Liberty, Equality, and Justice: How they Relate to the Purpose of the Laws and Government
We present an essay on the purpose of the laws and government to better understand how liberty, rights, equality, and justice are inseparable in nature and in civil society.
By understanding equality in nature and in civil society, and how it relates to natural and civil liberties, rights, and justice, we better can see how true liberty and equality (not superficial lawless liberty or equality of outcomes for example) are both indivisible and mutually dependent, in both nature and civil society, with each assuring the other.
We can also, vitally, see how it is the job of civil law and civil government to protect our natural rights and to ensure true civil liberty, true civil equality, and the concept at the heart of the two true justice (AKA fairness AKA balance AKA equality) in civil society, how some natural liberties must be traded for order in the civil state, and how some equalities of outcome must be avoided in favor of moderate inequality (a necessary inequality of outcomes which is an advent of true liberty and equality), and why (thus, logically speaking) extremes should be avoided (as extremes are corrupt liberty, equality, and justice).
Of course, I’m not saying anything different than Plato (see Laws), Aristotle, Machiavelli, Locke, Montesquieu (see Spirit of the Laws), Rousseau, Hume, Kant, or others…
…and how could I be? There is only one truth.
Whether we frame it like this (or like this, this, or this), or like I do below, the conclusions are generally the same, because they are all just different attempts to paint the same portrait.
We present justifications of the above claims below. First, we should define some terms.
Summary of the argument: Government upholds the laws -> the laws (implicit and explicit social contracts) ensure justice -> justice is the act of ensuring a balance of true civil liberty and equality for the ends of “happiness”, for all -> All citizens have a natural equal right to this in a state, all humans have a right to this in nature. Thus, all these concepts are “mutually dependent”, including the two sometimes conflicting concepts at the core of the argument, “liberty and equality”.
Civil Vs. Natural (Liberty, Equality, Justice, Right, Law, Etc)
To understand the following arguments it well help to differentiate the Civil from Natural.
- Civil means relating to citizens in the state. So civil law is the laws that govern society, civil equality is equality within the state, civil justice is justice in the state, civil rights are rights in the state, and civil liberties are freedoms in the state. Thus, we use the term broadly to refer to everything within the bounds of the state (including the political), and not as a way to refer to a part of society specifically.
- Natural means in a state of nature, the same logic applies. For example, natural liberty is pure independence and pure freedom (liberty as is found in nature).
Because we are all equal and independent, no-one ought to harm anyone else in their life, health, liberty, or possessions… This holds in all the laws a man is under, whether •natural or •civil. ·Let us look at these separately… – John Locke, father of liberalism, on equality and liberty.
THERE is no word that admits of more various significations, and has made more different impressions on the human mind, than that of liberty [except maybe equality]…. We must have continually present to our minds the difference between independence [what I call natural liberty] and liberty [what I call civil liberty]. Liberty is a right of doing whatever the laws permit; and, if a citizen could do what they forbid, he would be no longer possessed of liberty, because all his fellow-citizens would have the same power. – Montesquieu noting in so many words that which must be understood to follow the arguments on this page.
TIP: Consider also the definitions offered for the French slogan “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (“liberty, equality, and fraternity“).
Civil Equality, a Matter of Liberty, Right, and Justice
Liberty cannot exist without equality in civil society.
This is because true civil equality is an equality of civil liberties, rights, and justice (not necessarily an equality of possessions, attributes, or the like). The same nuance is generally true for liberty, justice, and rights.
We can say this as true equality is equality of opportunity, not outcome. Or we can say, it other ways. Any way we say it, the trick is being careful that our words aren’t misunderstood. Plato’s concept of true justice speaks to it, just like his criticism of democracy and love of the republic does, however, in modern times the collectivist ideologies (or their anthesis) sometimes confuse it.
So what is true equality (civil and natural)? We have to be sure, or we can’t have a theory of liberty and equality and the state.
A good way to figure this out is to talk about what true equality isn’t, that is, to define superficial equality.
A forced equality of possessions, or an idealist view of equality that ignores the obvious difference between talents, attributes, and desires of people, can be described as a superficial civil equality (a state-imposed superficial fairness that is not actually fair; for example a state that assigns jobs and gives everyone the same paycheck regardless of work done; This type of extreme equality is as dangerous to democratic governments as extreme inequality is).
