In dealing with inequalities, protecting a maximal level of freedom must be an imperative. It is only in freedom that democratic citizenship is possible. 

These are core ideas in my presentation to the Freedom, Equality and Democratic Citizenship webinar on Friday, hosted by the University of the Free State. What follows is the text of that presentation.  

I’ve been asked today to speak to the topic ‘Perspectives on the Meaning of Freedom and Equality.’ As I work as an analyst and commentator for the Institute of Race Relations, I approach political matters with a stated ideological position. That is, I am a liberal. When I was growing up in the 1980s, that was a widely used insult. It still is, so, as the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  

Having acknowledged where I come from, let me highlight the words of the late Roger Scruton to kick off my contribution to today’s discussion. Liberalism, he said, is ‘an intellectual tradition formed from the interplay of two political ideals: liberty and equality. Liberals differ according to whether liberty or equality is more important to them’. 

Since I work as a commentator on and analyst of contemporary South Africa – and not as a philosopher – I try to keep my thinking related to realities. As I’ve been asked to speak on the topic of the ‘meaning’ of these ideas , let me settle on something that straddles the conceptual and the practical, and that has a very real bearing on how we lead our lives politically; this is the concept of citizenship. 

Ever present 

Citizenship is one of those ideas that is ever present in political discussion. In broad terms it describes the relationship between an individual and the state. Built into it are ideas of belonging and responsibility: how the individual fits into a political order, and what calls he or she can make on the state and on his or her peers in society. 

For the liberal outlook, the starting point is often reflexively to focus on the removal of restraints on the individual. Liberalism, after all, is a political perspective, a long pedigree of seeking greater individual autonomy.  

One may go back to the reflections of such thinkers as John Milton – what one might term a ‘proto-liberalism’ – to understand these impulses in their early forms, a challenge to religious dogma and political constraints in a world that was increasingly uncomfortable with both. As Milton wrote: ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.’ 

Accompanying the drive to undo the shackles of tradition and arbitrary power was the increasing assertion of social groups demanding their place in the sun. The merchants and industrialists of the Industrial Revolution demanded something approaching equality with the hereditary status of the aristocrats. The middle classes too wanted influence over the societies that their education and hard work were shaping. Then the working classes, and then women. Each wave of expansion of the boundaries of citizenship made a more extensive call on the idea of equality.  

Citizenship in a (liberal) democratic polity is premised on the expectation that each individual is entitled to participate in political life, and that the role of each individual is no greater than that of his or her peers. Each political participant is of equal worth. BUT if the individual is to be the appropriate object of the human experience, and thus of politics, as much liberty from coercion as possible must be permitted. The individual is thus to be free to pursue his or her aspirations.  

In other words, there is a simultaneous expectation of an equality of political status and an acceptance of profound inequalities elsewhere.  

How, then, would this be expressed in a society like South Africa? 

Challenging case 

South Africa is a challenging case for the liberal democrat and the liberal conception of citizenship. The country is undoubtedly free – not only in the sense of a legal and a constitutional order, but in the rambunctious conduct of its politics. In a manner that Milton might approve of, the government and the ANC are regularly scourged in the media, a capacity to ‘argue freely’ in a manner that would be impossible in any number of countries across the world. 

Yes, there have been attempts by the state and its agencies to discipline society; think here of the Human Rights Commission trying to police people’s speech, or the intention of the ruling party to exercise its ‘hegemony’ over society. This was almost laughable.  

The late Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert summed it up beautifully: ‘Even if it is so that some intellects in government crave for a “Gramscian hegemony” over the masses, they haven’t got a snowball’s hope in hell. The scope and diversity of civic action simply defies such hegemony. Voluntary associations in the areas of literacy, health, skills development, business management, orphan care, combating AIDS, perform magnificently. I have met and observed many of them. Of course, government can play an important enabling role, but if it does not do so, it will simply be regarded as irrelevant. There is boundless arrogance in the notion that you have the right to tell ordinary commonsense folk how and what to think.’ 

South Africa’s institutions are also deliberately crafted on the assumptions of equality. This is not just (indeed, increasingly I’d argue not) on the basis of the equality of political and legal status – formal citizenship – but with the attainment of substantive equality, the equality of outcome. This reflects Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 statement: ‘We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.’ Indeed, Nelson Mandela specifically appealed to those words. 

Former Minister of Justice, Dullah Omar, put the official position thus: ‘We have been looking critically at the role of government and have come to the firm conclusion that government must within the framework of the constitution intervene to create real equality.’ 

