Frenemies: Freedom and equality


Marianne, above, did not flash her boobs to all those corpses for nothing. She did it for the trinity (as in the tricolore she carries) of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Let’s leave fraternity, which is a rather mushy notion, to one side. That leaves liberty and equality. Do those two belong together?

I knew I would have to address this issue sooner or later in my ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘. But the fascinating debate in the comments below this post brought it to the fore. Fortunately, that comment thread neatly summarizes the entire spectrum, across the world and history, of views on the subject. As I see it, the three options are:

  • You can’t have freedom without equality.
  • You can’t have freedom with equality.
  • It’s complicated.

The Classical Liberal view

Broadly, classical liberals (as properly defined) are passionately in favor of equal opportunity and just as passionately against enforced equal outcomes, exactly as “Hizzoner” paraphrased Friedrich von Hayek here.

Which is to say: If you (ie, the government) predetermine that everybody will be the same (think the same, dress the same, drive the same car, live in the same house…) then nobody in your society can be free, if ‘free’ means being able to be yourself, ie different than others. Why create, why achieve, why risk, if the fruits of your effort and ingenuity will be confiscated (“redistributed”) in the name of equality?

I personally glimpsed the extreme form of just such a dystopia when I peaked into East Germany months before it crumbled (although I didn’t know that it would crumble, of course). They were all driving, or on the waiting list for, the same damn Trabi. And while I was ogling their Trabis, many East Germans were already flooding into the West German embassy in Hungary, trying to escape and eventually forcing their leaders to let the Berlin Wall crumble.

That same example, East Germany, also showed what Hayek correctly predicted would happen in reality in an ‘egalitarian’ society. As Orwell might put it: Some were more equal than others. The difference was that the ‘more equal’ ones didn’t use wealth to assert their supremacy but more nefarious means–party connections, or what the Chinese call guanxi. The resulting horror was captured intimately on screen here.

And so, to those of us, like me, who were devotees of Ayn Rand, the answer was clear. Equality is the enemy of individualism, and thus of freedom.

How it got complicated for Liberals

Even at the time, however, there were some contradictions that gnawed at me. Even in the ‘free world’, we were often invoking equality. For instance, democracy, which we (perhaps wrongly) associated with freedom seemed to be based on the equality of one citizen = one vote, even as capitalism seemed to be based on the opposite, ie unequal outcomes.

Then there was the bit about equal opportunity, which we were all supposed to be for. Well, this was messy, because, inconveniently, we were biological organisms and as such insisted on looking after our offspring. Anybody who ‘makes it’ devotes his entire life, and all his resources, to ensuring that his offspring get a head start. And who can blame him?

So if ‘we’ (the government) really wanted to preserve equal opportunity, we would have to get heavy-handed and stop ‘him’ from looking after his kids. We would have to stop him not just from sending his kids to better schools and doctors, but from reading his kids all those bedtime stories, paying for all those piano lessons and SAT prep courses, building all those Lego houses with them–ie, from doing all those things that give kids ‘unequal’ opportunity. In short, we would have to take his freedom away! Obviously, a non-starter.

The triumph of biology

And then I saw a documentary. I tuned in somewhere during the middle and never saw the title, so I can’t be sure it is this one, but it might be. It was based at least in part on Sir Michael Marmot’s Whitehall Study from Britain. Here is how I remember it:

Stress: It is not the same as pressure, which we all feel from time to time. Instead, it comes from ranking low in a hierarchy and lacking power over your own time, your own self (=not being free). You who are at the bottom are at the whim of others. You suffer. And not ‘just’ psychologically, but biologically. You tend to get fat in your mid-section, and your heart, blood vessels and brain change visibly, with entire neurological circuits shriveling up. Meanwhile, the brains and hearts of top dogs expand and thrive.

The most poignant moment came when they cut from our species, Homo sapiens, to monkeys. The researchers observed packs of primates, and sure enough: a monkey at the bottom of the hierarchy got fat in his mid section, had hardened arteries and heart walls and a a shriveled brain.

Equally poignant: One group of monkeys, led by particularly aggressive alpha males, played in a trash dump and was decimated by an epidemic. Another group, more female and egalitarian, moved in and absorbed the survivors of the first group. The egalitarian culture prevailed. And voilà, the health of the surviving monkeys from the first group recovered and improved! They were slim, their hearts and arteries pumped, their brains fired on all neurons.

Let’s take this one more step toward generalization: You recall that I criticized Ayn Rand for getting individualism wrong (which took me many years to figure out). Well, I now know how she got it wrong. She did not allow or understand how inviduals, when forming groups, pick up signals from one another that change who and what they are.