TIP: In Plato’s Republic he describes a class that produces necessary goods and a class that produces luxury goods. With that in mind, we can say: Everyone is born equal in basic natural rights, everyone enters into society with equal civil rights, the state should seek to offer equal opportunity, ideally people have a right to basic needs like food, healthcare, education, and shelter (although there are economic considerations that restrain this), but it is absurd for everyone to have an equality of luxury items.
The same is true for natural equality, and the forms of liberty, right, and justice: The same that is true for civil liberty in civil society is generally true for natural equality, liberty, justice, and right in a state of nature and civil society. Thus each of these concepts, in the civil and natural respect, has a superficial and true form. The natural liberty to harm others freely is a superficial liberty, as true natural liberty in its ideal form maximizes liberty for all (see the non-aggression principle). Likewise, superficial natural justice is little more than an eye-for-an-eye (vengeance), as true justice seeks to maximize justice for all (these being quick examples, not a complete argument, see more arguments below).
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” – John Stuart Mill
The Spirit of the Laws: Given the above, “good laws” should not seek just civil equality, liberty, right, and justice… but should seek to maximize the True forms first and limit the superficial forms (where they would effect the other principles)… and, as the law applies to all, seek to maximize the civil forms before the natural (as maximizing the natural forms first is provably unstable and chaotic, and thus won’t ensure balance, and thus will not allow for true justice).
NOTE: Ideally, all citizens are naturally equal in civil liberty, right, and justice in the eyes of the law. This ideal makes sense from a realist sense too when we consider the state of nature and natural equality. We are all born equal in nature, why would that equality not carry over into society? It would, but this doesn’t mean order and hierarchy don’t exist, or that God gave us all some superficial equality. The concept is more complex than that as Locke notes in his quote.
A Better Definition of Equality
With the above concepts in mind, lets focus a bit on equality specifically before going into detail on the rest.
People tend to misunderstand equality to mean exact sameness, but this is inaccurate when discussing equality between humans in civil society or in nature, and even typically incorrect when discussing other fields like mathematics.
In the social sphere, equality means that all humans have natural equivalence of natural rights and thus the civil laws should be applied to them justly.
In the economic sphere, equality means equity. It means equivalence of opportunity.
Nowhere do we mean that everyone should have exactly the same luxury items or that a baby is equal in strength to a body builder.
One might think this doesn’t need to be said, but it does.
Equality in its true and perfect form is not some nightmare version of despotic Communism, it is an enlightened concept, a first principle of sorts that other principles should be checked against to ensure just, wise, and reasonable ends.
Consider: 1=1 is near meaningless, and 1+2=3 is not an exact sameness.
We don’t confuse the concept of equality in mathematics, why should we confuse it in the more complex and less purely logical socioeconomic areas of life?
Consider also the following socioeconomic examples, men and women are genetically different, but both are equal in liberty and right. A baron and a monk are different in wealth, but they are both equal in liberty and right. A worker and an employer are different in role, privilege, and pay in the company, but also equal in fundamental liberty and right. Different races have different features, but all citizens are equal under all the law. For a philosophical example, John Locke echoes this sentiment in his Second Treatise (see Chapter 6 Paternal Power. 54. See below). Etc.
Superficial Equality Vs. True Equality and The Purpose of Civil Government and Law
The argument above pertaining to superficial equality shouldn’t be taken to mean that factors like wealth, race, and gender shouldn’t be addressed in civil society (see wealth inequality, black lives matter, and feminism), or that government and citizens have no social responsibility regarding sharing, charity, taxes, or philanthropy as mechanisms to curb superficial inequalities that can lead to true inequality as an effect, or that these aspects of responsibility of state, government, law, and citizen don’t factor into an overarching theory of justice and government.
It is only that these specifics are not part of the foundation of what makes liberty, right, justice, and equality indivisible.
TIP: As Social Contract Theorist John Locke says and America’s founding father Thomas Jefferson mirrored, “all men are by nature equal… but I didn’t mean equality in all respects”. This is to say, in nature we are all equal in liberty, right, and in our ability to enact justice, but not in superficial ways like strength, size, or wit.
Should a State Promote Superficial Equality?
A state should create policies that foster an environment of true equality (such as policies that give men and women a fair shake in their pursuit of assets), not policies that foster superficial equality (like a perfect equality of assets between men and woman regardless of other factors).
This isn’t to say the state shouldn’t promote modesty and moderation (it should), or curb superficial equality (see above), especially when the net effect of not doing so will be one that degrades civil liberty, right, and justice (true equality).
