All Commentary
Wednesday, February 1, 1984

Equality, Justice, & Liberty

The Reverend Doctor John K. Williams has been a teacher and currently does free-lance writing and lecturing from his base in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
      This article is from s seminar lecture at the Foundation for Economic Education.

In Australia recently I received through the mail a document entitled Changing Australia. The title was deliberately ambiguous: it was both descriptive that is, referred to alleged changes taking place in Australian society—and prescriptive—that is, urged readers to agitate for and work toward, certain changes.

The document made sorry reading, being little more than a litany of most of the least lovely lunacies of our age. “High technology” was condemned; massively increased government-to-government aid to the third world was recommended; zero-economic growth was espoused; businesses and industrial enterprises making profits were castigated; higher taxation rates, and more lavish transfers of wealth from rich to poor, were advocated.

None of these attitudes or proposals could be described as “novel.” Were it not for the source of the document few lovers of liberty would, I think, have spared it a passing glance. For that source was not the newly elected socialist government we Australians are “enjoying”—indeed, that government was severely reprimanded by the authors of the report for their “moderation.” Nor was the source one of the many communist parties in Australia claiming to represent “authentic” Marx-ism-Leninism. Its source was the Divisions of Social Justice of the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational Churches (the last three, which united in 1976, now known as the Uniting Church in Australia). In the coming months the faithful of these denominations will, alas, be instructed, Sunday after Sunday, in the bizarre tenets informing Changing Australia.

Examining the Concepts

It is not my purpose fully to explore the eerie but world-wide infatuation of many mainstream church-people for the left, although that phenomenon is a fascinating exercise in pathology. I wish merely to isolate and’ comment upon three words littering the report, three words virtually captured, in recent years, by the left. I refer to the words “equality,” “justice,” and “liberty.” According to Changing Australia my nation is characterized by sinful inequalities, outrageous neglect of “social justice,” and a desperate need for liberation of the poor, the disadvantaged, the marginalized.

I speak of these three words-“equality,” “justice,” and “liberty”-as being “captured” because they once graced the lexicons of those committed to economic and political freedom. Adam Smith, for example, spoke of his “liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice,” contrasting his vision with the inequality, constraints, and injustice cursing the politico-economic system of mercantilism which obtained in the world he knew. Yet today most volumes of political philosophy discussing these key concepts use them to justify political and economic structures not far removed from those Smith, and later classical liberals, condemned.

What did the classical liberals mean when they used these words? Are we to reconcile ourselves to the left-wing captivity of “equality,” “justice” and “liberty”? Or can we retrieve the words, exorcising them of their acquired connotations?

I believe we both can and must retrieve these words, for I know of no other terms we can use to capture the essence of the freedom philosophy. More: I am convinced that the left’s interpretation of these terms is literally incoherent, whereas that of the classical liberals is superbly and powerfully rational.

The Concept of Equality

I begin with the term “equality.” In its simplest sense, the word refers to a relation: in terms of some quality or characteristic two entities are “equal” if they share that quality or characteristic to the same degree. Two pieces of wood may be equal in length; two containers may be equal in volume; two material objects may be equal in mass. In terms of the quality specified, the “equal” objects are interchangeable.

Clearly, two objects cannot be equal in all respects. Suppose you are presented with two independently prepared descriptions of what you initially believe are distinct objects. You notice, however, that the two descriptions agree in all respects, including specifications as to location in time and in space. You immediately realize that you have been presented with two descriptions of one and the same object. Bluntly, if A and B are distinct, then each enjoys some qualities or characteristics the other lacks.

Granted that no two entities can be equal in all respects, what does it mean to say—as the document Changing Australia does ad nauseam—that all people are “equal”? What quality or characteristic—physical, intellectual, or moral—do all human beings share to the same degree? Whatever quality or characteristic is specified, exceptions are obvious. People simply are not equal—and that is singularly fortunate, in that they are therefore not interchangeable. It is odd that churchpeople should seemingly resent this state of affairs, for scripture, in asserting that God “calleth His sheep by name,” celebrates the uniqueness of each, not the identity of all.

Are we then to agree with those who say that the claim “all people are equal,” although it looks like a description, is really a prescription, a disguised way of saying that the moral person treats all people equally? Such moral advice is, however, somewhat wholesale: the Mafia hit-man who disposes of all his victims with equal efficiency is treating those victims “equally”; so is the sadist who treats all people with equal cruelty.