Watch this amazing TED talk by Bonnie Bassler as a mind-blowing illustration of what I mean. It is not about humans per se, but about bacteria. That’s right. Stupid, single-cellular strings of DNA and surrounding gunk. The trick to understanding bacteria (→all biological critters?) is to grasp how they chemically detect the presence of other bacteria, and then suddenly change their own chemistry. Upshot: No bacterium is an island.

The case of America

Let’s now look at America. Without getting into the academic weeds, there is a proxy for social equality called the Gini Coefficient. If the coefficient is 0, everybody has exactly the same; if it is 1, one person has everything, and everybody else has nothing. So countries fall somewhere in the middle between 0 and 1. Now look at this world map:


The first thing you will notice is that the darkest blues and purples–ie, the greatest inequality–tend to be in poor countries, even in nominally “Communist” ones such as China. That’s because poor countries tend to be corrupt and feudal, with a few lords and many serfs. It is hard to consider these countries “free”.

But the second thing is more interesting. If you look at just the “developed” countries (let’s say those belonging to the OECD), you notice that one country stands out.

All the rich countries are in shades of yellow or green, meaning that they are fairly egalitarian societies. Only America is blue. America, in short, is the least egalitarian of all the developed countries.

And so? I’m not sure. The old Hayekian in me would chalk this up as a possible sign of more freedom in America than elsewhere. The new bacteriologist and epidemiologist in me wants to ring the alarm bell. This is not healthy! Sure, the Americans on top of the pecking order might show up at Party Conventions every four years and proclaim that ours is the freest country in the world. But many other Americans are simultaneously dying from their serfdom, whether they are aware of it or not.

For the time being, let’s consider freedom and equality neither friends nor enemies, but frenemies.

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18 thoughts on “Frenemies: Freedom and equality

  1. Addressing a subset of these very big issues, on which we have some relevant scientific evidence – it demonstrably goes against human nature to ignore certain kinds of fraternity (despite the messiness of that idea). And it seems we ignore our human need to feel like we are being treated fairly (a kind of equality) at our collective peril. It might be the genius of Marianne that all three of the trinity belong together.

    The Ultimatum Game has clearly demonstrated how baked into us this human preference for “inequity aversion” is. Here’s a quick summary of the rules: player A is given a sum of money X, the amount is known to player B. A has to offer some to B. B can either accept, in which case each gets their share, or B can reject, in which case neither gets any of the money. Traditional economists, who assume humans are rational maxizers, predict that whatever B is offered should be accepted, since any amount however small is better than zero. However no human culture behaves this way. Bs if offered too small a fraction of the pot always reject. Thereby incurring real costs (the foregone share) to punish those who they felt were treating them unfairly.

    Bottom line – we do not behave as individual rational maximers. And humans have a tendency to disrupt a game that we feel treats us unfairly.

    Extrapolating to the macro scale (perhaps stretching thinly in the process) suggests that societies with too great an inequality are likely to be inherently unstable.

    PS – The Ultimatum Game has also shown that traditional economists have long been trying to make monkeys of us all:
    Chimpanzees are rational economic maxisers.

    • You’ve brought it to the point: Yes, this is spot on.

      It also reminds me, obliquely, of the Asch Experiments. Must ponder.

      And yes, I must get “fraternity” back into this debate…

  2. This is a great post, AK. Thanks. I ask my fellow commenters, where else can you find this sort of content?

    The bacteria talk reminds me of an orthogonal idea. I was thinking about the reason why commercial air travel is so tiring. What’s the difference between sitting on an airplane alone and sitting on an airplane full of people (even if I don’t speak and I don’t touch anyone)? My first thought is that, on a primitive level, my instincts are working at capacity to decide if I’m going to get attacked or get laid (my instincts should know better than to expect the latter). This can all happen without ever exchanging a word. Then I decided it’s a little bit like boxing, with figurative rather than literal sparring. If you’ve ever boxed, you know that it’s exhausting – even exchanging just a few punches in a round. Waiting to get hit is as tiring as actually being hit. Waiting to get figuratively sucker punched is the same thing. Now, thanks to you, I get to think about my bacteria getting turned on (not just fighting off the next head cold). An airplane is a great way to exchange bacteria: put two hundred strangers (that’s like a gazillion bacteria) in a sealed metal tube and re-circulate the ‘air’ for three hours. Think about the amount of energy required for just the good bacteria to know each other. That much chemistry is exhausting.

    Now I think, apply the Gini Coefficient map on the seating chart of your next flight. Who’s more free? Who’s happier? Who’s fat in their mid-section? Who’s crying? (What’s that smell?)

