Areas of agreement
- All liberals believe that human beings have equal rights by virtue of their shared rational capacity. This led Mary Wollstonecraft to argue for equal rights for women on premise that women were regarded as irrational creatures in her society due to the fact that they lacked a proper education. Mill makes a similar point in Subjugation of Women, arguing that a failure to give women equal rights was holding back one half of humanity, leading to a huge waste of human potential. Locke argues that we possess equal rights due to the fact that we possess these ‘natural rights’ in the state of nature. For example, we can justly acquire property by mixing our labour with land and can keep this land as long as we leave ‘as much and as good’ for other people. But, we need to state to protect our rights (life, liberty, property) in order that we can securely exercise them.
- All liberals believe that individuals ought to have equal opportunities irrespective of arbitrary characteristics, such as gender and ethnicity. This can be seen most prominently in the work of Betty Friedan, who argues that women ought to have equal opportunities in the workplace. It can also be seen in Rawls’ argument in his Theory of Justice, that we should think about what rules to apply to our society from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, thereby forcing us to be difference blind and to guarantee a system of basic liberties for everyone.
Areas of disagreement
- However, there is disagreement within liberalism about the implications of equality of opportunity. Classical liberals believe that a free-market economy guarantees equality of opportunity and that people ought to be rewarded differently for different levels of talent and ability, with those who work hard rising to the top of the social hierarchy in a survival of the fittest (Social Darwinism). They also see the resulting inequality as beneficial because it creates incentives that are needed for people to work hard and do well. What is earned is therefore a result of effort and is deserved. Taxation can therefore be seen as a form of theft (Nozick) as it robs the individual of what is legitimately theirs. By contrast, modern liberals argue that genuine equality of opportunity requires a level playing field that can only be provided by an enabling state providing welfare and education and engaging in a degree of redistributive taxation. Rawls’ argument is critical here as he argues that, from behind the veil of ignorance, we would chose a society whereby inequalities could only be justified if they benefited the least advantaged. Thus, modern liberals would argue that classical liberals are not committed to the principle of equality.
- The liberal commitment to equality has been challenged by socialists, who argue that their commitment to egalitarianism (equality) doesn’t go far enough because it fails to address the structural injustices generated by the capitalist system. They would see liberal attempts to promote meritocracy and equality of opportunity as failing to address the fundamental issue, which is deep rooted within the capitalist system. They therefore argue for equality of outcome rather than merely equality of opportunity and conclude that liberalisms commitment to equality is therefore, at best, limited.
It’s clear that liberals are committed to equality of rights and equality of opportunity, but there is disagreement between liberals about what this commitment means, with modern liberals arguing that classical liberals do not go far enough in their commitment to bringing about a meritocratic society. However, the liberal commitment to equality is limited, which leads socialists to conclude that their commitment to egalitarianism is limited. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that whilst equality is an important principle for liberals it is not central to the ideology as it is for socialists.