“Ah,” say some moral philosophers, “you have misunderstood the principle. Really it means ‘treat all people with equal consideration, equal compassion, equal respect’.” Yet even that reformulation collapses: it is, after all, perfectly satisfied if one treats people with equally little consideration, equally little compassion, equally little respect.

Equality of Opportunity

At this point in the discussion most devotees of “equality” belonging to the left start speaking about “equality of opportunity.” There is, as I shall indicate in a moment, a sense in which I warm to this expression. It should, however, be noted that most men and women of the left assert, when they observe some inequality of outcome to an exercise, that this must be due to some inequality of opportunity demanding coercive intervention—an utterly unwarranted conclusion unless one assumes either that participants in an activity enjoy an initial equality vis à vis such characteristics as physical prowess, moral fortitude, intelligence, et al., or holds that equality of opportunity justifies a coercive leveling down or handicapping procedure. The former assumption is false. The second inexorably leads, as Professor A. G. N. Flew has pointed out, to the grotesque world depicted by L. P. Hartley in his novel Facial Justice, a world within which handsome men and beautiful women are forced to undergo surgery to correct their envy-provoking excesses of sexual appeal, or the equally horrendous world described by Kurt Vonnegut in his short story “Harrison Bergeron,” a world within which men and women above the average are cut down to mediocre size by the implantation of anti-pacesetters.

The key to the sort of equality favored by the left is simply this: the state of affairs they desire can be worked toward either by a “leveling up” or a “leveling down.” Almost invariably the latter procedure is that which is adopted. For example, many private schools in my country which have tenaciously held to high academic standards and have provided the community with sensitive art ists, talented surgeons, insightful writers, and gifted engineers, are under fire as being “elitists,” and are, in effect, under pressure to relax their standards and sink to the mediocre level characterizing our schooling system as a whole. “Equality” demands it, you see!

Equality Before the Law

Adam Smith’s understanding of “equality” did not lead to the adoption of such ludicrous policies. By “equality” he referred to equality before the law. There should be, he asserted, no classes, castes, or elites somehow “above” the law; no individuals or set of individuals who are the beneficiaries or victims of laws which applied only to them. It was this vision of equality which the Greek historian Thucydides celebrated when he praised his beloved Athens because in Athens “[when] it is a question of settling . . . disputes, everyone is equal before the law.” A similar vision was embraced by Thomas Jefferson when, in his First Inaugural address, he advocated “equal and exact justice to all men, of whatsoever state or persuasion, religious or political.” Such an understanding of “equality” may well preclude laws which, by “positive discrimination,” seek to rectify past wrongs; only thus, however, is it possible in principle to preclude laws which perpetuate or initiate special privilege. The rules of the game must be the same for all; in that sense, and only that sense, the players—governed and governors alike—are “equal.”

What About Justice?

But what about “justice”? If “unequals” are treated “equally,” unequal outcomes are inevitable. The free market in the free society of necessity generates inequalities in income and wealth. It seems intuitively obvious that the most “just”-i.e., “fairest”—way to divide some good between people is to give each person an equal share of that good. Five people, for example, may find themselves marooned on a desert island graced by trees bearing coconuts: is it not “just” that each person should be given one-fifth of the coconuts? Since the free market in the free society, while certainly improving the lot of the poorest and putting an end to inequalities of wealth and income created by the existence of class and caste, does not distribute income or wealth “equally,” “justice” demands a massive redistribution.

One can, in this context, make some pragmatic as against principled points. The attempt to redistribute wealth so that the difference between the highest and lowest incomes is minimized usually involves—certainly in a fettered market economy—progressive taxation and high marginal taxation levels. Unfortunately, however, such levels jeopardize capital formation, the sine qua non of economic growth and an improved standard of living. For a high marginal taxation rate hits saving in three ways: it taxes away the very dollar individuals have the highest propensity to save; it deters people from earning that dollar in the first place; and it taxes away the earnings from such investment. A cut in marginal taxation levels thus imparts a triple stimulus to savings and investment, but only a single stimulus to consumption.

