It is widely believed that at some time over the last fifteen years the political values of the left were hijacked and the social theories of the left discredited; and that this intellectual reverse bears some relation to the ascendancy of Thatcherism. Whatever the merits of this case, four recent books make clear how much of the intellectual ground has been retrieved. If ideas count for anything, the right does not look that strong; not half so clever. Richard Norman’s Free and Equal and John Baker’s Arguing for Equality are mainly about political values. John Roemer’s Free to Lose and Michael Taylor’s The Possibility of Cooperation are also about social theories.footnote1 The four books share a concern for the institutional arrangements which would realize equality while respecting liberty. The books share something else which is no less significant for being a matter of style rather than content. It is something like a recovery of common sense and the idioms of dominant expression for the intellectual purposes of the left. Richard Norman begins by contrasting two traditions of political philosophy: the tradition which opposes freedom to equality and the tradition which does not. Suppose, for example, that freedom is defined purely negatively, as the absence of constraint; that the only options of social organization are the State and the market, and that the State is identified as the only source of constraint. Then freedom will be maximized the more activities are taken from the unfree State and given to the free market. If the operation of the free market generates, or perpetuates, inequalities, then one must choose between freedom and equality. This is the kind of decision forced upon us in the first tradition of political philosophy, and it comes as no surprise that the political right tends to feel most comfortable in this tradition. Freedom is recommended as the primary value, with greater or lesser regret at the loss of equality which seems to be entailed thereby.

Richard Norman insists, and John Baker agrees, that freedom is not so easily counterposed to equality. The core idea of freedom is the idea of choice, and Norman proceeds to collect around this core idea those choice-promoting conditions which have sometimes gone under the headings of negative and positive liberty . . .‘how free one is will depend not just on one’s being able to make choices at all, but on one’s scope for choice—on the range of meaningful choices open to one. This range will be a matter both of what options are as a matter of fact available, and of one’s subjective ability to envisage and assess alternatives. Consequently, the characteristic conditions of freedom include not only the negative conditions of not being coerced or restricted, but also certain positive conditions. These fall into the main categories of political conditions, material conditions and cultural conditions.’

The political conditions involve the practice of participatory democracy, the material conditions access to resources, and the cultural conditions access to goods which facilitate personal autonomy, ‘such as education, knowledge, and understanding’. These conditions are connected with freedom characteristically rather than logically—that is, not in virtue of the definition of freedom but because of ‘certain very basic facts about human beings and the nature of human action’.footnote2 If this is what freedom is, and what it characteristically requires, freedom is characteristically valued because of its connection with the exercise of the distinctively human faculties: perception, judgement, creativity. This is the experience which makes freedom a recurrently important political demand: freedom is required for that part of the fully human life whose vision John Mill shares with Karl Marx.

On this account of freedom, we have obviously come a long way from an identification of freedom with the market and unfreedom with the State. The evaluation of the institutional forms in terms of freedom now depends on how the market, say, or the State allocates political, material and cultural conditions: a matter for social theories rather than political values, strictly conceived.

Norman approaches equality from a slightly different angle, and perhaps less successfully. Just as the value of freedom is rooted in the experience of self-fulfilment, so the value of equality is given in our experience of that kind of cooperative community ‘in which individuals freely participate and respect one another’s freedom’. People entering cooperative community ‘will be guided by egalitarian principles of justice: (a) that power should be shared equally and (b) that benefits and burdens should be so distributed that everyone benefits equally overall’.footnote3 The egalitarian principles flow from the kind of commitment that cooperation is: cooperative action arises from the free decisions of its mutually respecting participants to engage in the common purpose which defines the scope of their cooperative action. (Perhaps Norman thinks free individuals would only agree to cooperate under conditions which made them equal.)

The reach of the ideal of equality is moreover limited by the extent of the implied agreement to cooperate: it is ‘not a general moral ideal applicable to all human actions and interactions’. Wherever cooperative relations prevail, and the principles of equality therefore apply, equality has three conditions—or, rather, ‘components’—which are: equality of power, equality of material goods and equality of access to culture. Perhaps it is no coincidence that these three components of equality are neatly aligned with the three conditions of liberty, for the alignment enables Norman to claim ‘that freedom and equality, far from being opposed ideals, actually coincide’. For Norman, equality of (political) power is the most important element of both equality and freedom, and he returns a strong conclusion in his second tradition of political philosophy:footnote4 ‘Property rights may be outweighed if they are themselves a source of power and of control over the freedoms of others. The central thrust of an egalitarian policy, however, will not be the overriding of individual property rights but the establishing of a communal ownership and control of those institutions which constitute the basic structure of a society. To do this will be to found equality of wealth on equality of power.’

It is possible that Norman’s equation of equality with liberty is too strong, and too quickly reached. Given the restricted social range of the equality principle, it is not clear why freedom requires global equality. Why not have a series of internally egalitarian islands of free individuals—a series of cooperative communities—standing unequally community to community, or an elite egalitarianism resting on mass oppression, such as Athenian democracy? There is nothing in Norman’s concept of freedom to deny that the freedom an Athenian elite enjoy amongst themselves is authentic freedom, and there is something in his concept of equality which rather invites our acceptance of an Athenian arrangement as a genuine combination of freedom with equality.