In this essay, I will argue that liberty and equality possess the ability to stifle the other if elevated to excess, meaning a balance must be achieved between the two concepts for a society to properly function, as the absolute domination of either would result in a system that is devoid of justice. For the purposes of this argument, I will discuss the contrasting positions of Robert Nozick, whom posits in ‘Anarchy, State, and Utopia’ that any state beyond the ‘minimal state’ will inevitably violate citizens’ rights on account of being overly invasive, and Philip Pettit, whom posits in ‘Freedom as Antipower’ that measures must be taken to remove the threat of arbitrary interference among citizens for freedom to be realized. To further examine the conversation regarding the balance of liberty and equality, I will assess the methods through which these authors attempt to realize their visions of ensured justice, with Nozick perceiving justice as a series of ‘acquisition and holdings’ that dictate ownership and Pettit perceiving justice as ‘antipower’ that mitigates being at the mercy of another’s decision-making. I believe that Pettit makes a more compelling argument, as an adoption of Nozick’s worldview, including its radical implications, does little to correct dominative inequality through a means that results in those involved having mutually benefitted, while Pettit’s proposals present greater possibilities for a prolonged balance of liberty and equality between involved parties.
The concepts of liberty and equality are crucial in maintaining a prolonged sense of just governance by a state, each representing an element of individual satisfaction that ought to be preserved for the prosperity of citizens, though this is complicated by the narrow balance that must exist between them. For both authors discussed, Nozick and Pettit, there is a concern that an imbalance of the two concepts would culminate in a reduction of justice. If the plight of equality is emphasized as more important than individual liberties, then these liberties would be disturbed, which Nozick warns against when arguing against a so-called central distribution, claiming there can be “no person or group entitled to control all the resources, jointly deciding how they are to be doled out…what each person gets, he gets from others who give to him in exchange for something” (Nozick, 1393). An excess of efforts toward realizing equality would demean the holdings of individuals and create a situation where one entity unjustly possesses resources that are distributed according to subjective views of entitlement. To surrender such an unwieldy task to a potentially unaccountable body would represent an abhorrent concession of liberty, as the gradual submission of citizens to the state creates too much of an opening for inequality and mismanagement of resources. As there are issues with liberty being trounced upon in the pursuit of equality, it is similarly perilous to take the reverse option, and forgo equality to enshrine every available liberty. Individual liberties cannot be preserved despite any failings of equality, as inequitable distributions of resources facilitate a system of those with much exercising undue power over those with little. Pettit warns against the endangerment of justice that comes from an unchecked imbalance of influence, explaining that it is “always a difference in resources or a difference in the preparedness to use resources – a difference in effective resources – that enables one agent to interfere arbitrarily in the affairs of another” (Pettit, 589). While certain individuals may possess a greater holding of resources, it is necessary to find balance between liberty and equality, as the zealous exaltation of liberty would take all volition from the dominated and leave them at the mercy of their dominators’ better angels. Although the circumstances surrounding ownership of resources might be just, the subjugation of any individual by another that can interfere with impunity is fundamentally unjust, being a robbery of liberty that is abetted by inequality. There are pitfalls to emphasizing liberty or equality above its counterpart, which would ultimately create a disastrous system where neither exists, so, for the preservation of both values, it is necessary to strike a balance in the application of the two.
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The balance that ought to exist between liberty and equality is subject to multiple interpretations, for which many distinctions are grounded in the meaning of the terms for the philosopher discussing a solution. In his libertarian vision, Nozick sees liberty as being cherished rights that the state must be restricted from impeding, which informs his advocacy for a minimal state that has a narrow sense of authority, and only enforces equality insofar as it relates to protection from unjust acquisitions or violence. At the beginning of his argument, Nozick establishes his view on the sanctity of liberty, boldly emphasizing that “individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them…strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do” (Nozick, 1391). To realize this vision and keep the state from trampling the rights of its constituents, Nozick expands his philosophy outward, and articulates the methods through which a sense of fairness is maintained: a view of justice as acquisition and holdings. The system of acquisition and holdings is built upon the basis that individuals are entitled to anything that they acquired lawfully, whether that be an unclaimed possession that they legally took or an already claimed possession that was voluntarily transferred to them by the previous owner. In viewing the world in this way, Nozick removes the necessity of a state to interfere beyond the purpose of ensuring that the principle of justice is kept (and offering provisions for collective defense) because every person is only entitled to that which they acquired properly according to the guidelines of acquisition and holdings. Through this lens, Nozick believes that all controllable inequality is vanquished, noting that impermissible violations are protected against by the state, which are when “people steal from others, or defraud them, or enslave them, seizing their product and preventing them from living as they choose, or forcibly exclude others from competing in exchanges” (Nozick, 1395). Among the listed betrayals of equality is the prevention of allowing one to live as they choose, which, alongside the theory of justice maintained by a minimal state, implies that Nozick believes equality to be freedom from external forces that violate entitlement to justly acquired resources. With justice conceived as acquisition and holdings, Nozick suggests the balance of liberty and equality ought to be a continued ability to live unaffected by the state within the broad regulations provided, and that any interference beyond this is an invasive betrayal of inalienable rights.
