Freedom And Equality In Democracies: There Is No Trade-off!

By Heiko Giebler and Wolfgang Merkel – There is little disagreement among political philosophers, democratic theorists or empirical researchers that freedom and equality are the two core principles of liberal democracy.

What is highly disputed, however, is the meaning of these two democratic principles and the proper relation between them that makes for a good political order.

Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America is the most obvious example of a work in democratic theory that identifies a trade-off between freedom and equality. Tocqueville sees a fundamental tension between freedom and equality in general and between majoritarian democracy and individual freedom in particular.

In his opinion the relentless drive towards political and social equality in democracies raises the threat of a tyranny of the majority, confronting the people with the choice between democratic freedom and democratic tyranny.

The problem of America’s democracy, in particular, is the unrestricted power of the majority. Too much political equality in politics, society and economy weakens the institutional guarantees for individual and minority rights.

Rousseau’s work On the Social Contract constitutes the antipode to the trade-off argument in classical political philosophy. His argument is that people can only be free if they remain politically equal. Political equality, in turn, can only be achieved if social inequality is as meager as possible.

Men are essentially free and equal in the ‘state of nature’, but the progress of civilization and the inequality arising from private property destroyed both – first equality and then freedom.

Here, we also find a clear distinction between two types of equality: political equality, in the form of direct democracy incorporating all citizens, and socio-economic equality, which is endangered by private property. more>

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