For example, leaving a class or culture trapped in a ghetto, and taking no responsibility as citizens or the state, is a form of collective civil aggression, and thus is a violation of the non-aggression principle.
Using this logic we can say it is the job of the state and people to address this civil inequality via laws and culture. The ghetto should not be “equalized” with surrounding eras through artificial means, but it should be offered a helping hand and uplifted over time to ensure the virtue and longevity of the state.
The end isn’t how much is given, what is given, or how long it takes. The end is more about ensuring of liberty, right, and justice (in this case in terms of dignity, economics, and opportunity). I.e. the end is not the means.
Is it to be imagined, that the laws, which abolish the property of land and the succession of estates, will diminish the avarice and cupidity of the great? By no means: they will rather stimulate this cupidity and avarice. The great men will be prompted to use a thousand oppressive methods, imagining they have no other property than the gold and silver which they are able to seize upon by violence or to conceal. – Montesquieu on despotic governments with egalitarian policies in terms of economics and property
TIP: Liberty ensures some amount of inequality, we can’t all be equal in our pursuit of happiness and then expect the same exact ends. People are different, so treating them exactly the same is unequal. The ideal ends of maximizing liberty, equality, and justice in a state is “happiness“, not an equality of possessions or some other superficial thing.
TIP: Superficial equality isn’t bad or good on its own, in fact in some settings and subsystems it is vital (for instance if you get your niece a gift, so should you for your nephew too). The crux of the argument is that it is not of the same fundamental importance as true equality, not as useful in an incentive-based society, and, in truth, rarely-to-never exists in practice… even in a society that claims to be purely equal. Simply, true social equality is an egalitarianism of rights, liberties, and justice (and even opportunities and responsibilities and such), but not economic egalitarianism (especially not in a western capitalist republic that wishes to remain one).
In summary: Yes social programs, especially philanthropic ones, but no to pure communism. Simple as that really. The love of the Republic requires a love of law and some inequality, but an extreme inequality can be the downfall of nations, and thus it is aggressive toward the republic and hampers true equality.
… because we are all equal and independent, no-one ought to harm anyone else in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. Locke – Second Treaties of Government Chapter 2.
I said in Chapter 2 that all men are by nature equal, but, of course, I didn’t mean equality in all respects. •Age or virtue may put some men above others; •excellence of ability and merit may raise others above the common level; •some may naturally owe deference to others because of their birth, or from gratitude because of benefits they have received, or for other reasons. But all this is consistent with the equality that all men have in respect of jurisdiction or dominion over one another… I acknowledge that children are not born in this state of full equality, though they are born to it. – John Locke on what it means to be equal.
On True Liberty
Just as true equality is not the same as all forms of equality, true liberty is not pure unrestrained liberty. Even in nature, the natural laws stop us from doing “anything we want” (as, as Herbert Spencer notes, “Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man”… not “every man is free to do that which he wills”).
In civil society, pure liberty is anarchy. Where liberty and equality are mutually dependent, civil society and pure liberty are mutually exclusive.
True liberty in nature is the maximum freedom allowed by the nature laws.
True liberty, in the state, is about maximizing liberty for all within the bounds of just laws which represent practical and moral perimeters. Thus, true liberty in general is the liberty to act freely within the context of a number of just moral and practical bounds as defined by the state and nature.
Since liberty and equality naturally co-exist, and must exist in the state, and since we now have a grasp on their fictitious and true forms, we can now move on to discussing other aspects of the equation more clearly, namely, “the purpose or spirit of the laws” which seek to ensure natural and civil liberty, equality, justice, and right.
TIP: In Plato’s Republic he describes how pure unrestrained liberty and equality are the determent of democracy. In simple terms, they cause anarchy and result in tyranny. This imbalance is, to Plato, the opposite of true justice.
On True Justice
Finally, true justice is that which maximizes liberty, equality, fairness, happiness, and a few other moral metrics. Likewise, superficial justice includes things like revenge. Sure, we can protect our lives from aggression, and that is just… but vengeance is not a placeholder for a definition of true justice. Lets leave justice alone for now, as it’ll tie back in to end the conversation.
On True Rights
A person has the right to liberty, equality, and justice under the natural and civil law. Sometimes phrased as “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Superficial rights are special rights based on power (political, wealth-based, physical, etc). The stronger does not have a natural right to the life, liberty, or property of the weaker. That is the natural law.
