Equality is Freedom

Often on this blog I either make or rely on the claim that freedom and equality are ultimately equivalent, and certainly not in conflict, so I thought it might be a good idea to explain it as clearly and concisely as possible. It goes like this:

Equality means relationships characterised by balanced (i.e. close to equal) power. In such relationships coercion becomes very difficult, because any threat by one party can be matched by the other. That is, coercion, to be practical (rather than senseless and suicidal) requires inequality of power.

Hence the promotion of equality (of power) amounts to the promotion of non-coercive relationships, and hence non-coercive action by individuals. If one is not coerced, then one acts from one’s own desires and judgement, i.e. freely, in at least the roughest and most obvious sense.

So equality means non-coercion, and non-coercion means freedom. Simple.

21 Responses to “Equality is Freedom”

  1. David Lawson Says:

    Okay.

    Here are my initial thoughts.

    You are claiming that one particular type of freedom which is about non-coercion (for there are several conceptualisations of freedom) is equivalent to political equality, i.e. equal political resources.

    My first point is that political equality and freedom as non-coercion are NOT definitionally equivalent, for non-coercion is at best a consequence of political equality.

    It is my view that nothing of much interest follows in itself from your (revised) claim that political equality leads to non-coercion. First and foremost because political equality is an impossible ideal. It’s impossible because of uneven distribution of natural endowments such as intelligence, physical strength and charisma. Secondly, because unequal power distribution can be used to prevent coercion. One example is a legal system that criminalizes murder and rape.

    I reckon you are on to something, but my humble view is that more needs to be said to move from your (revised) claim to anything of normative signifance regarding what goals our political systems should work towards or how our political systems should function.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “more needs to be said to move..to anything of normative signifance regarding what goals our political systems should work towards”
    Certainly. This isn’t meant to show anything about what we should pursue, just to explain why I don’t draw a general distinction between pursuing equality and pursuing freedom.

    “political equality and freedom as non-coercion are NOT definitionally equivalent”

    True, and that’s why I said “ultimately equivalent” – in the long run, on the whole, they amount to the same thing. In particular cases they may diverge a bit.

    “political equality is an impossible ideal. It’s impossible because of uneven distribution of natural endowments such as intelligence, physical strength and charisma.”
    Asymptotes, ‘chaknow? We approach our impossible ideals as closely as possible, even if we never fully acheive them.

    “unequal power distribution can be used to prevent coercion. One example is a legal system that criminalizes murder and rape.”
    Sure, in some particular cases this can happen (and in some particular cases, two quite equal people can mutually coerce each other). But I think there’s a hundred and one things we can point to that illustrate how preventing coercion through greater inequality of power is counter-productive and a very poor solution, and that when it works best it’s often due to the elements of equality that it contains.

  3. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Good work Alderson.

    Lawson, people who have more power than others do not want to prevent coercion. Using our legal system as a case in point only disproves your position, as our legal system, made by the State, criminalizes murder and rape COMMITTED BY OTHERS, while denying the criminal nature of murder and rape COMMITTED BY THE STATE.

  4. Sir Robert Filmer Says:

    Where will the equality in the relation of power be when the anarchist community chooses to promote justice and prosecute rapists and murderers. Where will it be when they decide to carry out their collective will against the recalcitrant. Even if all in this community are equal, i.e. all possessing the same or no property and none having a position of superior status in popular regard, when combined to organise society as they see fit they will still be a force and will resemble Aristotle’s democracy, which, badly run he called anarchy. Indeed, going on lenin’s definition of an anarchist state (which I hazily remember) it only entails the abolition of standing, professionalized forces of coercion. Yet the police and the army do not make a state and have never been held to. All that is required is a recognized authority which in this case will be the people. So either they cannot enforce any of their decrees by force, which is preposterous or else they abolish both equality and freedom. This it seems to be is the pitch of folly to which you have flown.