Consider, for a moment, the third way high marginal taxation levels deter saving. Joe Doe, who earns a moderately high income, wins the lottery. After tax he has $100,000. Two incompatible desires torment poor but rich Joe: blow the lot on an outrageously extravagant car, or invest the money at 15% and add $15,000 per annum to his income stream. The “cost” of the car is considerable: the forgone $15,000 per annum. A 50% marginal tax level reduces that “cost” to $7,500 per annum. The pre-Thatcher 97% marginal tax rate which obtained in the United Kingdom reduced the “cost” of the car to $450 per annum. At that level a person who does not choose to purchase the car is operating, to put it gently, with a somewhat bewildering ranking of values. Bluntly, a high marginal taxation level encourages extravagant consumption, deters saving, and erects an almost insuperable barrier against capital formation. And the ultimate victims are the poorest.

Yet this pragmatic point is, to me, less important than a principled point. It is not clear to me that, when one ties the existence of some good to the production of that good, “justice” dictates any redistribution.

Almost invariably left-wing analyses of “justice” start off with an existing good to be shared between a number of people-five castaways on a desert island containing some coconuts or several folk adrift in a boat containing a given supply of food and water. Yet when one considers five castaways some of whom start thinking, planning, and toiling and thereby create some goods, or occupants of a life- boat who start fishing or distilling water or what have you, the picture changes dramatically. It is not, I suggest, self-evident that if A’s alertness, thinking, and labor created some good, then B, C, D, and E can claim, in justice, equal shares of that good with A.

The Laws of Justice

In chapter 9 of Book IV of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations Adam Smith, when describing his “simple system of natural liberty” does tie that system to “justice”: “Every man,” he writes, “as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way.” And those eleven words—as long as he does not violate the laws of justice—are absolutely crucial. The productive achievements of the market and the freedom that it allows are both utterly dependent upon clearly defined and efficiently enforced property rights, or rules of the game.

Bluntly, the only conception of justice that makes sense in large, impersonal, pluralistic, societies which are not characterized by orchestrated behavior aimed at some single goal or set of goals involves the criterion referred to in our discussion of equality: rule by known general principles of conduct which apply without exception to all in an unknown number of future in stances. The point might be made another way: the sole dictate of justice is “Avoid injustice,” and injustice occurs when people are not treated in accordance with known rules that apply to all.

I used to lecture first-year undergraduates in philosophy. Some six hundred to seven hundred students usually enrolled for Philosophy I. Fairness demanded simply that all those students were subject to the same rules and that the rules were applied impartially. Should some individual student be disadvantaged by circumstances that these rules had not anticipated, the only “fair” way to deal with the situation was either to formulate some codicil, so to speak, to the rules which also was capable of general application or to decree that, however unfortunate, the circumstances in question did not constitute grounds for modifying the general rules. What had to be avoided was some rule which, in truth, applied to one unique case: the application of such a rule would, inevitably, lead to an arbitrary and capricious decision. Justice, in other words, demands the application of impersonal criteria to allocate burdens and benefits, for inescapable limitations on our knowledge make it impossible to take personal considerations into any account in any consistent way. And consistency is the sine qua non of fairness, hence of “justice.”

In a sense I would like to conclude my discussion of “justice” at this point. Three additional points, however, should be made.

One. Although the consistent application of known general rules is a necessary condition for just behavior, it is not a sufficient condition. Something more than a purely formal principle is required; something must be said as to the content of these general rules. On this the classical liberals were clear: they linked generality of rules to the concept of reciprocal respect for autonomy.

The point is relatively simple. Human beings are characterized by the capacity to engage in goal-seeking, purposive behavior; they are, more simply, able to formulate and strive to realize their own visions of the “good life.” For A, that vision might be reading the novels of Dostoevsky, listening to the music of Mozart, and solving cryptic crosswords; for B, it might be watching television, drinking cans of beer, and investing $20 per week on the track. According to the liberals, it was not for government to praise or blame, punish or reward, denigrate or recommend, any such vision, unless some such vision included the imperative coercively to modify the behavior of others. Should A, for example, kidnap B, chain her to a chair, place earphones on her head, and make her listen to Mozart, government rightly intervenes. Similarly, should B coercively extract $20 from A and invest it, for B’s financial good of course, on a sure thing in the second race at Yonkers, government again rightly intervenes. Government is ceded a monopoly of coercive power to be used solely to proscribe the arbitrary exercise of coercion by any individual or set of individuals.

Thus: “justice” demands general rules of behavior, applicable to all in an unknown number of future instances, which proscribe the arbitrary initiation of coercion—crudely, which proscribe actual or threatened violence, theft, and fraud.

