Two central values in American political life are liberty and equality. But are these two values in tension with one another? As philosophy professor James Otteson explains, it depends on how you define them. There is more than one way to think about liberty, and more than one way to think about equality. For example, when talking about equality, there are two different central conceptions. The first is formal equality, equality that comes from the form of institutions. An example of formal equality is equality before the law: all laws apply equally to everyone. Formal equality is a central tenet of the classical liberal tradition, and compatible with individual liberty. But a second conception of equality is material, or substantive, equality. Material equality holds that people ought to be equal in material respects, such as wealth or resources. Material equality poses real challenges to classical liberalism, and according to Otteson, also faces challenges of its own.
Otteson outlines three major challenges to material equality: first, it may be impossible, both to measure, and to achieve. Second, material equality interferes with human diversity. Humans have different talents, different interests, and different values, which in a free society get reflected in a range of goods & activities that individuals acquire and pursue. To try to enforce some kind of material equality would mean interfering with this diversity. That leads to the third problem, which is that material equality interferes with human dignity. Part of what it means to have human dignity is to have the capacity and the freedom to make choices. These choices are reflected in the way we live our lives; to respect the free choices that people make is to respect their dignity. Enforcing material equality would necessarily interfere with the free choices that people make.