  5. Francois Tremblay Says:

    I’m gonna be honest here, I have no idea what Filmer is going on about (and his punctuation is wonky at best). It seems he believes that if you stop someone from murdering someone else, you’re not equal to him. Why the hell not?

    “When I describe a man as an invader, I cast no reflection upon him; I simply state a fact, Nor do I assert for a moment the moral inferiority of the invader’s desire. I only declare the impossibility of simultaneously gratifying the invader’s desire to invade and my desire to be let alone. That these desires are morally equal I cheerfully admit, but they cannot be equally realized. Since one must be subordinated to the other, I naturally prefer the subordination of the invader’s, and am ready to co-operate with non-invasive persons to achieve that result.”
    Benjamin Tucker

    This is my favourite quote about Anarchy. It may or may not have anything to do with what that guy said, but I’m not really sure what he said anyway. But it makes a hell of a lot more sense.

  6. Sir Robert Filmer Says:

    Point was you need overwhelming force consistently applied to deal with nefarious actions. If I stop one man murdering another that is an equal relationship but if 20 men stop a man from murdering another that is not. But it stands perfectly to rights we ought to concentrate force against murderers to have a better chance of withstanding them and so it is obvious equal power relations are not desirable. Indeed, they could not be secured anyway because to force people not to join together their equal forces and so make greater ones would necessitate the existence of a still greater force.

  7. Francois Tremblay Says:

    So your point is that… twenty-one people who are equal in regards to each other are no longer equal if twenty of them are stronger than one?

    Do you simply not understand basic math or are you being deliberately obtuse or what?

    In case I really do need to make this explicit:

    1=1
    1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1 > 1

  8. Sir Robert Filmer Says:

    Well what is the modern state if not overwhelming concentration of force against dissidents? 20 men united by common notions can overpower one or two who disagree with them even though their individual forces all be equal. Pray what else do you think coercion is most foolish of fools and doltish of dolts! And should you desire to prevent this happening you must have a force that overpowers all the rest, i.e. a generally accepted locus of legitimacy which is THE STATE based on the monopoly of coercion and hence fundamentally unequal.

  9. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Actually, there is 1 State employee for every 15 citizens, so your point is completely false. Sorry.

  10. Sir Robert Filmer Says:

    Yes but how many are basically loyal to the government’s authority and laws? In my Patriarchia I discern the root of all right authority in Adam’s paternal rule over his wife and children but he had no army and no ‘state employees,’ although Abraham did. Bah, coercion is exercised in the name of ideals and interests common to many men. I said focus of legitimacy did I not.

  11. Francois Tremblay Says:

    I’m gonna let Alderson continue to engage you on this, you’re not making much sense to me.

  12. Sir Robert Filmer Says:

    ‘Equality means relationships characterised by balanced (i.e. close to equal) power. In such relationships coercion becomes very difficult, because any threat by one party can be matched by the other. That is, coercion, to be practical (rather than senseless and suicidal) requires inequality of power.’

    I was wondering where I had heard something like this before and I now know. It is the doctrine of the proponents of the nuclear balance of power, in other words MAD.

  13. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    When any group of people conspire to meet force with force, they promote non-coercion, by making the initiation of force an impossible or unattractive prospect. This is quite different from the question of 20 people conspiring to compel 5 others to arrange their lives in a certain way. This latter in turn is quite different from 5 people conspiring to compel 20 others to arrange their lives a certain way, when 15 of those others acquiesce to the power of those 5. The first is legitimate social self-defense, the second is illegitimate communal coercion, and the third is illegitimate state coercion.

    I do not think, really, that the second is practical in economic matters. In religious or cultural matters it is both practical and often actual, with the various religious communes that get set up occasionally being examples.

    So there are three questions. One is ‘why is the prevention of violence not an exercise of inequality’, the second is ‘should a community enforce their non-violence-related (e.g. economic or cultural) decisions on minorities?’ and the third is ‘what distinguishes the state from such communal enforcement?’