The Purpose of the Laws: How the Law and Government Ensure Civil Equality and Civil Liberties
Below we explain liberty and rights (individual, collective, natural, and civil), equality (natural and civil), justice (natural and civil), and other interrelated terms that form the foundation of government, to further show that the concept of civil liberty is dependent on civil equality.
Ensuring true equality in civil society requires the law (natural and civil rulesets) and an authority to ensure different forms of justice (natural, civil, criminal, social, etc).
Thus, we can say, liberty, right, equality, justice, and authority are all inseparable under the different forms of law (natural, civil, criminal, social, etc.), and it is the role of the government (including the people, judges, executive, and legislative) to enforce the law, and thus uphold true equality, liberty, right, and justice in line with the common good.
Below we will further explain the government and laws and their purpose in civil society to strengthen the case we made above. First, consider watching this video on one of the fathers of modern legal theory Montesquieu.
Montesquieu. This page is on a broad topic, but so was Montesquieu’s spirit of the laws (which directly or indirectly provides justification for most of the claims on this page; thus, here is an overview).
TIP: The concept that “all people are created equal” (all equal in a state of nature) is backed up by Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, most of America’s founding fathers, and generally most respected philosophers (including the Greeks… especially if you ignore Aristotle’s false-logic regarding slavery). This page is making the observation that liberty and equality are inseparably linked, like Rousseau does specifically (his entire Social Contract is essentially about this concept, but Book 1, Chapter 8. The Civil State lays out a similar argument to the one below).
It comes down to two main things: •liberty and •equality—liberty because any constraint on one individual means that that much force is taken from the body of the state, and equality because liberty can’t exist without it. – The Social Contract Jean-Jacques Rousseau Book 2 Chapter 11. Different systems of legislation
TIP: See Montesquieu’s the Spirit of the Laws CHAP. III.: Of positive Laws to better understand the point of laws and government and how they apply to nature and civil society. Note that Montesquieu refers to what I call superficial equality when discussing Democracies in his book (in his book “democracy” is close to what we today consider a socialist state).
LAWS, in their most general signification, are the necessary relations arising from the nature of things. In this sense, all beings have their laws; the Deity his* laws, the material world its laws, the intelligence superior to man their laws, the beasts their laws, man his laws. Spirit of the Laws CHAP. I.: Of the Relation of Laws to different Beings.
Liberty and Equality? Note, this theory doesn’t conflict with Friedman (the model libertarian). Friedman warns of putting equality before liberty, but given their relation this is impossible. Liberty is the core; equality is simply a comment on liberty itself. I would say Friedman’s point is that we shouldn’t put superficial equality before true equality (an equality of liberties and rights), which is true. See Friedman’s full lecture here.
The Types of Laws and Their Purpose in Civil Society
It is the purpose of laws to ensure an equality liberties, rights, and justice.
Laws are the rulesets that govern entities. Each aspect of life has its own laws, for instance animals have their laws, a company has its laws, physics has its laws (like the law of motion or gravity).
Metaphorically, to categorize the laws simply, we can say laws exist within four spheres (see See Kierkegaard’s Three Stages of Life or element theory for rough metaphors).
- First, the natural laws, are the laws in a state of nature as they apply to humans, animals, physics, etc.
- Second, the civil laws, which are the laws of civil society and collectives, and address social concerns.
- Third, the ethical laws, which are laws which can be known using reason.
- Fourth, the moral laws, which are laws which can’t be known for sure and can be described as (at least partially) spiritual or intuitive.
TIP: Another way to phrase this is in Kantian terms, with the metaphor that there are four spheres of human understanding (extrapolated from the Greek concept of physics, logic, and ethics by consider ethics as a ethics-in-action and pure morals; as two spheres): physical (empirical), logical (reason, logic-and-ethics in-thought), ethical (morals-and-ethics in-action), and metaphysical (pure metaphysic morals), and each has a law. The eternal, moral, metaphysics is hard to know directly, ethics and logic are applicable, but by focusing on the physics, the natural laws and creating the civil laws from that, we have an empirical and tangible basis for creating “correct laws”. We can use the Aquinas metaphor, or the Kantian one (the one I just eluded to), or others. The point is the looking for reflections of the higher forms in the lower forms (by focusing on the empirical physics), as that is the simplest form and it is knowable to all without the use of pure-reason.
Natural Law Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #34. A simple primer on how the natural law can sit in for the divine and enteral law.