Just as Nozick has a personal interpretation of liberty and equality which influences his meditations on the balance that should exist between them, Pettit has a theoretical understanding of these terms which reinforces his vision of their maintenance. In drawing contrast between the contemporary view and his own, Pettit decries the apparent revision of liberty, seen as only lost when actual interference has occurred, as a disruption of the promise for an individual to live upon their own terms, and seeks to reconceptualize the value of freedom. The author attempts to outline the weaknesses in seeing freedom as noninterference through the employ of relationships (such as husband and wife, or employee and employer) that might be devoid of abuses of power, yet represent an inherent loss of liberty in that one party is functionally superior, and explains that “if liberty is opposed to subjugation in the first place, then, even in the absence of actual interference, these relationships are often going to represent paradigms of unfreedom” (Pettit, 598). To expand upon the failure that he perceives with the contemporary definition of freedom, which is implied as an undue sacrifice of liberty for the assumption that those with the ability to dominant will graciously choose to act benevolently, Pettit argues that freedom should be expressed an ‘antipower’. As a concept of equality, antipower is concerned with the elimination or reduction of factors that allow an individual to arbitrarily interfere with the affairs of another and seeks to empower the potentially dominated with a means of punitive actions that protect their liberty. In viewing the concept of liberty this way, Pettit makes the concession that circumstances between individuals will inevitably provide some parties with an opportunity to reign over the other with impunity, yet his vision for restoring justice is focused upon gifting the lesser party with a counterbalance that would place the contrasting roles in a mutually beneficial position. Although Pettit does not seem to believe it is feasible to remove all instances of inequity, he attempts to develop a system that functions fairly, defending his conception of balance by saying, “under the conception of freedom as antipower, I am free to the degree that no human being has the power to interfere with me: to the extent that no one else is my master, even if I lack the will or the wisdom required for achieving self-mastery” (Pettit, 578). Rather than dismiss equality altogether by accepting the possibility of infringements upon freedom and appealing to the hope of noninterference as the correction of this, Pettit believes that balance between liberty and equality can only be sustained through the provision of defensive action being given to all parties. With justice conceived as the allocation of antipower, Pettit demands that individuals within relationships be equitably equipped with the means of defending against the arbitrary domination of their counterparts, and that an allowance of such interference weakens the promise of unimpeded rights among all.
In this essay, I have argued that justice cannot survive in a system which does not possess a balance between the values of liberty and equality, as an excess of liberty being sacrificed to achieve equality will warp the possibility of equality into an inaccessible shell of itself, and an excess of equality being sacrificed will undermine the liberty of vulnerable citizens to the benefit of the powerful. To accomplish this, I have focused upon the theories of Robert Nozick, who sees equitable justice as a series of acquisition and holdings which shields liberty from the invasive inclinations of the state, and Philip Pettit, who sees liberty as being risked unless justice is conceived as provisions of antipower which ensure equality as freedom from unjust threats of domination. Overall, I find myself in greater agreement with Pettit, as I believe that Nozick’s restrictions on the influence of the state fail to create a sustainable model for prolonged equality among the citizenry, as those that have come to legally possess greater holdings will merely create an oligarchical upper-class across several generations of transfers. Even if taken to its radical conclusion, such as being applied in the case of displaced native peoples being given reparative concessions according to historical wrongdoing, there seems to be too great of an incentive for generational wealth to compound to an exorbitant degree. By contrast, Pettit’s distribution of protective countermeasures would theoretically ensure that societal trends toward the degradation of individual liberties are curbed, while still maintaining the practical understanding that inequality in some form is bound to exist, so it is more pragmatic to seek a balance of varying inequities, rather than attempting to eliminate every form of inequality altogether. The critics of Pettit’s work might assert that his suggestions do not go far enough to reduce inequitable relationships, though I believe that his is the correct position, as it focuses on keeping the mechanisms of antipower within the hands of the potentially dominated, instead of enabling an excess of interference on the part of the state, which could ultimately produce solutions that are less effective than if citizens were given the freedom to act in their own best interest. As such, I believe that Nozick’s minimal state of acquisition and holdings is too lenient in its attempt to preserve justice, and Pettit’s proposal for the reconceptualization of freedom as antipower most effectively treads the necessary balance of liberty and equality that allows a society to function properly.
- Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York, Basic Books, 1974.
- Pettit, Phillip. “Freedom as Antipower”. Ethics, vol. 106, no.3, April 1996, pp. 576-604. Web. 30 October 2019.