    To the first I say, it is because of the content of such an action, that it functions to prevent coercion and non-coercion is the essence of equality as a mode of relating to other people. Perhaps I will be accused of playing around with definitions. Perhaps I am guilty of such, but I think that when the oppressed clamour for equality, what they demand is non-coercion and mutual respect, not some mathematical formula, so in that sense I claim to accord with common usage.

    On the third, I say it is the obviously minority nature of the state. Those people who Filmer says are ‘basically loyal’ do not exercise significant agency in regard to state actions. Chanting fans at a football match are not playing football.

    On the most tricky, the second, I will grant that there is a real risk here, of collective mutual self-coercion. Kropotkin for example warns against this. There is a need to imbue people with a spirit of independence and respect for diversity. Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ lays out a lot of the relevant arguments here.

    Perhaps it is true that this can fall under ‘freedom’ but not under ‘equality’ – as I said, the two are not always in every case equivalent. But in practical terms, for psychological reason, I think that collective self-coercion is a by-product of unequal-power coercive relationships. And so I think that in practice, struggling for one will very rarely if ever be different from struggling for the other.

    “It is the doctrine of the proponents of the nuclear balance of power”
    What made MAD mad was that the two (or more) power-crazed (or institutionally power-crazed) silly-billies engaging in it threatened to take 5 billion others with them. If it was just them risking their lives then, well, we might think it foolish, we might try to persuade them to stop, we might be angry at whoever raised them to act in such a way, but we wouldn’t consider saving their fool lives to be a primary and pressing political need.

    “In my Patriarchia I discern the root of all right authority in Adam’s paternal rule over his wife and children”
    You’d best be trollin’.

  14. Db0 Says:

    Succintly put. Well done

  15. Sir Robert Filmer Says:

    For a start I would greatly prefer to be addressed as ‘Sir Robert’ preferably with a tug of the virtual forlock to boot. That aside.

    Let me try and place your argument in terms I might understand. You say it is not coercion to resist coercion with force and that having an equal situation of power pertaining amongst men is most desirable to secure freedom.

    Yet how would one create an unequal situation of power if the natural faculties of men are all more or less equal? By covenant or agreement or indeed unthinking acceptance of a common source of authority that must be obeyed perhaps. For this is what my friend Thomas Hobbes and that little twerp John Locke held the state to be. Therefore should a community of men recognize no such common authority but each were free to follow his will in all things, co-operating with his fellows when their plans seemed good to him and leaving them when they did not this would an equal relation of power.

    But if these men decided to organize themselves through a council say and subject all disputes and plans between themselves to debate and at the end of it come to a majority verdict which they expected all men to obey this would not be an equal relation of power. The majority would feel right in assuming those that did not agree with them were obligied to do as they said and could be coerced if they did not.

    So what you propose resembles closely Locke’s state of nature but presumably with social property rather than individual plots and so forth.

    Thus if any man or group of men should take it into their heads to do something nefarious an ad hoc coalition must assemble to oppose them as happens in the theatre of nation states.

    Naturally I think it is a very poor idea. There is always the chance those disposed to evil and coercion will in fact prevail or more likely that men cannot honestly decide whether a certain action constitues reasonable corcion or not and the matter must need resolve itself by violence. You could deduce equally poor consequences from my way of managing affairs and I suspect the issue must needs resolve itself on consequentialist grounds and I go someway to prove my case with my discussion of Ancient Rome in Patriachia.

    It should be needless to add that ‘illegitimate community coercion’ is for me no different from state coercion and only under certain circumstances would ‘legitimiate social defence’ not count as state coercion. Partly this is just a framing issue.
    I might also ask how should the minority respond to ‘illegitimate community coercion.’ Presumably you think all are entitled to come to their own private judgement about where legitimate action breaks off and so you allow the spectre of a war within the community.

