Equality of What?

Here are two important questions of public policy in which it looks as though we have to choose between liberty and equality.

Some people think tax laws, which clearly limit our freedom to spend our money as we wish, should be designed to equalize incomes, because great inequality in incomes is wrong. Is the egalitarian redistribution of income an illegitimate invasion of economic freedom?

A national health service, such as the one in Britain, aims to give equal access to health care. Some people think that, to maintain equality, no one should be able to buy better health care privately. But is it justifiable to limit people’s freedom to choose the best treatment they can afford?

To settle such questions in a principled way, we need a deeper understanding of liberty, equality, and the relations between them. Otherwise all we can do is bark “liberty” and “equality” at one another, at considerable cost to our fraternity.

For the last two decades, Ronald Dworkin has been developing answers to these questions—and to many others—as part of a powerful and surprising response to the larger question of how we should reconcile liberty with equality. Unlike many partisans of equality, he thinks conservatives are right to hold individuals largely responsible for their own fates. But unlike many partisans of liberty, he nevertheless believes in substantial government intervention to bring about more equality. And, unlike both, he argues that, in the deepest sense, equality and liberty are never truly at odds.

In Sovereign Virtue, Dworkin has brought together this surprising theory and some of its applications, including detailed explorations of the questions with which I began. If we care about having a rational public discourse about the many contests that seem to pit liberty against equality, we owe his book a careful reading.

No government is legitimate that does not show equal concern for the fate of all those citizens over whom it claims dominion,” Dworkin writes on the first page of Sovereign Virtue, proclaiming a doctrine that would, he thinks, get unanimous assent from the legislatures of all liberal democracies. Whatever politicians in those democracies may privately think, governments cannot seek to justify a policy by asserting that blacks matter less (or more) than whites, women less than men, peasants less than aristocrats. Indeed, Dworkin believes, this fundamental egalitarian principle is so basic to our politics that “any genuine contest between liberty and equality is a contest liberty must lose.”

The word “genuine” is pulling a great deal of weight in this sentence. The fact that liberty, in the form of human rights, is embedded in the discourse and practice of all modern democracies might seem inconsistent with the idea that equality takes precedence over liberty in any genuine conflict. But, Dworkin argues, this is entirely the wrong way to construe the matter. In his view, granting to us all the same fundamental human rights is, in fact, part of showing equal concern for each of us. There is …

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