Omar’s sentiments do speak to a dire reality. Inequality has been a defining concept for South Africa. Lest it be forgotten, the foundation of the abuses that became so much a part of the country’s historical politics was the denial of a common citizenship. The socio-economic hangover of this along with the failure to get growth and development sufficiently in motion have resulted in what is often termed the ‘most unequal society in the world’. 

Chequered history 

Let’s pause here for a moment. The drive towards ‘equality’ has a chequered history. At its extremities, it has produced the type of obscene violence that is often (rightly) associated with the idea of racial or ethnic superiority. I for one take exception to the claim that the Soviet Union or Maoist China represent an aberration of this impulse. It seems clear to me that they are its logical outcome, with all the coercion, human suffering and socio-economic retardation that they entailed. Enforcing equality can be a very bloody affair indeed. 

However, there is a democratic tradition of seeking equality within society. There are three basic justifications for this: 

  • Ideology: there is a political belief in reducing inequalities; authorities must use their political power for this.  
  • Pragmatism: it is important to do so to keep resentments in check; authorities must ensure that all exist at a broadly comparable level. 
  • Normativity: it is right to limit difference; no one should be substantively provided for relative to his or her peers. 

The liberal response would be to question some of this. Liberalism would be deeply sceptical of the ideological motives. An equality of outcomes is only conceivable through extensive intrusion into myriad private decisions, and the limitation beyond recognition of individual freedom. On normative grounds, liberals might in good faith disagree with one another as to the optimal features of a moral society, though I’d suggest that this argument would work best within limited parameters – in other words, while liberals might regard the ‘good society’ as one that is more rather than less egalitarian, liberalism is implicitly accepting of some degree of inequality, if for no other reason than to account for industriousness, innovation,  individuality and so on.  

Pragmatic arguments are far more compelling. There is some evidence from studies on democratisation and on democratic consolidation and backsliding that high levels of inequality undermine the democratic prospects of countries. Ameliorating these conditions represent an attempt to preserve the greater objective of freedom across society. 

So, contrary to what is often asserted, inequality should be a concern for liberals. At its extremity, it can undermine confidence in the very meritocracy that a liberal vision would champion. This legitimates coercive and restrictive measures to equalise society. This represents an attack on freedom. 

From this it follows that for liberals, the terms of any attempt at dealing with inequality are of prime importance. Specifically, I’d propose three broad sets of concerns, that I represent in three questions: 

  • What means may be employed to address inequalities? 
  • What compromises between freedom and equality are acceptable?  
  • What is the intended outcome? 

Liberals would stand firm on limiting any policy directed against inequality to being rooted in appropriate constitutional and political principles. That means that coercive or arbitrary power cannot be countenanced. It also means that rights to liberty and property must be respected. Yes, there may be times when rights to or in property may be limited, but not abandoned. Something like land reform, for example, may be supported, but not on the basis of outright confiscation. Liberal thinking would hold the wielder of power to a higher standard than those subject to it. 

Envisioned outcomes 

Particularly important are the envisioned outcomes. Let me say here that the idea of equality of outcomes is to be viewed with suspicion, even horror. If liberalism accepts the validity of seeking self-fulfilment, then inequalities are assumed. It is entirely legitimate that the outcomes are more favourable for those who are willing to put in greater effort and defer gratification than for those who are not. It’s also for this reason that some variant of a market economy is non-negotiable for liberals. 

But, of course, it is a truism that we all start from differing baselines, and much more will be factored into our success than just blood, sweat and tears. The sheer fate of being born in one society rather than another – say, Canada rather than Mauritania – exercises a powerful influence on one’s life chances. To be raised in an environment where talent is nurtured and achievements are encouraged can be a significant developmental advantage. To have accessible educational facilities matters a great deal. And so on. 

And that’s before one even goes into the inherent, let’s call them genetic, differentiators among individuals. That’s why Minkie van der Westhuizen or Heidi Klum have career options that I don’t.  

Liberals would defend measures that encourage the full take-up of one’s abilities, and the expansion of the universe of choices available. In the 19th Century, during which they were ambivalent about the universal franchise, liberals put increasing emphasis on expanding the conditions on which people could participate in society. This was described in contemporary parlance as ‘capacity’. Educational reforms featured prominently, on the assumption that it would contribute to a rational mindset and equip people better to participate in the modernising economy.  

In practical terms, this has come to be expressed through such endeavours as state provision of services intended to guarantee a minimum standard of living, and to provide the means for social mobility. This is what is typically described as the welfare state.  