  16. Sir Robert Filmer Says:

    In my day the Princes of the Holy Roman Empire were not kept in awe by the power of the Emperor Ferdinand II and many threw in their lot with invaders from the Baltic against their overlord. No one in this conflict had overwhelming power because the rights of the disputants were, in constitutionalist theory, disputed. This terrible conflict carried off a population in 17th Century Germany equivalent in percentage terms to the death toll 1960s nuclear forces would have produced if the US and USSR did battle in Europe. Your answer to my MAD question is totally illegitimate, you ARE using the same principle you so affect to despise when you meet it elsewhere! It should not be lost on you that the other analogy I drew between our free and equal men in the anarchist community were nation states.

  17. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “how would one create an unequal situation of power if the natural faculties of men are all more or less equal? By covenant or agreement or indeed unthinking acceptance of a common source of authority that must be obeyed perhaps. For this is what my friend Thomas Hobbes and that little twerp John Locke held the state to be.”

    Yes, and in so holding they departed into fantasy. The state’s power is not the product of some spontaneous assent given by people, it’s the result of a history of violent struggles and subjugations, occasionally pausing for a breather in limited agreement. Which is why a society which actually sprung from an (ongoing) free consensual “contract” would be very little like the states they had to end up justifying.

    “if any man or group of men should take it into their heads to do something nefarious an ad hoc coalition must assemble to oppose”
    That in no way follows. That coalition can be standing and ongoing – it should in peaceful times have other functions, for the sake of avoiding idle people standing around looking for threats to meet, but there’s no reason why a group couldn’t have established contingency plans for how to approach disputes, how to respond to assaults, how to detect conspiracies, etc.

    “There is always the chance those disposed to evil and coercion will in fact prevail”
    True (as they generally have) but the main way to counter this is to encourage the organisation and independence of mind of as many people as possible. If there’s no difference in level of organisation, then victory will generally go to the majority, meaning that plans which benefit a few but harm many will be prevented.

    “more likely that men cannot honestly decide whether a certain action constitues reasonable corcion or not and the matter must need resolve itself by violence.”
    As you say, the same is true in any situation: by tautology, if people cannot agree, and will not separate, they will turn to violence. But at the moment violence is rarely necessitated by such an irreconcilable conflict of interests, being rather the outcome of a system which organises and entrenches violence.

    “the Princes of the Holy Roman Empire were not kept in awe by the power of the Emperor Ferdinand II…This terrible conflict carried off a population”
    And that population, those millions, were they held in awe by Ferdinand? Or not sufficiently? Or were they, in fact, swept up as meaningless pawns in the pointless feuds of a bunch of very powerful people whose power expressed itself best not in whether they obeyed some other powerful person or not, but in the fact that they could send thousands to their deaths without having to fear for their own lives? As I said before – if a handful of princely nobheads want blood, then let them have blood, but only each other’s. We may eventually try to save them, but only after resolving all the other more important issues. My concern is with the millions who don’t start the war but do pay the cost.

  18. Sir Robert Filmer Says:

    Well actually my little digression into contract theory was not really germane to the argument because I said, ‘unthinking acceptance of.’ The crux of the matter is that is generally held one source of decisions is in existence and that it is considered illegitimate to follow our own private wills when such a body wills we do not. Perhaps that is a very inadequate concept of the state and the production of unequal power relations but it is the one I’m currently working with. I couldn’t care less if you want to make the exceedingly obvious knockdown of literal social contracts.

    This standing force enquiring into conspiracies and general bad ass goings on sounds a lot like a state to me. Maybe my conceptual framework is inadequate again. Yet I’m thinking that this whole system of yours turns more on the fact that the greatest power in the land upholds a communist form of society (where no one is oppressed) than the fact that it does not behave like a coercive force. Now logically there is nothing wrong with the proposition that a anarchic-commy set up would secure perfect equality and freedom and to stop anybody mucking this up is non coercive. But I’m still not seeing were the equality in power relations come in. Looks like your system would work best when everyone is aware of how great their society is and collectively smashed in the face of anyone who tried to change it.

