Equality and Democracy

Bo LI

Perspectives, Vol. 1, No. 4

According to Professor Robert Dahl, the fourth, and last, important source affecting the development of democracy is the logic of political equality. In this essay, we will explore the relationship between equality, particularly political equality, and democracy.

Almost all thinkers, left and right, emphasize the importance of freedom and equality (except for Aristotle and Nietzsche, who do not believe in equality). However, freedom and equality mean different things to different thinkers. For example, classical liberalism's equality means only moral equality, which is the minimal equality for most thinkers. Most democratic theorists demand more equality than the minimal, moral equality of the classical liberalism.

Roughly speaking, leftist thinkers emphasize equality, while rightist thinkers favor freedom. Nietzsche, who likes aristocracy and does not value equality, is a philosopher to the extreme right. In fact, Nietzsche thought that democratic equality was an impediment to human excellence because it builds "herd morality," puts people down and promises less than what they deserve. In order for human excellence to develop freely, says Nietzsche, there should not be any equality constraint on people: a noble heart should not be put down in order to make it equal to a base heart, people should be allowed to compete freely for power and, naturally, noble people will win the competition and become rulers of human society.

In contrast, leftist thinkers, among whom Rousseau and Marx are two examples, hate inequalities. Leftist thinkers generally define freedom as something positive and affirmative. For them, freedom means being able to realize certain higher goods (such as to free and equal participation in political activities, freedom from alienation, etc). In order for people to have the ability and opportunity to achieve these higher goods, the society has to create certain conditions for people. One of the key conditions, say Rousseau and Marx, is equality.

Rousseau is regarded as the father of the modern theory of democracy. He wrote three famous essays on the subject of moral philosophy and politics. In his first discourse, he raises his doubt about the value of social and scientific progress which he thinks brings about the loss of morality and is associated with vice, alienation, envy, and vanity.

Rousseau's second discourse deals with the origins of inequality, from which all human vices develop. Rousseau thinks there are two forms of inequality. The first is natural inequality (such as physical differences) and the second is moral inequality (such as differences in wealth and social status). The development of inequality is an evolution from the natural inequality to the moral one.

In Rousseau's opinion, there were three stages in the development of human society. In the first stage there was no human language and people lived in a state that was not that different from other animals. In the second stage, there was simple language, some family life, and "independent intercourse" among small groups of people. The development of the modern society emerged as the third stage. Of the three stages, says Rousseau, the second is the best, during which stage there were some families and some communities, and people lived a simple, independent, transparent and happy life. But it was impossible to stay in the second stage forever. People's envy and vanity to compete with each other brought about the ruin of the second stage and the rise of the third, corrupt, stage. Natural inequality in strength, talent, and appearance eventually led to moral inequality in wealth, social status and political power. In the third stage, writes Rousseau, people are not happy. They are alienated from their true selves. They are pretentious, envious, and controlled by their own lowly desires and also by other people's opinion.

Rousseau presents two solutions to the problems of the third stage. The first is personal or therapeutic, which relies on family education and nurturing. Critics, however, point out that family power is limited. The second solution proposed by Rousseau, therefore, is political, which relies on the social contract and focuses on eliminating alienation through collective forces. This political solution is the subject of Rousseau's third discourse, The Social Contracts.

Rousseau and Locke differ in what they consider characteristic of social contracts. Rousseau does not agree with Locke that social contracts are purely voluntary (i.e., through voluntary social contracts, people form society and state to protect life, liberty and property). Rousseau asserts that social contracts are also formative. In Rousseau's opinion, people should be transformed by social contracts in order for them to realize the "general will," which represents a higher good that an ideal society should strive for. In other words, people are "forced to be free" by the social contract. The formative, or even coercive, aspect of social contracts is the key to an understanding of Rousseau's theory of politics.

There, then, comes the question of how to reconcile the two aspects of Rousseauian social contracts: the voluntary and the formative. One possible way to reconcile them is to realize that an absolutely voluntary consent to a social contract, as advocated by Locke, is impossible. For example, before one signs a college education contract, she might have no idea of what the contract will bring to her. Only after she finishes her education (and is therefore transformed by the education) can she start to appreciate the value of the college education. Another example is the marriage contract. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for one to consent completely voluntarily (in the Lockean sense) to a marriage contract because, before one goes through the actual life of marriage and becomes transformed by it, it is very hard for one to know what the contract will bring. Similarly, social contracts are not wholly voluntary since people may not be aware of the value of the contract. A person may have agreed to the contract because of other people's suggestions, or because of some social norm or custom. Therefore, there exists a formative and coercive aspect of social contracts: one may be "forced to be free."

One aspect of the formative strain of social contracts, says Rousseau, lies in the fact that people in general are short-sighted and easily controlled by passion, envy and vanity. Because of that, it is hard for ordinary people to see the true import of the "general will" of the society. As such, it is a significant task for legislators to educate ordinary people.