TIP: Locke tells us [indirectly] that we needn’t bring religion into an argument. We can consider the natural, ethical, and moral as natural. They are all the natural law and thus we can empirically prove that which pertains to the civil without ever getting theological or metaphysical. Very useful. I’ll touch on a few more points before leaving aside the divine anyway.
Subtypes and Nuances
There are also many sub-types or areas of law, many of which (natural laws aside) can be considered as sub-types of civil law. They include criminal law, social norms, international law, national law, political law, etc (each being the law, or “ruleset”, explicit or implicit, enforceable or not, pertaining to each type. Ex. criminal law deals with crimes and is restrictive and punitive, it awards damages for violated rights; social law is an implicit ruleset that can be enforced via, for example, discrimination lawsuits; political law is the ruleset for organizing governments contained in constitutions; corporate law is rulesets for corporations either internal or external; etc).
In a state of nature, by the natural law, all people have absolute equality of liberty and right (just like all animals are naturally free); and all people have an absolute authority to enact natural justice (just like an animal can protect its young). This can be considered to be natural equality.
In Civil Society natural liberty is traded for civil liberty and civil rights, which ensure natural rights and protects key liberties. This system is ensured by civil law, and this law is enforced by authority. When these pieces are in perfect balance there is justice and when there is an imbalance there is injustice. The equality of liberties, rights, and justice as ensured by the law (which is blind; equal) is civil equality, a “true” equality of right, not a “superficial” equality of “things.”
According to Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (what I call the ethic and moral laws, the two that aren’t purely natural and civil) can be understood as: Eternal law, which is the unknowable morality (what God intends, something we can never know for sure), and Divine law, which is knowable as ethics (the knowable aspect of the eternal law, which for Aquinas is religion, but for others may be more a mix of morality and pure reason).
To Aquinas all laws comes from the Eternal (and really this isn’t much different than Plato’s theory on ideas and essence or his discussion of divine laws in his… Laws; think allegory of the cave; or Kierkegaard’s Three Stages of Life noted above).
Whether you consider all laws arising from nature, civil law as a convention, or Eternal and Divine non-existent, the truisms presented above and below and the terminology regarding the laws still works. For more on this, see Saint Thomas Aquinas, On Law, Morality and Politics.
We will stick to the empirical and rational political science on this page and avoid pure metaphysics (not because it isn’t important, but because it isn’t needed to prove our points and is very often misunderstood and used by tyrants). This is to say, we will discuss primarily the natural and civil law.
With that said, to the extent we can know “the eternal and divine”, we can say morality and ethics are also indivisible from the other concepts presented, and thus they play a vital, yet more elusive role in civil society where morality informs ethics, and ethics informs civil justice. This is to say, metaphysical aspects aside, we can say liberty, equality, justice, authority, and the law (natural and civil; moral and ethical) are linked. See vice and virtue and the concept of moral virtue for more discussion on metaphysics.
Now that we have an understanding of the purpose of laws, lets return to a discussion on how liberty, rights, justice, equality, authority, government, and the laws relate so we can further show how liberty and equality are indivisible.
TIP: Montesquieu’s masterwork The Spirit of Laws (1748) discusses the purpose of laws and government and how they are linked to liberty in details that few before or since can hold a candle two. His argument is compelling and influenced Madison, the father of the Constitution, and other founders. See Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy or Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws (1748).
TIP: Civil denotes the use of reason, but it also denotes the use of ethics and morals. This is to say, reason will always guide us to the right answer, but only if we account for the empirical nature of the world in practice and respect that which we can’t know for sure (“the moral”). See Hume’s fork.
What is the Difference Between Liberties and Rights?
Liberty and rights are related, but very different, concepts. In order to understand their relation in nature and civil society we must define them clearly.
Simply: Liberties concern freedoms of actions, Rights concern the “right to” something.
- “Liberties” concern freedoms: freedom from slavery or torture; and freedom of religion, etc.
- “Rights” concern the right to something: the right to vote, own property, protect your family.
A person’s liberties only affect an other person’s liberties and rights if there is aggression (otherwise one person being free doesn’t have much of an effect on another person).
Rights, meanwhile, always limit the liberties of others.
In a simple example, if someone has a right to self defense, it limits another’s freedom to harm them; if they have the right to property, it limits the liberty to take their stuff; if they have a right to clean water, it limits the liberty to build a pipeline over a people’s water supply or the liberty to use cheap led pipes to save money (if we follow the rule of the General Will rather than cronyism and special interests).