To be sure, liberals have mixed feelings about this. What quantum of entitlements should be made available, and under what terms? Education is a necessary (though not always sufficient) condition for mobility; that is fairly universally accepted. So might support for those unable to support themselves, as a result of age or of mental or physical infirmities. Healthcare? Perhaps, though where resources are limited, should this preclude expensive or experimental procedures? Should – as in some jurisdictions – this extend to prohibiting the private procurement of medicines that are not available through state systems?  

We’ve recently seen arguments made that data, recreational opportunities and even sexual pleasure are human rights. Who is responsible for providing them, to whom, and at whose expense? Are these issues that liberals should support? These are not easy questions. 

Thorny expressions 

One of the more thorny expressions of all this concerns addressing inequalities that are rooted in systemic past discrimination. The most visible example for a South African audience would be race-based policy, so-described redress measures. 

In principle, the idea is that against the background of apartheid and its antecedent systems, special preferences should be given to black people to enable or encourage or compel (depending on the discourse at hand) their participation in various areas of the economy. It’s notable that when this was introduced in the 1990s, it was presented as a short-term remediation, and now it is spoken about as a programme that will last for generations.  

We at the Institute of Race Relations have opposed this approach, though not out of a lack of recognition of the damage that past discrimination has wrought. I would like to say with some pride that our work since the 1920s created the most extensive repository of damning evidence against it. I have argued that that damage is incontrovertible, and that it was rooted in racial discrimination, but that it does not necessarily follow that applying a fresh round of racial coding and rearranging preferences is a viable solution. 

The key problem is that the metric by which it is monitored is a by-the-numbers outcomes approach. Hence, we regularly hear about the predominance of white males here, the underrepresentation of Indian females there. I – and I think most liberals – feel discomfort at seeing people reduced to their apartheid-inspired demographic markers. More importantly – pragmatically – this is a solution rooted in the convenience of a bureaucracy and the ideologists who drew up this approach; it takes no account of the numerous drivers of economic mobility and success.  

It’s easy to put white male and black female incumbents into a spreadsheet. It’s much more difficult to account for skills, a lousy education system, declining markets, salary scales and all the rest. 

It is striking to me how little consideration official reports give to understanding what lies behind those numbers. The implication is invariably that some sort of nefariously racist ‘resistance to transformation’ accounts for all this. We have now seen amendments to the Employment Equity Act introduced that will allow for fines to be levied that could conceivably shut firms down. I doubt this will have a happy ending.  

Political humans often invoke political power to deal with societal issues. This carries with it a great risk. Governments are not always adept agents of managing change. I’d go further and say that in a country like South Africa with a political class that has often known very little of the world outside of politics, this is doubly true. As the adage goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail. The potential for damage is clear. 

Generating opportunities 

The Institute argues for an approach that would emphasise support in the here-and-now as well as in generating opportunities for those who are socio-economically marginalised. We believe that the deeply compromised state that exists is simply not in a position to play a developmental role, and relying on it to do so is folly – happily, there is growing realisation of this. A society poor in skills and entrepreneurial talent cannot afford to squander what it has. We propose a target rate of economic growth of 7% per annum over a sustained period, which is not possible under present conditions. To the extent that this addresses inequality, our view is that policy should attack the worst features of deprivation – poverty and unemployment – as a priority, while expanding economic freedom to grow the economy as a whole. 

The 18th Century thinker Thomas Paine wrote: ‘Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamities is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.’ 

The liberal impulse is to prioritise freedom. This is a normative goal, and a pragmatic one. In dealing with inequalities, protecting a maximal level of freedom must be an imperative. It is only in freedom that democratic citizenship is possible. In pursuing equality – or, I think better and more accurately phrased, working against extreme inequality – I propose a four-point conceptual approach: 

  • All have a claim on equal esteem in the eyes of the state, with no exceptions, and certainly none based on ascriptive criteria; 
  • Policy must include an implicit recognition that inequality is the inevitable outcome of freedom;  
  • All those involved in policy making should accept that material and social inequalities have a distorting impact on individuals’ life chances, although not all of these are amenable to rectification; and  
  • Policy must be drawn up around a commitment to targeted action that enhances freedom, and the ability of all to enjoy it.  

Three decades into democracy in South Africa, we can no longer defer tough choices. I’d like to end by echoing the sentiments Prof Hermann Giliomee in his presidential lecture to the Institute in 1996: What a time to be a liberal – and what a challenge too!  

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Image by Daniel Reche from Pixabay

Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.