What is the significance of the social contracts to human freedom? In classical liberal political thought, freedom means the liberty to satisfy one's desires without government or other coercive forces' arbitrary interference. In contrast, freedom means two things to Rousseau: independence and transparency. Independence means that one is not led by one's own lowly desires or by other people's opinion. Transparency means that the subject of liberty is one's real self, as compared to the alienated self. Compared to classical liberalism that stresses the significance of fulfilling one's desires without arbitrary interference of government (which is called "negative freedom" by some authors), Rousseau's freedom is more positive and affirmative. In addition, Rousseau is a student of the human heart, which helps explain the importance of transparency to the philosopher.

Rousseau considers inequality to be the major threat to freedom. Due to people's natural tendency to compare and to envy, inequality creates jealousy, vanity, and alienation. The development from natural inequality to moral inequality is a process of moral corruption, through which the freedoms of independence and transparency are lost. People's miseries in the third stage of human development are a symptom of the lack of true freedom. To regain freedom, writes Rousseau, a political solution is needed (since a personal and therapeutical solution is regarded as insufficient). "It is precisely because the force of things tends always to destroy equality that the force of legislation should always tend to maintain it" (Rousseau, 1987, p. 171). In that political solution, coercive social contracts are used to transform people so that they can see, and also behave according to, the general will of the society. Rousseau especially points out that social forces are needed to enforce freedom. He thinks that negative freedom alone, without collective restrictions, is harmful. If there is no restriction on negative freedom, natural inequality will lead to moral inequality and corruption.

There is a certain truth in Rousseau's critique of liberalism. To the extent that people are better off with a sense of community and higher good (in addition to their individual freedom), liberalism alone is not sufficient for the emergence of an ideal socio-political system. However, Rousseau's theory easily leads to tyranny. The idea that people can be, and should be, "forced to be free" by social contracts is very worrisome to liberals, who are suspicious of any paternalistic use of the coercive force of the state. In addition, Rousseau's definition of freedom has the problem of lacking privacy as it puts too much emphasis on transparency. Finally, a Rousseauian regime of the general will may bring about extreme conformity and kills diversity and creativity.

Its illiberalism not withstanding, Rousseau's theory of social contracts became the foundation of the modern theory of democracy. To many democrats, Rousseau's critique of inequality provided a major justification for democratic equality, and the Rousseauian notion of social contracts and general will also helped to justify the democratic process.

When we talk about democratic equality, a natural question arises: equality in what? Democratic equality cannot mean equality in everything: there are many inequalities that democracy does not deal with. For Professor Dahl, it is the logic of "political" equality, not of any other equality, that constitutes one important factor affecting the development of democratic ideas and institutions. Dahl defines the logic of political equality as the belief that "all the members of the association are adequately qualified to participate on an equal footing with the others in the process of governing the association," and that "no single member, and no minority of members, is so definitely better qualified to rule that the one or the few should be permitted to rule over the entire association." Dahl then argues that only a democratic government is fully consistent with this logic of political equality.

According to Dahl, there are five criteria that mark a democratic process: voting equality, effective participation, enlightened understanding, control of the agenda, and inclusion of all adult members in collective decisions. These five criteria make the democratic process fully consistent with the logic of political equality. Violating any of the five criteria not only renders the process undemocratic, but also renders it incompatible with the logic of political equality. For example, "[t]o deny any citizen adequate opportunities for effective participation means that because their preferences are unknown or incorrectly perceived, they cannot be taken into account. But to not take their preferences toward the final outcome equally into account is to reject the principle of equal consideration of interests" (Dahl, 1989, p. 109), which is a corollary of the logic of political equality.

In connection with the logic of political equality, Dahl makes two empirical observations. First, "belief in [the logic of political equality], and the development of at least a rude democratic process, have often come about among people who had little or no acquaintance with Greek democracy or the republican tradition or the eighteenth-century discovery of representation" (Dahl, 1989, p. 31). The belief in political equality, instead, has often been the product of human logic, practical knowledge and/or religious belief, and it usually developed independently of any theoretical knowledge on Greek democracy, Roman republicanism or representative government. "[W]henever members of a group or association come to believe that [the logic of political equality] pretty much applies to themselves, then the imperatives of logic and practical knowledge will strongly tend to lead them to the adoption of a more or less democratic process among themselves" (Dahl, 1989, p. 32).

Second, writes Dahl, the principle of political equality "need not necessarily be applied very broadly. On the contrary, more often than not it has been interpreted in a highly exclusive way." Both democratic Greece and republican Venice excluded a majority of the adult population from political participation, although the ruling class applied the principle of political equality among themselves. In other words, the logic of political equality itself does not define its scope, which remains to be delineated by additional criteria of democracy.