In a state of nature we are all equal in liberty and right, but it is unreasonable to have absolute liberty and to retain an equality of rights and liberties in civil society (as absolute liberty ensures aggression, and thus at least civil non-aggression laws are needed). Thus, as we will see, it is the job of civil law to ensure natural rights are maintained equally, and natural liberties equally restrained.
Types of Liberty and Rights (Politics)
Liberty and rights don’t just come in one flavor; there are two distinct types (like the other concepts): natural (in the state of nature) and civil (rights within a social contract):
- Natural liberty: The complete freedom one has in a state of nature when not in a social compact with others. It is not limited by another person’s natural rights explicitly; it is only limited by another person enforcing their natural rights. Natural rights give a person a recourse if their liberty and rights are violated (see the non-aggression principle; AKA John Locke’s non-aggression theory).
- Natural rights: Rights that cannot be given to the state (cannot be traded to the state in a social contract), even by consent. Including life, liberty, and (usually) the right to the ownership of property. This is why Locke, Rousseau, Gouverneur Morris, and Lincoln all rejected the idea of slavery (not even a person can give away their God-given natural rights; they are inalienable). A person can choose not to enforce their natural rights (it is their natural liberty), but they can’t choose not to have them.
- In the state of nature (people outside of government) all people equally share inalienable rights. The state of nature is a state of perfect equality (not of possession, size, or strength; but of natural liberty and right). In nature liberty and equality are indivisible (but not “exactly the same”).
TIP: Doesn’t confuse natural liberty and natural rights, natural liberty is anarchistic and must be traded in the social contract (as a civil society can’t allow total freedom); meanwhile natural rights are inalienable and cannot be violated without aggression.
An Introduction to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract – A Macat Politics Analysis. Rousseau’s theory of Civil Liberty from the Social Contract.
In society natural liberty (but not natural rights) is traded for “civil liberty” and “civil rights” (liberty within the state):
- Individual civil liberty: Individual freedoms granted by the state (by the collective). The freedom to do what ONE wills, within the bounds of liberties granted by the state, as long as it does not violate the rights of the collective or an individual. Ex. Freedom to worship. Individual liberty within the bounds of the law.
- Individual civil rights: The rights an individual has as granted by the state, which is also a statement on the limits of individual and collective liberty. Ex. Right to vote. Individual rights within the bounds of the law.
- Collective civil liberty: Collective freedoms granted by the state (by the collective will AKA the general will).The freedom to do what ALL (or GROUPS within the state) will (the general will), within the bounds of liberties granted by the state, as long as it does not violate the rights of the collective or an individual. Ex. Freedom to erect a church of any domination. Collective liberty within the bounds of the law.
- Collective civil rights: The rights of the collective as granted by the state, which is also a statement on the limits of individual and collective liberty. Limits are placed on the collective will to ensure equality being subject only to laws that ensure individual and collective liberty. The rights of a corporation are an example of collective rights within the bounds of the law.
In other words, to ensure rights and liberties the collective authority must limit individual authority (and the authority of sub-groups) and liberties. Therefore, not only are liberty and equality linked, but liberty, equality, and authority are linked as well.
But though men who enter into society give up the equality, liberty, and executive power they had in the state of nature. . . .each of them does this only with the intention of better preserving himself, his liberty and property (for no rational creature can be thought to change his condition intending to make it worse). – John Locke
Civil Rights & Liberties: Crash Course Government #23.
What is the General Will?
The General Will is a term that describes the true combined wisdom of the people. Typically it is defined as is the will of the people as a whole, although this is a lackluster definition as it is a wise will, and not just a collective will or popular will. The irrational will of a mob is a good example of why this term can’t be over-simplified and why it is a somewhat idealistic concept.
Have you ever heard of a leader perfectly translating this ideal concept in action? I haven’t, at least not in a large group. But our failure to do this is not a failure of the term, which is, in my opinion, a fully correct one.
What is Authority?
Authority is the power given by the body to the government to enforce the general will via the law to ensure liberty, right, and justice in civil society. When authority is taken, but not given, and when it is not inline with the law or common good, it is tyranny.
What is Equality? (Politics)
Now that we have a definition of liberty and rights, and understand the basics of the states role in enforcing them, we must clearly define what we mean by equality (in socioeconomic politics at least):
- Natural Equality (equality in nature) is an equality of natural rights and liberties that all people share. It is nature, and not humans, who created this natural equality.
