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Freedom and Fairness


Explanations > Politics > Freedom and Fairness

Freedom | Fairness | The freedom-fairness dilemma | See also



There are two basic human needs that are critical pillars of any political system: freedom and fairness. It is in the provision and and management of these that much of politics and government is concerned.


Freedom is the individual ability to act. It implies personal power.

The desire for freedom is a natural force that evolution has given is. When we are free, we can make our own choices by which we can survive, mate and build a satisfying and meaningful life.

A part of survival is in acquiring the things we will need to live tomorrow as well as today. In seasonal climates it may also mean storing things we will need for the winter or other inclement periods. Bringing up a family and ensuring they can pass on your genes is an even longer-term need. We hence have to think about how we will survive both the short and long term. Freedom gives us the scope to do this.

A paradox of freedom is that when one person feels free to harm others, they reduce the sense of freedom that others feel (including the many onlookers).

When we are constrained, we become frustrated. Many wars and revolutions have been fought in the name of freedom, often by or on behalf of those whose freedom is limited.

When freedom is limited, this can be acceptable if people trust those who have greater power. This is a critical principle of democracy, where the the government should create a trustworthy system.


Fairness seeks equality. This includes equality of freedom and also of ownership, where everyone has similar material possessions. Children show this need when they complain when a sibling or friend has something that they do not.

Fairness is particularly good for group harmony, from small teams to whole societies. It seeks to ensure everyone can not only survive but reach beyond this to contribute more of their talents in keeping the whole social system working.

Fairness is a social need. When mankind learned that living together had more benefits than living alone, it became clear that inequality could easily result. We hence learned to be alert for when some people had more than others. In practice, we do not mind if people have similar rather than identical things as this allows for individual expression. We become concerned about fairness when things fall outside an acceptable zone.

A paradox of fairness is that when wealth is redistributed or used for the common good, those who are taxed more heavily feel the system is more unfair than those who receive the benefits of taxation.

When things seem unfair, we become discontented. Wars and conflicts may well be based on the desire for fairness as well as freedom.

Where there is apparent inequality, if it can be demonstrated that the process of allocation was fair, then people will accept this difference. When people may be concerned that they might get an unfair share of cake, a 'you cut, I choose first' approach can resolve this concern.

The freedom-fairness dilemma

A problem with freedom and fairness is that they can conflict with one another.

Freedom unleashed can lead to an unchecked drive to acquire and possess money and other material things. Greed is the name we give to this natural tendency to hoard things for ourselves rather than fairly distribute what we get or allow others equal access to the things we control. We are even more acquisitive when things are scarce as our competitive instincts lead us to fight for what is rare, perhaps with the argument that we may need the item in question in the future. We may also use in-group bias to help friends and family before strangers.

Fairness can itself become unfair. When one person has worked hard for what they have, it seems unfair that they give away some of this to another person who has been lazy, just so each has the same possessions.

Politics, freedom and fairness

The role of government is to balance freedom and fairness, though in practice it is the perception of this that is more carefully managed. The mechanisms for this include taxation and the legislative/policing system.

Capitalism is a political system based on freedom, creating a system where people can work wherever and however they like, and where each person receives the rewards of their efforts. It often appears alongside Democracy, where people have the freedom to choose those who will run the country.

While Democracy seeks fairness, it also values freedom. Within democratic societies, conservative parties tend more towards freedom while liberal parties tend more towards fairness. When the balance of freedom and fairness is widely considered to be unacceptable, the electorate will typically vote in ways to redress the balance.

Communism is a political system based on fairness. It assumes the state is best placed to decide who gets what. It recognizes the limits and problems of freedom and limits this in the name of fairness. The problem with Communism is that it gives great power to rulers who tend to be seduced by power and their own freedom to acquire what they will. With no oversight or means of removing them, the whole system tends to become corrupted, with leaders living in luxury while others bleed the system at every step.

Within democracies, conservative politicians tend more towards freedom as the critical factor, while liberals tend more towards fairness. In practice, both will espouse both, though conservatives see fairness as more about keeping what you earn while liberals see fairness more as protecting the vulnerable, redistributing a higher proportion of earned wealth and using it for the common good. Conservatives, on the other hand, seek lower taxes and greater freedom in areas such as business and owning weapons.

See also

The Need for Freedom, The Need for Fairness, The Need to Possess


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