Two. The adverb “justly” and the adjective “just” are primarily used of purposive behavior. It makes little-or no—sense directly to use such terms of some pattern of distribution. (It may be possible to speak of a “just distribution” of wealth in a small tribe the members of which share a common vision of the “good life” and which is characterized by orchestrated behavior aimed at some specific goal or set of goals, but even that is not clear.) A category mistake is involved: it makes no more sense to debate whether a particular distribution of wealth is just or unjust than it makes sense to argue whether a refrigerator is musical or tone-deaf. The descriptions simply do not apply. If this is granted, the expression “social justice,” so dearly beloved by clergymen of the left, must be dismissed as a meaningless combination of sounds.

A distribution of wealth may, however, be described as “just” or “unjust” in a secondary, derivative sense: a distribution is “just” if and only if it is the outcome of just behavior. It is the process, not the final pattern, that ultimately carries the term.

Here are two people: White and Black. White, a singer, earns $500,000 per annum. Black, a street magician, earns $5,000 per annum. Is this distribution “just”? The devotee of “distributive justice,” or “social justice,” noting the inequality’ obtaining, would probably answer “No!” The classical liberal would ask how that distribution was generated. Suppose White is popular with many thousands of people, who prefer to surrender $10 and alternative goods or services that money could buy and hear White sing than to retain that $10 or procure alternative goods and services and not hear him sing. White prefers to surrender several hours gazing at himself in a mirror, sing, and obtain a vast sum of money, than not to sing, enjoy gazing in the mirror, and surrender the money. The exchange is voluntary, all surrendering what is valued less, obtaining what is valued more, and thus improving their situation. The income is justly derived. Unfortunately, relatively few people choose to surrender money and watch Black perform. Again, that income, generated of voluntary exchange, is justly derived. It follows that the resulting distribution is, in the derivative sense noted,”just.”

Three. It is vital that “justice” and “charity” are neither confused nor conflated. There is no conflict whatsoever in holding that one is morally obligated to assist needy individuals, according to one’s capacity to assist, who come within one’s sphere of action, yet to deny that such individuals have a right to one’s assistance. This is, after all, central to the parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest, Levite, and Samaritan were all, according to Jesus, obligated to assist the robbed and wounded traveler. There is, however, no suggestion that the traveler was legally entitled—had a right—to that assistance. It was precisely because the Samaritan acted in a way going beyond what the law commanded that he was praised.

A crucial asymmetry obtains. A “right” of A generates an obligation for someone else. Contractual rights illustrate this: if A and B have signed a contract, person A has a “right” to B’s services, and B has an obligation to provide A with those services. Similarly, those who assert that human beings have a “right” to a decent job are ipso facto asserting that someone somewhere is obligated to provide that job. The claim that the poor have a right to some of the possessions of the wealthy implies that the wealthy are legally obligated to surrender some of their possessions; indeed, that claim may well justify the further claim that those capable of producing goods over and above those needed for themselves are legally obligated so to do. Liberals, of course, insist that no such positive rights exist. But the assertion that A is obligated—morally obligated—to assist B does not entail the assertion that B has a “right” to A’s assistance. In summary: rights for some entail obligations for others; obligations for some do not entail rights for others.

Many fail to appreciate this simple point. Indeed, contemporary clergymen must be strongly tempted to rewrite the parable of the Good Samaritan in terms of “rights” rather than an obligation to exercise the virtue of charity. The old-style Christian socialist postulates, in effect, a “Better Samaritan.” Observing the wounded and robbed traveler, the Better Samaritan hot-foots it back to Jerusalem, calls out the Roman militia; extracts money from other wealthy Samaritans; and sets up an aid-to-wounded-travelers benefit. The “liberation theologian” goes further. He postulates a “Best Samaritan.” This Best Samaritan observes the wounded and robbed traveler; concludes that since it had been worth the robbers’ while to assault him he must have been fairly wealthy in the first place; decides that he must therefore be the beneficiary of an unjust economic and political order; and finally scurries off to take up a collection for the robbers (really, of course, “freedom-fighters”).

The concepts of “equality” and “justice” advocated are perfectly acceptable to Christian believers. They parallel the “justice” of God who treats His children “equally” by sending rain on the good and bad alike. Similarly, the Bible writers invariably tie “justice” back to purposive behavior; Micah, for exam-pie, speaking of those who “act justly.”

