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The False Binary Between Freedom and Equality (Part II)

“What constitutes a sufficiently high level of education and intelligence to participate in politics is unclear, and advocates of these elitist positions are suspiciously prone to announcing the cut-off point lies with individuals roughly as capable and qualified as themselves.”


In the first part of the series, I traced the contentious relationship between liberalism and democracy. I observed that many classical liberals had a lukewarm relationship to democratic values. They saw them as essential to representing the interests of citizens while preventing the emergence of authoritarian tyranny. At the same time many liberals were concerned that granting too much power to the people would result in a different and far worse kind of tyranny; that of the majority ruling over a minority and violating their natural rights. These concerns were are certainly justifiable, as there are many examples of precisely this kind of marginalization occurring; though it is worth noting liberal democracies were hardly immune to majoritarian tyranny-for instance against African Americans.

The other criticisms of democracy levelled by liberals were less convincing.  These include worries that democratic polities will redistribute property, and that the average person is simply too uneducated or foolish to be granted a substantial say in their government. In the section below I will discuss some objections to these positions.  I will then conclude this piece by observing why embracing a more democratic and egalitarian position can help us stem the tide of post-modern conservative populism currently sweeping much of the developed world.

Liberal Objections to Democracy

Alongside the understandable argument about a potential tyranny of the majority, the most consistent argument one see’s liberals level against democracy is its potential to illegitimately seek a redistribution of property.  Locke famously proclaimed property to be a “natural right” which the government could not infringe upon, and not coincidentally was reticent to grant the poor and property less substantial democratic rights lest they seek to change their condition through redistributive efforts.  The American founding fathers shared these concerns, and proclaimed property rights amongst the most important to be upheld by government. They were also consequently concerned to ensure no democratic efforts could infringe upon them. And of course many contemporary classical liberals and Robert Nozick share these concerns, including luminaries like F.A Hayek. For some of them, seizing a person’s private property-generated through their labor and exchanges-was little different than making them a slave. As expressed in Nozick’s great book Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

Seizing the results of someone’s labor is equivalent to seizing hours from him and directing him to carry on various activities…This process whereby they take this decision from you makes them a part-owner of you; it gives them a property right in you. Just as having such partial control and power of decision, by right, over an animal or inanimate object would be to have a property right in it.”

One major problem with this position was a dilemma which Nozick was well aware of even in Anarchy, State, and Utopiaand which later contributed to his abandoning of the libertarian position by the 1990’s. It becomes very clear from even a cursory glance at history that existing property relations were derived from highly illiberal acts of coercion and violence.  This creates a historical problem, since if these existing property relations are predicated on such initial acts of injustice, do those who benefit from existing property relations have a duty to compensate those who were historically disadvantaged by them?  This is not a slight difficulty either. Women, racial minorities, and immigrant populations were often disadvantaged by illiberal policies which prevented them from owning property, or working for standard wages, or forced them into direct and unpaid servitude. The impact of these illiberal policies continues to negatively impact millions. Even given improvements that have taken place, members of these groups still tend to be poorer than people from groups, which were not disadvantaged. Does this mean that individuals from these groups can legitimately demand compensation from the affluent for their earlier and ongoing mistreatment? The alternative seems to be ignoring or brushing aside centuries of illiberal disrespect for the rights—and indeed the property rights—of individuals belonging to these groups. This is why I would argue we should be seriously attentive to the democratically directed calls by these groups to enact redistributive policies—rather than silencing them by limiting democracy, which should encourage them to articulate their experiences to ameliorate the ongoing impact of historical injustices.

These kind of historical difficulties belie a more substantial challenge for classical liberals, well-articulated by their contemporary kin. Liberal political theorists in the vein of John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum have long articulated that the classical liberal position on property is highly flawed from a moral point of view. This is because the central moral impulse of liberalism is not towards the protection of property but respecting the equal moral worth of all individuals. This, of course, means respecting their freedom and rights to pursue different and individual life plans. But it also means not condemning them to inequities produced by morally arbitrary circumstances.

Consider “generational poverty.” A Rawlsian liberal would point out that this is because many people are born and grow up in poor circumstances through no fault of their own and, therefore, struggle far more acutely to try and better their situation. A liberal state which does nothing to ameliorate these arbitrary circumstances, which hold individuals back, is not respecting the equal moral worth of all individuals. It is allowing accidental features of life to hold some back, while a few enjoy tremendous advantages they also inherited through no virtue of their own. Some might object that this is simply the way the world is; some get lucky, and others have to make due with a bad hand. But Rawls, Nussbaum and others would say that this is a bad argument.