Professor Giovanni Sartori's two-volume book, The Theory of Democracy Revisited, contains an excellent treatment on various forms of equality and their roles in democratic thinking. Like Rousseau, Sartori thinks that "[i]nequality is 'nature'; equality is denaturalization. . . . Equality stands out, first and foremost, as a protest ideal, indeed, as the protest ideal par excellence" (Sartori, 1987, p. 337). In terms of their relationship with democracy, says Sartori, some equalities preceded democracy, while others are democratic claims. Pre-democratic equalities include equality before the law, equal and inalienable rights, and equal freedom or moral equality. These equalities are more the products of Christianity, ethics, natural law and liberal ideals than of democracy. In contrast, three other equalities stand out as distinctively democratic demands: full political equality (as equal universal suffrage), social equality (as equal status and consideration regardless of class or wealth), and equality of opportunity (as equal access and equal start). "Although these equalities have been affirmed in the context of liberal democracy, I would say that they are characteristic rather of its democratic than its liberal component" (Sartori, 1987, p. 343).

To a democrat, it is easy to justify political equality, social equality, and equality of opportunity as equal access (i.e., equal opportunity for equal talents), because these equalities rest on basic moral and ethical precepts and do not involve too much state intervention (particularly, they do not involve wealth redistribution), and therefore are well accepted principles in liberal democracies. It is harder, however, to justify equality of opportunity as equal start (i.e., equal initial material conditions for equal access to opportunities), because equal start (as defined by Sartori) involves wealth redistribution and equalization of circumstances. To Sartori, equal start is justifiable to the extent that the goal of wealth redistribution is to "give everyone enough power (equal power resources) to afford equal opportunities to rise." As such, equal start is regarded as one form of equality of opportunity and is not, at least to Sartori, very hard to justify.

It is one thing to equalize initial material conditions in order to afford equal opportunity to rise, it is quite another, however, to impose economic sameness. Sartori emphasizes the difference between democratic equalities under liberal democracy (political equality, social equality and equality of opportunity) and economic equality demanded by socialism. Although democratic equalities, particularly the equality of opportunity, has economic import and implications (especially when equality of opportunity is interpreted as equal start for all), "there exists a watershed beyond which the formula for democratic economic equality differs sharply from the socialist-Marxist formula for economic equality" (Sartori, 1987, p. 345). According to Sartori, socialist economic equality imposes economic sameness by requiring either equal wealth to each and all or state ownership of all wealth, which amounts to the formula "to no one any (economic) power." As such, writes Sartori, there are several major differences between democratic economic equality and socialist economic equality. Firstly, democratic economic equality is more concerned with justice and initial conditions, while socialist economic equality worries more on sameness and final outcome. Second, they have very different goals. Democratic economic equality aims at giving each and all equal initial economic power for equal opportunity to rise, while socialist economic equality takes as its goal to "take away all power from everyone for the sake of equality (sameness) in itself." "[T]here is an abyss between these two approaches, between equal power to rise and the enforcement of leveling, between granting equal rights, opportunities, and starting points on the presupposition that the beneficiaries neither are nor must become alike, and imposing sameness as a final solution to the problem of these rights and opportunities" (Sartori, 1987, p. 347). The biggest problem with the socialist formula of economic equality, according to Sartori, is that "[t]o be made equal (in outcome), we are to be treated unequally.... The central consideration is ... that the pursuit of equal end states may jeopardize equal treatment to the point where no assurance remains as to the very pursuit of the alleged goal" (pp. 351-52).

What, then, comes out of the above review of the theory of equality and democracy? I think there are at least three lessons. First, there exist certain tradeoffs between equality and freedom. Both Rousseau and Sartori point to the fact that liberty, by itself, does not guarantee equalities we desire. "Modern democracy seeks, thus, a set of 'just equalities' that do not follow spontaneously in the wake of freedom" (Sartori, 1987, p. 344). In other words, modern democracy goes beyond what is required by liberalism (i.e., equalities that aim to protect and strengthen individual liberty) and demands more equalities, and it does so at the expense of some liberty (within certain limits). It is important for liberal democrats to understand these tradeoffs and become prepared to make tradeoffs. (As a side point, it is also important to note that the relation between equality and freedom is not a simple one of tradeoffs. At one level, equality and freedom also strengthen each other, which is why classical liberalism also demands certain equalities. We will discuss the relationship between equality and freedom in one of our future essays.)

Second, for democracy to take hold as a popular institution of politics, a shared cultural belief in something similar to Dahl's logic of political equality is needed. In fact, for the populace, this shared belief might be more relevant and more powerful in the process of democratization than any theoretical teachings of Greek democracy, Roman republicanism or representative government.

Third, it is useful, at least for social and intellectual elites (who influence public opinion) and policymakers (who make policies), to understand different forms of equality and their relations to democracy. There are different forms of equality, only some of which are democratic claims or are compatible with democracy. Different forms of equality have different bases, means and ends, and there are tradeoffs between various equalities. Liberal democrats should know what equalities to embrace, what to reject, and what balances are involved in the liberal democratic process.

(The author is an associate at the New York law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell.)

References: 

1. Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and Its Critiques. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1989. 

2. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. 

3. Rousseau, J. J. The Basic Political Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987. 

4. Sartori, Giovanni. The Theory of Democracy Revisited. Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham House, 1987.