘next stage of equality’, measures aimed at tackling inequality through positive discrimination (for example, all-women shortlists for parliamentary selections). On this issue, liberals have been split: some have seen positive discrimination as necessary to ensure that ingrained inequalities are tackled, others have seen defining people as members of groups rather than as individuals, and giving them advantages over others on that basis, simply as another form of discrimination. These debates are difficult for liberals to resolve on the basis of the principles of either liberty or equality because they involve not merely conflicts between the two values, but sometimes conflicts between competing liberties or competing equalities. This reflects difficulties in resolving conflicts between equality as an abstract concept and equality as a tangible outcome, on the basis that to ensure true equality, and thus greater freedom, it might be necessary to treat some people unequally.

The question of economic inequality has tended to divide liberals along the social liberal–economic liberal axis. At least since the late nineteenth century, social liberals have recognised that state intervention to redress the impediments of poverty, sickness, unemployment and ignorance is necessary to ensure that people are genuinely free to exercise control over their own lives and destinies. A clear statement of this is to be found in L. T. Hobhouse’s Liberalism (1911), which argued that:

… the struggle for liberty is also, when pushed through, a struggle for equality. Freedom to choose and follow an occupation, if it is to become fully effective, means equality with others in the opportunities for following such occupation. This is, in fact, one among the various considerations which leads Liberalism to support a national system of free education, and will lead it further yet on the same lines.
– or, more pithily, "liberty without equality is a name of noble sound and squalid result". This approach led social liberals to advance the cause of progressive taxation and state-financed public services throughout the twentieth century.

More recently, though, evidence has grown that even if the extremes of poverty are curbed, the level of inequality throughout a society matters. As has been argued most strongly in Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2009), compared to its more equal counterparts, the citizens of an unequal society suffer from poorer health, lower educational attainments, higher crime rates, and lower levels of trust and co-operation. Government is justified, therefore, in reducing inequalities in income and wealth (even beyond simple poverty reduction) and in taking other actions, such as the pupil premium introduced by Liberal Democrats in coalition, providing extra resources for schools to teach pupils from poorer family backgrounds who lack the educational advantages enjoyed by children from better-off families. The aim of approaches such as these is to ensure that as far as possible, everyone should have the same opportunities to make what they want of their lives.

The philosopher and economist Amartya Sen’s ‘capabilities’ view of freedom expresses a similar idea: "There is a strong case for judging individual advantage in terms of the capabilities that a person has, that is the substantive freedoms he or she enjoys to lead the kind of life he or she has reason to value". And Ronald Dworkin argued a similar case when he argued that, "equal concern requires that government aims at a form of material equality that I have called equality of resources".

In contrast, economic liberals have tended to regard state intervention of this magnitude as too great an interference with freedom to justify – though it is worth noting that even the leading economic liberal thinker F. A. von Hayek argued that a guaranteed minimum income, providing something akin to a subsistence-level existence for those with no resources of their own, could be justified as part of the framework provided by a minimal state.

Clearly, for all liberals, equality is not the end point, as it is for socialists and, to a lesser extent, social democrats. Liberals have profound objections to measures designed to ensure absolute equality of outcome, for example in wealth or educational attainment, because they can only involve unacceptable restrictions to freedom inimical to a commitment to diversity and reward for individual endeavour. For example, no liberal could support a tax system which redistributed income or wealth to such an extent that all ended up with the same income or wealth, as this would entail a very substantial restriction of individual initiative and effort. The challenge is to strike the right balance between the degree of state intervention and the level of inequality one is prepared to accept; and there is a spectrum of points at which a balance can be reached, rather than one extreme or the other.

Furthermore, those, such as social liberals, who argue a case for state action to reduce inequality remain clear that equality is important as a means to secure freedom, not as an end in itself.

As the Liberal Democrats’ 2002 values statement, It’s about Freedom, said:
Equality can be of importance to us in so far as it promotes freedom. We do not believe that it can be pursued as an end in itself, and believe that when equality is pursued as a political goal, it is invariably a failure, and the result is to limit liberty and reduce the potential for diversity. What Liberal Democrats focus on is the extent to which poverty and lack of opportunity restrict freedom.

What has been and remains controversial among liberals is precisely how much equality this commitment actually entails.

Further reading

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