On the Conflict Between Liberty and Equality

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Only justice is an unlimited good. One can want too much liberty and too much equality — more than it is good for us to have in relation to our fellowmen, and more than we have any right to. Not so with justice. No society can be too just; no individual can act more justly than is good for him or for his fellowmen.

The failure to observe and understand the need for limitations upon liberty and equality leads to serious errors about them and to an irresolvable conflict between them.

On the one hand, there are the libertarians, who not only place the highest value on liberty but also seek to maximize it at the expense of equality. They not only want an unlimited amount of freedom, but they are also willing to try to achieve it even if achieving it results in an irremediable inequality of conditions, under which some portion of a society, usually a majority, suffer serious deprivations.

The only equality they are for is equality of opportunity, because this encourages and facilitates freedom of enterprise on the part of those who, favored by superior endowments or attainments, can make the best use of their freedom of opportunity to beat their fellowmen in the race of lifeÑthe devil take the hindmost! That a vast inequality of conditions will result does not deter them, for in their view trying to achieve an equality of conditions can only result in the loss of individual liberty, which is for them the higher of the two values.

On the other hand, there are the egalitarians, who not only regard an equality of conditions as the supreme value, but also are set upon trying to achieve it even if that infringes in many ways on individual liberty, and especially upon freedom of enterprise, exercised with the help of equality of opportunity. In their view equality of opportunity, if that alone exists and if individual freedom in taking advantage of it is unrestrained, will necessarily result in an inequality of conditions. This they deplore. They seek to maximize an equality of conditions, even if to do so requires many infringements upon individual liberty, which is the lesser value in their view.

The conflict, not between liberty and equality, but between extremist exponents of these values, cannot be resolved without correcting the errors that lead to the extremisms respectively espoused by the libertarian and by the egalitarian. These errors can be corrected only by understanding that neither liberty nor equality is the prime value, that neither is an unlimited good, and that both can be maximized harmoniously only when the maximization is regulated by justice.

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