    I guess your argument made sense when not really explored beyond its own terms, i.e. it made ‘internal’ sense, if that isn’t a clumsy way of expressing it. But you seemed to have practical ideas in mind when you answered me just now and when you spoke to Lawson so, you know, I’m wondering.

    The use of the MAD and Ferdinand II examples were meant to illustrate the failure of the equality of power relations principle.
    ‘Equality means relationships characterised by balanced (i.e. close to equal) power. In such relationships coercion becomes very difficult, because any threat by one party can be matched by the other. That is, coercion, to be practical (rather than senseless and suicidal) requires inequality of power.’
    I know more about th struggles between states than I do between individuals or voluntary organisations, probably because the state suppresses the bad effects of violence between these. The point is that this idea that a balance o power stops one force trying to bully another is very old and sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. WWI is a good example. I’m assuming people will not behave differently from these artifical men and tha is why the examples are germane to your principle. To follow Montaigne.
    ‘The souls of emperors and cobblers are cast in the same mold…The same reason that makes us wrangle with a neighbor creates a war betwixt princes.’

  19. Sir Robert Filmer Says:

    Humble apologies for all these damn missing letters.

  20. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    As I read it there are two major isues here. Do I have a coherent sense of a practical but non-state arrangement that can suppress violence while still qualifying as ‘equal’, and then, is it empirically true that balanced powers lead to non-coercion.

    I should clarify that I’m using ‘coercion’ in a broader sense that just ‘physical force’, as meaning ‘making people do what they don’t want to do’. This may have been a source of confusion, I fear.

    On the first, I will try to illustrate with examples. Person A thinks to themselves ‘the socially recognised economic system leaves me doing a lot of work, but with very little to show for it. I don’t even have a house! Screw this, I’m not playing any more.’ Person B thinks to themselves ‘that bastard over there just disrespected me, I’m going to fuck him up with a trowel.’ A state system uses physical force against both; an anarchic system uses physical force against only B, not A. Sure there are grey areas – a stalker invading someone’s living area and refusing to leave, someone poisoning a water supply – but the grey areas still leave a huge range of cases where self-regarding actions (I’m going work here/not work here, I’m going to eat this/claim this bit of space/etc.) where the state initiates force.

    Why does this exhibit equality? It means that the same rule applies to everyone, both ‘officials’ and others: defensive violence, but otherwise non-violence. This contrasts with the state system, where some people and organisations have a right to initiate force that others lack.

    A second difference is in the methods by which force will be confronted. At the moment, there are special bodies with the resonsibility for deploying force, and members of these groups have much greater power than others – for example, if they beat someone up for the hell of it, or just shoot someone randomly, they are much less likely to receive as severe, or even any, repercussions. Anarchic systems by contrast operate participatory defense forces, in which while not everyone may take part, sufficiently many do that there is no distinct group with an institutional identity that can kill people and then rely on a court believing their word over someone else’s.

    On the second point – yes, balance of power sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I think it works better than any imbalance of power, if ‘works’ means ‘avoids coercion’, in the broad sense I outlined above. Having one very powerful force to coerce all others (i.e. Leviathan) may in some cases serve to reduce violent conflict, but it generally increase the ability of Leviathan to coerce others, i.e. dictate to them the terms of their lives.

    I don’t think that ordinary people do work the same way as states. The internal constitution of states, regulated by the hydraulics of power, gives them a certain ‘psychological profile’ which makes them love power (loving power is what tends to make even equal relationships simply ones of equivalent opposed coercion rather than of cooperation). I go into this in more detail here: https://directionlessbones.wordpress.com/2009/03/31/machiavelli-for-anarchists-part-2-tyranny-republicanism-and-the-end-of-radical-politics/


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