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Political Philosophy

Freedom and Equality in the Comparison
of Political Systems

Wolfgang Balzer
Universitaet Muenchen

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ABSTRACT: The notions of freedom and equality in a group are precisely defined in terms of individual exertions of influence or power. Freedom is discussed in the version ‘freedom from’ influence rather than in the version ‘freedom to do’ what one wants. It is shown that at the ideal conceptual level complete freedom implies equality. Given the plausibility of the definitions this shows that political ‘folk rhetorics’ in which freedom and equality often are put in opposition are misled and misleading. Quantitative notions of ‘more freedom’ and ‘more equality’ are introduced and shown to be independent of each other. The bearing of these conceptual exercises on the comparison of political systems is discussed.

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During the last 5000 years the competition and contest of large, human communities or political systems, of which modern states are the pressing example, often was decided by a simple, `evolutionary' mechanism: war and force. However, the increasing destructive power of artifacts which are developed with the help of scientific knowledge seems to diminish the importance of this device—at least among communities with a somewhat rational leadership. For the mere use of modern techniques increases the risk of self-destruction even for that party which otherwise would be said to have won the `contest'. In this situation it would be desirable to have other, less violent criteria to check whether some political system is better than another one. If we could compare the quality of political systems in a purely conceptual way the practical competition among systems could be reduced to attempts at enlightening the citizens of the respective other system.

Recent views of the quality of political systems focus on different aspects or dimensions expressed by terms like freedom, equality, solidarity, human rights and welfare. The problem with such a multi-dimensional approach to the quality of political systems is that the different dimensions have not been analyzed in precise terms and have not been thoroughly compared with each other. There is no save knowledge about how the different aspects jointly affect the quality of a political system. While the effect of each single aspect ceteris paribus is quite clear, problems arise when two or more of them are varied simultaneously. In `folk' political rhetorics it is a common topic that freedom and equality, as well as freedom and solidarity, compete with each other or even are incompatible. When these labels are used as being characteristic for given political systems we arrive at the usual rhetoric of political competition among states where, say, a `free' state and a `socialist' state (= a state charcterized by equality and/or solidarity) strive for domination. These prescientific opinions lead to the expectation that a scientific investigation will yield similar results.

I think that this expectation requires caution. In the the real-world examples the key terms usually are applied to states without much justification, and in a propagandistic vein. In order to overcome this unsatisfactory situation the basic notions have to be studied in more precise terms and have to be compared with each other with respect to their contributing to the quality of political systems. In will go some steps in this direction and present some results showing that the scientific study of these aspects or dimensions is promising. I concentrate here on the most important notion: freedom and equality.

As a background for my explications I use a theory of social institutions combining a power centered view of social affairs in the spirit of, say, Machiavelli, and a systemic, formal model of such affairs, see (Balzer, 1990, 1993). This theory is intended to model comprehensive social institutions like political systems and states—among other things. (In the social sciences presently the game theoretic view seems to prevail when institutions are discussed. However, what are called `institutions' in the game theoretic approach are not political systems, but more local and abstract things like `promise', `convention' and the like. Up to now game theoretic analysis has not been able to model and to explain one single political system of the kind I am discussing here.) According to my theory a social institution is given by four parts: a micro-system of individuals and their actions and social relations, a macro-system of social groups and their properties and relations, and two `images' of these two systems: a set of `micro-images', images of the micro-system which are internalized by the institution's members, and a `macro-image' in which the macro-system is represented in some more objective way, for instance by written laws, norms, myths, poems, pictures and the like. Concentrating on the macro- and micro-systems, one basic feature of this theory is that individuals are engaged in power relations. Each individual tries to exert power over other individuals (or to influence them). An individual power relation in which power is exterted is constituted by the two individuals involved plus one action performed by each of them. For instance, Peter may exert power over John by uttering the command `Go and get me some cigarettes' and by John's getting the cigarettes, where Peter's action is the utterance and John's action is to get the cigarettes. A second basic feature is that individual power relations can be used to characterize groups and a status relation among groups. Roughly, a group G has lower status than another group G' iff many members of G' exert power over many members of G but not vice versa. Inside one group, on the other hand, the exertions of power are in equilibrium. The third important feature is that in a social institution the groups are ordered by the status relation such that they form a connected, transitive graph with a unique top-element. This top-element is the `top-group', a group which has highest status and whose members therefore exert power over most members of the other groups (see (Balzer, 1990) for details).

In a model of this theory freedom and equality can be defined as follows. At the micro level a model contains four kinds of objects: persons $i,j$, actions $a,b$, and points of time $t,t'$. Persons perform actions and exert power over each other. Moreover, they have intentions and causal beliefs. I use the expressions that person i at time t performs action a; that i by doing a exerts power over j so that j does b in the period from t' to t; that at time t, i intends that j should do a; and that, at t, i believes that action a partially causes action b. With these expressions we can define the action space of person i at time t to consist of all actions which are possible for i at t. I say that j's action b at t is the aim of an exertion of power iff there is some person i, some earlier instant t' and some action a such that i by doing a exerts power over j so that j does b in the period t',t. With these two auxiliary definitions we can define that person j is free at t iff no action b in j's action space at t is the aim of an exertion of power. That is, no action b in j's action space is induced by some other person's exerting power on j and influencing j to do b. Actually, in the present context the restriction to actions from j's action space makes no difference. It can be proved that one might equivalently use arbitrary actions.