- Civil Equality (equality in the state) is the protection of rights and liberties (individual, collective, and natural; as limited by a just state via law).
- True Equality: An equality of liberties, rights, and justice in civil society, can then be paired with good and virtuous governance that ensures an equality of opportunity. Can only exist in civil society when the law protects liberties, rights, and justice (when the government and law ensures civil equality).
- Superficial Equality: The idealist equality of possessions, opportunity, or even justice if it by its nature causes aggression and/or limits true equality (for example, some affirmative action laws arguably go too far and some censorship in the name of political correctness can “overcorrect” as well). A perfect equality that does not exist in nature, and thus it is an injustice to try to force it upon people. It is what Friedman is warning against in the video above. If this seems strange to you, consider the rule of paradoxical effects.
We have to clarify again that equality is not “exact sameness” in wealth or possessions or status, it is the sameness in liberty in rights as ensured by the state, by the general will.
Despite equality not being sameness, it is the duty of government or the will-in-action aspect of the state, to ensure that liberties don’t lead imbalance. Imbalance, like extreme inequality of wealth or income, would, by effect, limit the liberty of others as it would limit liberty and rights.
Ex. it is just for a state to outlaw indentured servitude and slavery, no amount of wealth can buy the violation of another person’s natural rights. Likewise, it is an injustice for a person to be so poor they would want to sell themselves.
TIP: The goal of government, to ensure justice (i.e. ensure equality, i.e. ensure liberty), is a representation of the ideal collective will, not a pure statement on natural rights.
TIP: We should all remember, it was considered just when Solon removed all debts from the once oligarchical Athens, extreme solutions like this can be avoided with proper governance (bounded by reason and the general will).
Since equality is the protection of rights and liberties within the state, and since all people are created equal by nature and thus are privy to these same rights, equality is indivisible from liberty (despite not being exactly the same).
POLITICAL THEORY – John Locke.
TIP: Liberty and Equality are “the keystone” of government, the stone on which everything rests. This is because they represent the protection of natural rights and liberties in a civil society. The Complexity of government is a matter of trying to ensure liberty, justice, and equality.
If Equality is Indivisible From Liberty, Why Do We Argue over it?
In my opinion, our arguments arise over misunderstandings of “what liberty means”, “what are natural rights“, and “the difference between collective and individual rights, liberty, and authority”, and then is further confused by a misunderstanding of how to apply these concepts to the state via effective laws.
The rest is a matter of factional politics (like party politics and left-right politics) and abuses of the role of the state (either by well-intentioned error or by the corruption of the state by public or private interests).
The Duty of Government
Thus, the duty of the government is to use the authority granted to it by the collective body to ensure the liberty and rights of individuals and collectives (it must ensure justice inline with the general will and uphold the law; it must act as executive, create laws as legislative, and judge as judicial; but it must always act on behalf of the best interest the sovereign, which is ALL the people, and of which the civil servants are themselves members).
It must do this without violating their inalienable natural rights. It may violate natural liberty or total freedom when there is consent. Silence implies consent in a free society, and a loud majority doesn’t specifically denote that it is proper to change the rules. The tyranny of the mob is not the true will of the body, as it is not wise, and the true will is wise. Popular sovereignty provides an example of the majority will being wrong.
The Duty of the Sovereign and the People
The duty of the sovereign is to ensure the will of the people, and the duty of the people is to ensure that its “general will” is wise. This is to say, it is the duty of the people to be well informed and educated, and to participate.
If we consider each power in a country as an estate, then the people themselves are the first estate (although other naming conventions place them third if at all). This is to say, it is the duty of the people to ensure the government (despite the necessary delegation of their action and authority, and despite the natural limitation of liberty, they don’t delegate the natural right to their power).
A Definition of Justice
Justice is when everything comes together and equality is ensured by government (in civil society) or by more direct human action (in nature):
- Natural Justice is the right to defend natural rights.
- Civil Justice is when the outward will (will-in-action, including laws) of the government and the will of the people (its true “mental” will, a “wise” will of the collective) align. Thus, the state ensures liberty and equality to the best of its collective power. This implies the protection of individual, collective, and natural rights and liberties. Justice is when the will of the people and the state align, but only when that will is “wise”.