(In parentheses, it is worth noting the insistence of many contemporary theologians that believers should identify with the poorest and welcome laws which discriminate in their favor. Precisely what these theologians make of the insistence that “You shall do not injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great” (Deuteronomy 19:15) is somewhat obscure.)


One further term remains: “liberty.” Confusion here is simplified if we simply note that the passive infinitive verbal form “to be free” or “to be at liberty” takes two prepositional constructions: “to be free from” and “to be free to.” Following Sir Isaiah Berlin, these uses may be described as “negative liberty” and “positive liberty.”

A person “free from” the constraints imposed by disease, poverty, or enslavement enjoys an autonomy a person subject to such constraints does not enjoy. A person “free to” express his views, choose his friends, and pursue the vocation of his choice similarly enjoys an autonomy a person lacking such freedoms is without. While Friedrich A. Hayek is indubitably correct to distinguish between legal constraints preventing a person doing X—say attempt to climb a mountain—and a lack of the ability or power to do X—say a lack of the skills or equipment needed to climb a mountain, both states of affairs are characterized by a limitation upon individual autonomy (that is, an individual’s ability to formulate his own goals and act in accordance with these).

Minimally, government honors liberty, so understood, if it does not curtail behavior which does not interfere with the liberty of others. John Stuart Mill expressed this position in his Political Economy, V thus: “[the] individual is not accountable to society for his actions in so far as these concern the interest of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people if thought necessary for them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or approbation of his conduct.” Unfortunately the phrase “in so far as these concern the interest of no person but himself” proved remarkably slippery, as did the notion of “harm to others” utilized in On Liberty. The contemporary philosopher Robert Nozick has tightened Mill’s statements by speaking of actions which do not involve actual or threatened violence, theft, or deception, but even this statement must face some difficult cases. Yet the general principle is clear: the only actions a government honoring liberty can proscribe are actions involving some form of coercive interference with others and, therefore, a denial of their autonomy.

Liberals—using the word in its contemporary, debased sense—however, go further. If individual autonomy is a good, should not government positively act to increase the total quantum of autonomous behavior within a community? If impoverished A lacks the means to pursue his own goals, should not some of affluent B’s wealth be transferred from B to A, and A’s autonomy thereby be increased?

Yet, such a position is impossible to defend. Such an action, justified by reference to human autonomy, itself constitutes an invasion of human autonomy. A’s autonomy may be increased, but B’s autonomy is denied. For given a free market in a free society, B’s wealth is the result of voluntary exchanges engaged in by B or the result of a gift from some third party, C. It may seem “unfair” that B rather than A is the beneficiary of C’s generosity, but if C in any meaningful sense “owns” his wealth, justly acquired, he is at liberty to dispose of that wealth as he chooses.

In summary: the role of a government which respects liberty is to possess and exercise a monopoly of coercive power used simply to proscribe behavior which denies the autonomy of others.

The Christian who takes seriously the doctrine of the fall should respond positively to this analysis of “equality,” “justice,” and “liberty.” Philosophers from Plato to Marx asked what political and economic structures maximize the good the best can do assuming they enjoy political and economic power. The classical liberals asked a different question: What political and economic structures minimize the evil the worst can do assuming they enjoy political and economic power? The assumption was not that the worst would enjoy such power, but that the possibility cannot be denied. This second question is the question men and women believing in the fall should applaud.


All forms of socialism—indeed, interventionism as such—assume that there exists a class, caste, or elite marked by a wisdom and a beneficence denied most mortals, and that this class, caste, or elite inevitably will exercise political and economic power. Werner Sombart, for example, postulated a hierarchy of führers headed by the Führer, who directly received his orders “from God, the Führer of the universe.” Marx dreamed of absolute rule by a liberated intelligentsia and class-conscious workers, insisting that such rule would not be tyrannical. Even moderate interventionists hold that, when elected to political power, individuals will selflessly redistribute wealth in ways which benefit the most deserving. None take the doctrine of the fall seriously.

The words “equality,” ‘Justice” and “liberty” have been debased by those of the left, particularly within churches. Such people’s use of these terms generates paradoxes which cannot be resolved, and demands an impossible playing off of one concept against another (say “liberty” as against “equality”). The classical liberals’ use of the terms is, in contrast, coherent, rational, and perfectly in accord with Judaeo-Christian teachings and values. The terms belong to the lovers of freedom: the time has come for such people to reclaim them.

  • The Reverend Dr. John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He was resident scholar at FEE from April to October of this year.