Roger Scruton on the Incompatibility of Liberty and Equality

In the opening chapter of Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, Roger Scruton points out what is, for him, the fundamental internal inconsistency of left-wing politics, that of the conflict between liberty and equality or, in modern political parlance, liberation and social justice. According to Scruton, neither of these terms means what it seems to mean at face-value, and they are fundamentally incompatible with each other in any case.

The liberation advocated by left-wing movements today does not mean simply freedom from political oppression or the right to go about one’s business undisturbed. It means emancipation from the ‘structures’: from the institutions, customs and conventions that shaped the ‘bourgeois’ order, and which established a system of shared norms and values at the heart of Western society…Much of their literature is devoted to deconstructing such institutions as the family, the school, the law and the nation state through which the inheritanceof Western civlization has been passed down to us. This literature (is) seen at its most fertile in the writings of Foucault.

Likewise the goal of ‘social justice’ is no longer equality before the law, or the equal claim to the rights of citizenship…The goal is a comprehensive rearrangement of society, so that privileges, hierarchies, and even the unequal distribution of goods are either overcome or challenged…behind the goal of ‘social justice’ there marches another and more dogged egalitarian mentality, which believes that inequality in whatever sphere – property, leisure, legal privilege, social rank, educational opportunities, or whatever else we might wish for ourselves and our children – is unjust until proven otherwise.

The two goals of liberation and social justice are not obviously compatible…If liberation involves the liberation of individual potential, how do we stop the ambitious, the energetic, the intelligent, the good-looking and the strong from getting ahead, and what should we allow ourselves by way of constraining them? Best not to confront that impossible question…By declaring war on traditional hierarchies and institutions in the name of its two ideals, therefore, the left is able to obscure the conflict between them. Moreover, ‘social justice’ is a goal so overwhelmingly important, so unquestionably superior to the established interests that stand against it, as to purify every action done in its name.