  3. “………East Germans were already flooding into the West German embassy in Hungary, trying to escape and eventually forcing their leaders to let the Berlin Wall crumble………”

    The current “ostalgie” phenomenon in Germany, shows the paradox of the human yearning – at a certain psychological level – for the safety of the prison, whether ideological or physical.

    As Erich Fromm and others have shown, “freedom” can be too onerous for so many.

    • The Ostalgie phenomenon has puzzled me. So many of the Ossies have chosen to forget the horrors and suddenly to remember the “good” stuff.
      But there was, I suppose, for some people a sort of freedom, or rather ‘relaxedness’, that came with NOT having to be different…

  4. I must admit, like Mr. Crotchety, I am addicted to this blog. Why yesterday, in trying to steer a client into an SAT class (thanks for the plug above), I had my eye on my computer screen, longing to see if A had uploaded a new post. That’s pressure for ya, A. 🙂

    In studying the map, I see that most of the countries in yellow, the most egalitarian, are homogeneous societies. Certainly this factor contributes to the willingness in which people of like values/religion or lack thereof/tradition, language/history work together for the common good and welfare.

    The United States, in my view, cannot be compared to Japan or Norway for this reason. I am not saying the great divide is acceptable but it is more explainable than say, the discrepancy in China, for example.

    Look at what has happened in Denmark and France with the immigration of many Muslims into their societies. Problems in a number of areas from jobs, to religious practice in traditionally secular spaces ( like school).

    And because of this blog, I am thinking of becoming a Libertarian. That’s significant, A.

    • Yikes. Pressure indeed, you guys.

      By bringing up homogeneity, you are of course complicating matters even further. I wonder if one could plot homogeneity and equality and find a correlation. It would make us very uncomfortable to find this out, but it’s quite plausible that humans care more about equality and fraternity if, and as long as, they are looking at faces on the streets that are like their own.

      So we could start writing PhD theses on: “Homogeneity, Heterogeneity and Freedom”…

    • There is a correlation between how egalitarian a country is, and public spending as a percentage of its GNP.

      On average this percentage is approximately 40% in the OECD countries. But, even within the OECD, there are notable differences.

      USA – 33%
      Canada – 46%
      Germany – 50%
      Austria – 73%

      These are 1995 figures, to be sure, but the numbers won’t have changed significantly since then.

      Therefore, if the US wants to become more egalitarian, it would have to tax and spend up to the level of most of its OECD brothers (and sisters).

      But then, this would be, come to think of it………….socialism

      Forget what I said.

    • Re data on equality of opportunity as measured by social mobility – apparently the American dream isn’t all it is assumed to be. From our a reliable source:

      “What is less well-known is that social mobility in the US is now significantly lower than in a number of EU countries… results are quite spectacular… in the Nordic countries and the UK, men born in the lowest income quintile (the income quintile of the father) have a probability of 25-30% to stay in this lowest quintile; in the US, this probability is more than 40%… the probability of US men born in the lowest quintile to move to the top quintile is less than 8%, while in the Nordic countries and the UK, this percentage is around 12%.”

    • This strikes at the core of the American idea, Jag. No more Ragged Dick but Ragged Sven! My god, those “socialists” are more upwardly mobile than we are.

  5. Just one more comment. David Byrne’s ‘True Stories’ is part of the Canon at our house. In ‘True Stories,’ Louis Fine (the Dancing Bear, made for matrimony) writes a song for the talent show being hosted by Vericorp. The song title is, “People Like Us.” As Louis says, […] we don’t want freedom, we don’t want justice, we just want… someone to love. (not so complicated)

  6. In reference to the sad atheroclerotic monkeys, I was recently reading via Alain de Botton, that William James came up with a formula for self-esteem. It was SE = success / expectations. So there’s two ways to become more satisifed, either become more successful or lower your expectations.

    The argument is that before the United States was founded, people were basically resigned to their station in life, there was very little social mobility. However the meritocratic society that the US produced meant it was, at least theoretically possible to improve one’s lot. The trade off is that, now when you compare yourself with your peers, some may have done well, and you feel like a relative failure. So going back to William James’ forumla, you feel less successful, your expectations are raised, you feel less satisifed.

    So to extrapolate this a little further, those experiencing Ostalgia may feel comfortable because the social comparisons are generally even, and you don’t experience this discomfort of not measuring up to your peers.

    Also, I don’t think the US is any more meritocratic than most of the other countries in the OECD, but I think the notion of the “American Dream” means everyday people perhaps take it more seriously.

  7. Although I haven’t yet participated, I am enjoying this thread on freedom immensely. The cross-cultural perspectives that Andreas and the rest of the group have shared are very enlightening. They’re also easier to relate to than any number of indices of freedom or equality.

    My own experience in America has always felt relatively free, though I am too young, as you say, to know what the fuss is about.

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