It may be a natural fact that some people are born with advantages, and others are born disadvantaged. But this does not mean society cannot try and compensate for these inequities—much as we may try to ameliorate the condition of someone who is born deaf by giving them special training. A just society is one which seeks to create as a fair a world as possible. The consequence of this is that we should be highly attentive to recent democratic calls by figures like Bernie Sanders for a more egalitarian distribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. They articulate the accurate belief that there is something illiberal about adopting such a strict approach to property rights if it allows grossly unfair conditions to be perpetuated. This would also have the effect of stabilizing liberal democracies, since conditions of gross unfairness will lead to discontentment over time—particularly when compounded by the sense that we are allowing the aforementioned historical injustices to slide without dealing with their long term consequences.

The second argument liberals directed against democracy was a concern about education and intelligence. The position of figures like Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill was that many citizens were neither educated enough nor smart enough to make sound political decisions. Therefore, their rights to participate in representative government should either be withheld or at least seriously limited to inhibit the amount of damage they might cause. Contemporaneously, you see similar arguments made by some libertarian thinkers like Jason Brennan via his calls for an epistocracy. Going back further, we can relate these criticisms of democracy to those given by ancient Greek thinkers like Socrates and Plato.

The elitist connotation of these positions is fairly obvious, meaning they are unlikely to gain substantial traction in our populist age. Nevertheless, they warrant being taken seriously, in part because of their traction over many millennia. The first objection one might make is an empirical one. What constitutes a sufficiently high level of education and intelligence to participate in politics is highly unclear, and advocates of these elitist positions are suspiciously prone to announcing the cut-off point lies with individuals roughly as capable and qualified as themselves. Moreover, it isn’t obvious that anyone can be sufficiently knowledgeable to make qualified decisions about most of the political and economic issues we deal with today. In some respects, becoming an expert in one area may preclude someone from developing expertise in another. (The time one invests in mastering democratic theory may preclude one from refining his skills as an economist.)  These empirical difficulties suggest the impracticalities of enacting an epistocratic framework without drawing a number of specious lines and making problematic exceptions. Secondly, and more importantly, I think that granting some people more of a say in political governance violates the liberal principle of treating each person as having equal moral worth. To the extent that we think this principle needs to be tied to promoting civic responsibility and political expertise, this can be accomplished by refocusing on humanistic education and tailoring educational models to different kinds of individuals. It should not be accomplished by simply disenfranchising or politically marginalizing huge swathes of the population, who still have to obey the laws passed by their alleged betters.


In a populist time, it is more important than ever to focus on how democracy should operate. The elitist beliefs in high levels of inequality and political marginalization are giving way to a more participatory conception which demands that the polis has its say. The question then becomes how to respond to this phenomena. I would argue that liberals make a serious mistake if they think that agitation for greater democracy can simply be ignored or contained until it goes away. The social and material conditions of post-modernity have generated a culture which is increasingly hostile to many forms of political elitism and aristocratic posturing, though these have certainly not gone away. Unless the underlying problems are dealt with, such elitist and aristocratic conceptions may continue to mutate into various post-modern conservatisms that invoke populist rhetoric to demand the re-entrenchment of social hierarchy. The way to deal with these cultural shifts is through developing participatory institutions and diminishing the influence of wealth and social status on politics and the broader society. Neither of these changes will be easy for liberal democratic societies which for decades have been associated with the inegalitarian and undemocratic policies of neoliberalism. But we may have to choose between these social democratic movements—or evermore radicalized right-wing populism.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

2 thoughts on “The False Binary Between Freedom and Equality (Part II)

  1. “Locke famously proclaimed property to be a “natural right”” In fact, Locke distinguished between different forms of property – self ownership was fundamental, then the ownership of the fruits of one’s labour – both of these are absolute. But he placed limitations on the types of property needed by everyone – ie land, the commons – he said that these should not be monopolised. And the reason is clear, if it OK for land to be monopolised then how can self ownership possibly be preserved, and how can ownership of one’s labour ever be possible?

  2. I’m no expert but I do not recognise this version of classical liberalism. As I understand it, all of the classical liberals culminating in Henry George, who took the idea into politics, argued for a fundamental adjustment of current property rights – specifically those regarding land.

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