- Meanwhile, True Justice is a concept that ensures the above two and allows for the existence of the other concepts of equality and liberty. Thus true justice is, as Plato recognized, described well by terms like: balance, fairness, and that which does the most good for the most people and causes the least pain (generally described as “the greatest happiness theory“). Pure liberty and pure equality don’t allow for balanced scales alone, justice is the key to tempering the two mutually dependent forces.
- Likewise, injustice is when liberty and rights are violated by the state or an entity within the state, but only when the liberties and rights are in accordance with natural rights (as those are wise by a design of nature).
- Thus, when the state uses the law to ensure equality, liberty, and justice in its most perfect form we get core human rights, and when things are not balanced, we get injustice and its corrosive effects.
So, not only are liberty, equality, and authority linked, but these are all linked back to justice, and in this, we can see the true role of the state as a tool of justice… but what when factions within the state disagree on how to best ensure a just state?
TIP: There are a few different types of civil justice. There is social justice (which is a statement on ethics, morality, and ideally about respecting true social equality) and there is criminal justice (which is about punishing bad behavior to create disincentive). True social justice is good, superficial social justice is this and this.
POLITICAL THEORY – John Rawls. “What is justice?” Was as good a question in 300’s BC as it was in the 1970’s, still a good question today.
TIP: The principles of liberty, equality, law, justice, and more come before any one principle. A state of pure liberty is anarchy, so even though liberty “is good”, it does not somehow magically diminish the importance of the other principles. If there is not balance, the alchemic mix is not right.
What To Do When the Wills Disagree? What if the General Will is Unwise?
Humans enter a social contract when they form societies. This forms (as a basic metaphor) “the body politic”. The body politic has a “head” (head of state) and “arms” (legislative and executive).
This body has a General will that isn’t just popular opinion. It is the idealistic concept of the groups collective wisdom (not its collective emotional response). With this in mind:
- The will of the body can’t be different than the will of the head or limbs which carry out the will (the government) any more than your left arm can rebel against your body. If the will is different, then a despot has usurped the state. This is where Locke’s consent and the right to petition government comes in.
- Meanwhile, if the collective will is a will to infringe on the natural rights of collectives and individuals within the body, this is a tyranny of the mob. It is not liberty, or equality, or justice. It’s simply a misinterpretation of the true “wise” will of the collective.
The purpose of laws and heads of state are to be discerning of the collective will, it is not to inflict on the people their own will. Heads of state are on a vessel for the collective will, and the collective will cannot violate its own natural rights.
Examples of a Good Government
There is no one metric for distinguishing a good government, but in general putting the common and good and laws before special interests is the foundation of good governance. We can’t offer specifics, but we can point to some examples:
The Federal Republic with elected officials and laws that value Democracy is a good form of government. It allows a separation of powers, which avoids a tyrannical head, body, or arms; and it allows those best suited to determining the will of the collective to discern it. Being democratic, it allows citizens the right to voice disapproval via vote, assembly, and free speech and press. Thus, it allows concerns to be addressed.
Another effective system is a Constitutional Parliamentary Monarchy, as it has many of the same functions. It uses a monarch, but this is only one head, when that head’s power is weak, it avoids the dangers of absolute monarchy. The constitution (law) and parliament (a Republican legislative branch) help ensure democratic and republican values.
Locke said humans had the right to life, liberty, and property. Jefferson said it is life, liberty, and happiness. They both agreed humans have inalienable natural rights. When we understand equality is simply the equal protection of rights within the state, we can say a society that values liberty, and justice must also value civil equality.
Social contract theories.
For starters, realising that our thoughts and desires don’t reflect our free will can help us become less obsessive about them. If I see myself as an entirely free agent, choosing my desires in complete independence from the world, it creates a barrier between me and all other entities. I don’t really need any of those other entities – I am independent. It simultaneously bestows enormous importance on my every whim – after all, I chose this particular desire out of all possible desires in the universe. Once we give so much importance to our desires, we naturally try to control and shape the whole world according to them. We wage wars, cut down forests and unbalance the entire ecosystem in pursuit of our whims. But if we understood that our desires are not the outcome of free choice, we would hopefully be less preoccupied with them, and would also feel more connected to the rest of the world.
Dworkin believes that what “political morality” should demand is “the liberal conception of equality”: this is a conception of equality, not of liberty, and requires that all citizens are entitled to being treated with the same respect and concern as all others. This principle acquires a particular salience in the context of discussions on inter-personal and inter-group inequalities.