Competing Concepts of Equality and Freedom

On pages 76, 77, and 78 of The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek, we read the following:

“It is rarely remembered now that socialism in its beginnings was frankly authoritarian. The French writers who laid the foundations of modern socialism had no doubt that their ideas could be put into practice only by a strong dictatorial government….Where freedom was concerned, the founders of socialism made no bones about their intentions. Freedom of thought they regarded as the root-evil of nineteenth-century society, and the first of modern planners, Saint-Simon, even predicted that those who did not obey his proposed planning boards would be ‘treated as cattle.’….

Nobody saw more clearly than Tocqueville that democracy as an essentially individualist institution stood in an irreconcilable conflict with socialism: ‘Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom,’ he said in 1848; ‘socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.’

To allay these suspicions and to harness to its cart the strongest of all political motives – the craving for freedom – socialism began to make use of the promise of a ‘new freedom.’ The coming of socialism was to be the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. It was to bring ‘economic freedom,’ without which the political freedom already gained was ‘not worth having.’ Only socialism was capable of effecting the consummation of the age-long struggle for freedom, in which the attainment of political freedom was but a first step.

The subtle change in meaning to which the word ‘freedom’ was subjected in order that this argument should sound plausible is important. To the great apostles of political freedom the word had meant freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men, release from the ties which left the individual no choice but obedience to the orders of a superior to whom he was attached. The new freedom promised, however, was to be a freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us, although for some very much more than for others. Before man could be truly free, the ‘despotism of physical want’ had to be broken, the ‘restraints of the economic system’ relaxed.

Freedom in this sense is, of course, merely another name for power or wealth. Yet, although the promises of this new freedom were often coupled with irresponsible promises of a great increase in material wealth in a socialist society, it was not from such an absolute conquest of the niggardliness of nature that economic freedom was expected. What the promise really amounted to was that the great existing disparities in the range of choice of different people were to disappear. The demand for the new freedom was thus only another name for the old demand for an equal distribution of wealth. But the new name gave the socialists another word in common with the liberals, and they exploited it to the full. And, although the word was used in a different sense by the two groups, few people noticed this and still fewer asked themselves whether the two kinds of freedom promised could really be combined.”

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