Can we strive for equality without democracy?

Basic political values

Ulrike Ackermann

To person

Dr. rer. soc., born 1957; Professor of Political Science with a focus on freedom teaching and research at the SRH University in Heidelberg; Director of the John Stuart Mill Institute for Freedom Research, Ludwig-Guttmann-Strasse 6, 69123 Heidelberg. [email protected]

With regard to our children and grandchildren, is it fair that we have allowed ourselves around two trillion euros in national debt for some time now? Does it serve the freedom or the equality of the citizens if the incumbent Chancellor promises maternal pensions, child benefits, rent controls and minimum wages despite empty coffers? What promotes the old order of the sexes, what serves their equality? The opposition wants to score points in the election campaign by setting the theme "justice". The governing parties want to be even more just and win the election with "asymmetrical demobilization". Regardless of the heated election campaigns today, the collision of the value of freedom with that of equality and justice was part of passionate social debates centuries before us. It is therefore worth taking a look at history to get some clarity about the meaning of these apparently contracting values.

Let us begin with freedom: "The real area of ​​human freedom comprises first of all the inner field of consciousness and here demands freedom of conscience in the broadest sense, further freedom of thought and feeling, unconditional independence of opinion and conviction in all questions, be they of a practical or philosophical, scientific, moral or theological nature. (...) Second, this principle requires freedom of taste and study, freedom to design a plan of life that corresponds to our own character traits and to do what we like, regardless of what Follow and without being bothered by our contemporaries - as long as we don't harm them - even if they think our behavior is crazy, depraved or wrong. "[1] This is how the philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill put it in 1859.

With this definition, in the history of ideas of liberalism, he accorded individual freedom, alongside political and economic freedom, a special place as the engine of history. Freedom therefore means freedom from coercion and interference, as long as we do not harm anyone. The limit of the individual freedom lies where the freedom of the other begins. This freedom, which has been fought for over the centuries, is now enclosed by the rule of law, which protects individual fundamental rights, freedom of contract and private property. The constitution, representative democracy and the social market economy flank freedom and enable citizens to participate in society.

Since the French Revolution we have been accompanied by demands for freedom, equality and fraternity. At the same time, this dawn of democracy since the 19th century has presented us with a new dilemma: the collision of the value of freedom with the value of equality - a conflict that continues to fuel our debates today. Already centuries ago Alexis de Tocqueville warned against the "pernicious instinct for equality" of people, which leads to them preferring "equality in bondage to inequality in freedom" [2]. Even today, the question arises whether people want to forego freedom in favor of equality or, conversely, value the value of freedom more and accept inequality in return?

In the centuries-long struggle for equal rights, the role of the citizen gradually emerged, based on the principle of equality of all people before the law. This harmonization of political civil rights was accompanied by an equalization of social opportunities in terms of education, income and provision. This opened up ever greater opportunities for freedom for every citizen. Equality of citizenship is the condition of the possibility of freedom. The chance of self-realization is no longer the privilege of a few chosen people, as in the past, but the legal right of every person. The prerequisite for the development of personality and the practice of one's own life plan is the freedom of every woman and every man to be able to choose between different options and to differentiate themselves from others. To a certain extent, equality before the law is a prerequisite for social differentiation. It thus creates social inequality that enables diversity and manifests itself in the plurality of lifestyles. This is precisely the prerequisite for a society's productivity and innovative strength. Uniformity and social equality, on the other hand, would mean a standstill in historical development.

Following the liberal definition of freedom, justice means the enforcement of applicable law and equality of rights for all before the law. The free-democratic community ensures within the framework of a social contract that everyone has equal opportunities as a prerequisite for being able to develop one's own personality in an individual way. It is no coincidence that the US Declaration of Independence of 1776 dated pursuit of happiness as the inalienable right of all human beings; that is, the pursuit of happiness is protected in the constitution, but it is not a guarantee of happiness itself. Every citizen must seek it himself.

Appreciation of freedom

Since the 19th century, with the emergence of the "social question", the rise of the labor movement and socialist-communist parties, the discourse on justice has changed. The concept of social justice was introduced, which from now on is based on social equality in the sense of equality of results. The state should now ensure social justice through redistribution. This is a remarkable shift in the meaning of equality and justice: if the French Revolution was originally about equality of citizens before the law, this demand is changing in the direction of equality in actual living conditions.

