3. The superiority of liberty to equality in the hierarchy of human values and social purposes.
As I was saying...
If I say that liberty is superior to equality, I am not saying that liberty is inherently better than equality, just that, as a basis for pattern-matching and rule-making, we take infringement of liberty as a graver concern than inequality. The next step, then is to decide what I'm talking about when I talk about liberty and equality.
I'll start with equality. In my first draft of this, I started by saying that equality was the easy one, but now I think that it is (ain't everything) more complicated than it looked. I think I'm comfortable dividing equality into three conceptual categories: equality before the law, equality of resources, and equality of antecedent benefits and burdens. I'm sure I'm missing something...
Equality of resources has the lowest priority of these, and I find it difficult to place it above liberty. This is different, by the way, from reallocation of resources to eradicate poverty; that has, as a goal, something very different from equality. I would not place the end of starvation so low, but if we were to lift the bottom that far, it would still be a long way from equal with the top. To put it another way, the eradication of poverty would be an equalizing step, but its justification is not based on egalitarianism.
Equality of antecedent benefits and burdens (and I am taking the phrase from Amartya Sen, and may quite well be doing so in error, as (a) I wasn't listening all that carefully, and (2) he was mumbling something awful) is terribly important, at least as a goal to strive for. Politicians sometimes call this "equality of opportunity," which is certainly catchier but not as clear; the problems that arise when burdens are distributed unequally by race or class (for instance) are as severe (if not more so) than those that arise when benefits are. However, most of the obvious things are on the benefits side: equal education, equal access to health care, equal access to social and civic services. The burdens include unequal dangers (primarily from hazards such as pollutants and crime, but also, for instance, induction into the army) as well as unequal costs (for instance, the practice of redlining made (makes?) home ownership more expensive for African-Americans, but a progressive tax system is also an example).
Finally, equality before the law is of paramount importance, and an absolute. I assume I’ll be getting to the different types of liberty next, but it’s hard to imagine that there are liberties that take precedence over legal equality. The idea that we are a nation of laws, and that a nation of laws is a good kind of nation to be, is so deeply ingrained that I can’t quite articulate a defense for it. I could illustrate how bad it would is to violate that absolute, but if you weren’t outraged by the illustration, I’d be hard-pressed to explain it. So I’ll leave it as an absolute, as a principle. Equality before the law is good, and violating it is always bad.
And I think that’s enough for one note, isn’t it?