This definition of freedom exclusively in terms of individual exertions of power apparently is exposed to a well known criticism of behaviorist approaches to power, see (Lukes, 1974). It seems that important ways of exerting power in a less direct, `structural' way are not covered, like for instance excluding an issue from the agenda, or hiding an exertion of power behind the obligations of one's own social position. Yet this impression is misleading. First, in the present account, the notion of action is not understood in the naive way of positively doing something. Actions form a `space' of actions in which there is room for neutral behavior (doing nothing) and also for negative behavior (expressed by a negated proposition) to count as an action, see (Balzer, 1993), Chap.6. Second, in the context of a social institution, each exertion of power is directly linked to mental predicates of intention and causal beliefs, and indirectly linked to macro-features like social positions and norms. I cannot describe the details here but just note that in an institutional embedding an exertion of power—though at the surface described by a relation among actors and actions—may acquire the full status of social or institutional power which is required for a proper understanding of domination, compare the definition in (Balzer, 1993), Chap.12. When embedded in a social institution, the present definition of freedom expresses much more than the merely behaviorist absence of tokens of influence.

Of the two basic versions of freedom: freedom `from' influence and freedom `to do' what one wants, the above definition covers the first notion. It is difficult to relate these two notions in precise terms because the domain of humans wants is so fuzzy. If we could distinguish, in a given state, the domain of materially possible actions which j could perform if nobody would exert power over him and the domain of actually possible actions obtained by removing from the first domain all those actions which are made impossible by other persons' exerting power over j then we might say that `freedom to do' is constrained in two ways. First, it is constrained by the domain of materially possible actions. A person cannot perform materially impossible actions, whether she wants to do so or not. Additional to this first constraint, `freedom to do' is further narrowed down by other persons' influences making materially possible actions impossible. Under this perspective, if the domains of material possibility depend on the level of welfare then the level of `materially possible' freedom, i.e. freedom that would prevail in the presence of freedom from influence, is higher in states with a higher level of welfare. However, this distinction does not seem to be fruitful for in reality the `material' level and the level of influence are heavily dependent on each other. For instance, a rise of the level of welfare usually is accompanied by increased suffering of exertions of power so that the overall freedom `to do' of a person does not increase (or even decreases) when welfare does. Moreover, freedom `to do' allows for ideal, individualistic realization of freedom: I simply cut down my wants in order to become completely free (as the Hegelian slave). This shows that freedom `to do' is not well suited for discussions of essentially social matters like the comparison of political systems, and that freedom `from' is the right notion to be used in such contexts.

Equality can be defined by distinguishing $external$ and $internal$ equality. Let us say that two persons i,j at t are externally equal iff they exert `the same' power over third persons k, and are affected by third persons exerting power over them in `the same' way. Clearly, `the same' here must be interpreted somewhat liberally. I take it to mean that whenever i exerts power over some k by means of some action a then there is an action a' by which j exerts power over k, and vice versa with i and j interchanged, and that whenever some k exerts power over i by means of some action a then the same k also exerts power over j by some a' and vice versa with i and j interchanged. In a more fine grained analysis one would use action-types and require that a and a' be actions of the same type. i and j are internally equal at t iff each exertion of power of i over j is matched by one of j over i and vice versa. Finally, we can say that i and j are equal (at t) iff i and j are externally and internally equal at t. Note that this definition captures social equality as contrasted to physiological or other kinds of `non-social' equality. Two persons may be equal in the sense defined but still widely differ, say, in strength, intelligence or wealth.

It is easily seen by counterexamples that one person may be free but not equal to another one, or may be equal to another one but not free. Also, it can be shown by way of example that even complete equality of all persons in a group may go together with the absence of freedom in that group. In the reverse direction there is a positive result. If all members of a group are free then they are equal, or, more briefly: total freedom implies equality. This result holds for the notion of `freedom from', and may be expressed in still other terms as saying that equality is a necessary condition for freedom (`freedom from'). In the comparison of political systems these notions typically are used in a quantitative way allowing for `more' and `less'. The definitions just described can be modified and turned into comparative notions of more freedom and more equality being present in one group than in another group of about the same size. Problems in application then arise in mixed cases like that of an increase of equality together with a decrease of freedom. There is no commonly accepted way of combining different criteria in order to obtain a definite result.

The condition of `more freedom' on this account is directly linked to the presence or absence of power relations. An increase of freedom by the above definition implies that less exertions of power are made: `more freedom implies less exertion of power'. On the other hand, equality may vary without any change in the numbers of exertions of power, for instance, by mere `redistribution' of such exertions in the population. Moreover, the quantitavie notions of freedom and equality are independent of each other. This can be shown by logical comparison, and by showing that under fixed, hypothetical conditions, a variation in one dimension is compatible with no variation in the other. For instance, if freedom increases the degree of equality may remain unchanged. In particular this shows that freedom and equality—even if both are defined in terms of power—yield different criteria for the ranking of political systems. The fact that both these notions can be defined in terms of power does not imply that the comparison of political systems in these two dimensions can be `reduced' to one, more basic criterion formulated in terms of exertions of power.

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W.Balzer, 1990: "A Basic Model of Social Institutions," Journal of Mathematical Sociology 16, 1-29.

W.Balzer, 1993: Soziale Institutionen, Berlin: de Gruyter.

W.Balzer, 1994: "Exchange versus Influence: A Case of Idealization," in B.Hamminga (ed.), Idealization VI: Idealization in Economics, Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities Vol 38, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 189-203.

S.Lukes, 1974: Power: A Radical View, London.

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