- • Basic equality: Liberals believe that each person should have the right to basic equality and that the lives of all individuals have the same moral value.
- • Formal equality: Liberals believe that each person should have the same formal status within society, and that everyone, regardless of background, should have the same rights and privileges. They believe society should not consider any differences between people and ensure equal opportunities for all regardless of gender, skin colour, religion or social class. This is seen with ‘legal equality’ (the same treatment for all under the legal system) and ‘political equality’ (the same treatment for all under the political system).
- • Equal opportunity: Liberals believe that each person should have the same opportunity to develop and succeed within society. This does not mean that liberals believe in absolute equality – that is, they do not believe that life outcomes should be the same for all and that there should not be any difference in standard of living or wealth. But the starting point should be the same for all, accepting thereafter that individuals will go in different directions during their lives. Liberals are dubious of the idea of absolute equality, as we are all individuals with different talents and different personalities and not everyone wants to climb within society.
The role of state in ensuring equality
In this section, the role of state in ensuring equality is studied, addressing the difference of opinion between Classic Liberals and Modern Liberals in this regard.
Basic equality is not addressed here, as that is a moral principle and covered with the principle of formal equality, in considering the role of the state.
With regards to formal equality, it is seen that Classical Liberals and Modern Liberals agree upon its meaning and that the state should take steps to ensure this. overall, both kinds of liberals agree that the state should be willing to take steps to ensure a lack of formal obstacles preventing some groups from being able to make the most of important opportunities; for example, that some opportunities are not available to people due to skin colour, religion or social class. Both kinds of liberal agree that the state should have laws to ensure this (e.g. by introducing acts in the composition) preventing open prejudice. Here are examples of laws attempting to achieve this:
- • Acts ensuring that some social groups (e.g. girls) are not prevented from voting in elections.
- • Acts ensuring that some social groups (e.g. people who are not landowners) are not prevented from being candidates in elections.
- • Acts ensuring that employers cannot state that some jobs are only open to specific groups of people (e.g. white people only).
- • Acts ensuring that individuals renting out houses/flats cannot state that they are unwilling to accept some people as possible tenants (e.g. ethnic minorities)
- • Acts stating that schools or universities cannot refuse to accept students from different backgrounds (e.g. black students).
These are examples of laws created by liberal states across the world in order to ensure formal equality.
While Classical Liberals and Modern Liberals agree upon the idea of formal equality and how the state should ensure this, that is not at all true of equal opportunities. Classical Liberals believe that only very small steps need to be taken by the state to give equal opportunities to each member of society. They believe that, if the state has taken steps to ensure formal equality, for instance by creating laws like the above, that there is equal opportunity for all.
Conversely, Modern Liberals believe that much larger steps must be taken in order to ensure equal opportunities. As well as ensuring a lack of formal obstacles or prejudices, these liberals wish to ensure that no other factors will prevent them. They believe that as much as possible should be done to ensure that factors beyond their control do not prevent individuals from developing and succeeding during their lives. These factors include someone that happens to come from a poor family which means that it is hard to go to university; or someone born with an illness which requires constant care; or someone who happened to lose their job and is short of money. As a result, Modern Liberals argue that ensuring equal opportunities means that the state must be proactive, intervening in order to lessen the impact of social disadvantage. This means that liberal states must have systems and policies similar to these below:
- • Education: the use of taxes to raise funds to create an education system open to all, where the level of education given to the individual does not depend on how rich they or their family are.
- • Health: the use of taxes to raise funds to create a health care system open to all, where the care given to the individual does not depend on how rich they are and their ability to pay for different treatments.
- • Benefits: the use of taxes to raise funds to create a financial fund to which everyone can turn for help during hard times, for example if they are out of work and trying to live without a regular wage; have had an accident or serious illness leaving them unable to work for a long period of time.
These are examples of social policy programmes in which Modern Liberals believe to ensure equal opportunity for all. It was between the 1930s and 1970s, when the ideas of Classical Liberals were at their most popular, that similar programmes were seen to develop, for instance across North America and Western Europe. But since the 1970s, these ideas have been criticised and the ideas of Classical Liberals and neo-liberalism have grown in popularity.
Why do Classical Liberals argue against these public education, health and benefit systems? Because they believe in individualism and freedom, they do not like the idea of social state intervention, and especially so if it means fund raising through general taxes. As already stated, Classical Liberals consider the individual as completely independent and as ‘owning’ their body and personal ability. As a result, only the individual should receive praise for success during their life. And only they will own any wealth they have successfully amassed during their life – they owe no debt or thanks to society. So, the Classical Liberals believe that individual freedom means that others, including the state, should not interfere in their life and affect their ability to amass wealth as they wish. This has included arguing that the individual should not be forced to pay money to the state in order to help to maintain public services. It was argued that forcing the individual to do this would rob them of their freedom and property, as the state would not be letting them live their life according to their wishes. This perspective is seen in the words of the American philosopher Robert Nozick, 'Taxation of earnings from employment is on a par with forced labour' (1974: 169).
Liberalism and equality
Liberals believe that three elements of equality belong to social equality, namely:
According to liberals, it is the three kinds of equality above that will ensure justice for all within society. But as with several other perspectives, Classical Liberals and Modern Liberals do not agree on how exactly equal opportunities can be created for all. They do not agree upon the role of state in ensuring equality.