Although the living conditions in our European welfare states have fundamentally improved for all people since the 19th century, people live much longer, work less and have become more affluent overall, the calls for more social justice and redistribution continue to ring today. The different values ​​of freedom, equality and justice clash again and again in social debates. Even the social philosopher Max Horkheimer lamented this dilemma shortly before his death in 1973: "The more justice, the less freedom, the more freedom, the less justice." [3]

The John Stuart Mill Institute for Freedom Research has been creating a freedom index for Germany every year since 2011 in cooperation with the Institute for Demoskopie Allensbach (IfD) and the Institute for Journalism at the University of Mainz to find out how Germans feel about freedom. The questionnaire captures the subjective importance of the value of freedom on the part of citizens in the following areas: How do you define freedom for yourself? How is the value of freedom valued in competition with other values ​​such as equality, security, justice? How free do the citizens feel? What do you expect from the state? We are interested in whether and to what extent an understanding of freedom that sees freedom as the freedom of the individual, who wants to determine his own life and take responsibility for it, has priority over other values ​​such as social equality or internal and social security. [4]

Over the decades it has been observed that - especially after reunification - the value of freedom has lost respect in the population compared to the value of equality. But since 2011 we have seen a trend reversal in favor of freedom and self-determination among the under 30s, especially from the eastern federal states. At the same time, the Freedom Index shows that the state orientation is increasing: citizens want to delegate more and more tasks to the state. This created a paradoxical situation: the acceptance of the value of freedom in the abstract sense is increasing. But at the same time there are increasing demands for the state to intervene in the lives of citizens, which ultimately means the restriction of individual freedom.

When asked about their subjective feeling of freedom, the majority of the Germans surveyed answered that they feel free in their lives. The desire for state control and surveillance can also be found in those who are closer to freedom in terms of their self-image, as in those for whom equality and security are more important than freedom and self-determination. The clear favorite is the "caring" and "caring" state, which, in contrast to the "liberal" state, is seen as more just, prosperous, humane and worth living in.

The 2012 Freedom Index also showed that skepticism towards the market economy has taken on a new dimension: for the first time, a relative majority of 43 percent of the population in West Germany believes that the market economy automatically leads to social injustice. Only 38 percent of Germans are of the opinion that "a market economy is what makes social justice possible". The conviction that this form of economy is the basis for freedom and prosperity seems to be increasingly lost.

Despite the individualization processes that we owe to western modernity since the Enlightenment and the development of civil society, the idea of ​​the state as a kind and at the same time strict "father" is still very popular. He should ensure the prosperity and health of "his children" and ideally distribute all goods fairly among them. In return for his charity, the citizens then also accept his educational rigor and his watch over virtue.

But our history so far has been so successful precisely because economic, political and individual freedom have always been mutually dependent and driven forward. Without the curiosity, willingness to take risks and courageous creativity of individuals, we would have neither prosperity nor democracy today. The awareness of these connections has largely been lost. Instead, anti-capitalist resentments are growing. Many market players also contributed to the rapid loss of reputation of capitalism. Because economic freedom means property, competition, freedom of contract and trade, but also liability and responsibility. Companies, banks and States must answer for their debts and mismanagement. You can't live on credit forever and turn the debt spiral higher and higher and outsource risks. Then, as we can see in the European debt crisis, the budget bubble will burst too.

We therefore need a strong but lean state that fulfills its regulatory tasks, systematically reducing debts and resisting the temptation to want to be the better entrepreneur; a state that is reluctant to intervene and ensures that written rules are adhered to; which, as a constitutional state, guarantees the internal and external security of its citizens and refrains from any encroachment on the private life and individual freedoms of its citizens; a state that is aware of its neutrality and moralizes neither law nor politics; who is not a guardian of virtue, an educator and a moral apostle. So we need a state that guarantees basic services and the subsistence level of its citizens, ensures equal opportunities, but does not stifle the initiative of its citizens in paternalistic care.

Self-determination and stubbornness

Incidentally, all of this would also be desirable for the European Union and its political institutions. Because an over-regulated European superstate destroys the diversity and potential for progress of a free Europe - in other words, everything that has made the success story of Europe so far. A transfer union with a paternalistic European economic government that communitates the debts, suspends the responsibility of individual states and releases private creditors from liability will certainly not solve the crisis. If the European integration process is based on coercion, is accompanied by violations of the law and is carried out at the back of the taxpayers, the diversity of unity and uniformity is sacrificed, one need not be surprised if the citizens' skepticism about Europe and democracy grows.

Instead of freedom, self-determination and personal responsibility - values ​​that have been fought for in Europe for centuries - incapacitation and paternalistic care seem to prevail as maxims for action. If, in addition, market economy principles give way to an increasingly state monopoly capitalism, in which politics and banks are ominously entangled and the mountains of debt continue to pile up busily, freedom is in bad shape.

The opposite of paternalism is stubbornness and self-care, from which new self-confidence, pride and dignity and thus a new quality of life for the individual citizen as well as for states can grow. All of these are prerequisites for developing freedom, discovering new spaces and exploring them on the way to maturity and self-determination. A democracy stays alive when self-confident and headstrong citizens use their economic, political and individual freedom to experiment with life. However, no one can relieve us of the ambivalences and contradictions in which freedom entangles us, we have to endure them ourselves. But we have grown up to such an extent that we do not need any guardians of virtue, neither the state nor the EU bureaucracy nor an ideology that dictates morally or politically how we have to live and what our happiness should look like. Because there is no specific conception of the good life that is valid for everyone, but the right of everyone - born free and equal - to pursue their respective happiness.