Controversy between Liberty and Equality2016-12-23
Hello guys, this problem has actually troubled me for some time, since I first heard the notion that "liberty and equality are fundamentally contradictory to one another". Recently I come up with some new ideas about this topic after reading the history and some academic works on the French Revolution and after we’ve discussed something about liberty in our classes. I’d like to share my opinions with you and look forward to your response and comment on this issue.
As a matter of fact, it is easy for us to figure out the logical connection between "lack of liberty" and "inequality". When a certain social group is deprived of certain kind of liberty, then there must be another social group who is oppressive and here lies the social inequality. Therefore we can say that inequality is a major cause of lack of liberty. The lack of liberty is a kind of indicator of social inequality, and in turn reinforces social inequality. Nevertheless, when it comes to "liberty" and "equality", things are different. There is a widespread belief throughout the history that freedom would necessarily lead to equality, and vice versa. However, this is not at all the case. If liberty means ones’ sovereign over oneself and each individual have the right to act according to their own will, even under the condition that the boundary of liberty lies in the beginning of the other’s liberty, still, it is not likely to achieve equality. Similarly, if we ask for equality, certain groups’ liberty would more or less be damaged for sure.
My opinion is that only in legal matters can liberty and equality be consistent with each other. (I do not minor in law so if there is any misunderstanding or mistake please do not hesitate to point out) Here liberty means that people are empowered and they are granted with certain kind of rights (which of course, go with certain responsibilities). And equality here means equal in front of laws. In this case, liberty and equality peacefully co-exist with each other, but still, they do not serve as cause and
To further clarify my point, let’s take the French Revolution as an example. The beginning of the French Revolution is people’s need for equality, rather than freedom. It is aristocracy’s privilege of being exempted from taxation rather than their oppression on peasants that eventually provoked the third Estate. For under the reign of Louis XVI the noble no longer
have any rights to control peasants’ life and property. The Revolution began with the call for equality. However, after the fall of Bastille and in the process of making the constitution, liberty, rather than equality becomes the core theme of the Revolution. On the one hand, people are free to join the National Assembly and join the discussion, which made the Assembly extremely inefficient and was not likely to carry on. On the other hand, delegates involved in the process of making the constitution also put liberty as their ultimate goal. In this case they immediately abandoned America’s idea of check and balance. Instead, they wanted to design a political system which could protect people's liberty from any kind of restraint.
After the 1791 constitution was finished and the power gradually shifted from the declining National Assembly to the Jacobin club, the emphasis in fact once again shifted to equality, although people still sang hymn to liberty rather than equality. During that period of time, aristocracy’s property and lives were taken away. And during the Rule of Terror, everyone must be equally radical and equally “revolutionary” otherwise they would be sent to the guillotine. There is a saying that during that period of time each person was forced to be “free”. That is, as a matter of fact, an overemphasis on equality rather an advocacy on liberty.
The dilemma between liberty and equality is not only the major controversy during the French Revolution, but also the major problem of political science throughout the history. It is, in my opinion, a most distinguishing distinct between the Left and the Right in today’s politics. The conflict is hard to resolve, yet it is an important as well as interesting topic to discuss about. I’m eager to hear from every one of you.