The difference between a liberty-centered democracy and an equality-centered democracy can be challenging to define largely because there can be so many different manifestations of each. At a basic level, the difference is fairly clear: liberty-centered democracies emphasize the individual over the collective, and equality-centered democracies focus on maintaining some degree of similar footing among the people. A liberty-centered democracy would protect freedom of choice at the expense of equality among its citizens. An equality-centered democracy, on the other hand, would promote equality at the expense of total freedom for its citizens.
Equality- and liberty-centered democracies might have numerous similarities, including equal treatment before the law, but there are some differences in terms of how the country is led and which laws are passed. Many democracies have some elements that promote liberty and others that promote equality, although they might have more of one than the other. The United States and France are two countries that can be used as examples in assessing the concepts of liberty- and equality-centered democracies. Both countries are based on democratic principles, but they are, in fact, republics.
France and Equality
France's republic arose out of the French Revolution, which was partly a reaction to the significant mistreatment of the lower classes by the nobility. To the revolutionaries, it seems, the greatest value, or at least the value of greatest focus, was equal treatment. Punishments that were enforced during the French Revolution were a first in terms of applying justice to the nobility and not just the peasant classes. Although the slogan of the French Revolution was Liberté, égalité, fraternité — that is, "liberty, equality, fraternity" — France, in general, puts greater value on equality than on liberty.
The U.S. and Liberty
Conversely, the U.S. is more liberty-centered. Individual rights generally are of greater importance than equal socioeconomic status for all. When that is the case, in the strictest sense, freedom takes greater weight, and differences — sometimes great differences — might result. France’s republic, on the other hand, seems to aim for a more even distribution of socioeconomic status, which, in turn, likely reduces individual liberty.
A Balancing Act
Democratic governments are faced, to some degree, with a basic balancing act — balancing freedom and equality. In pursuing freedom from restrictions, which is a main focus of people who call themselves libertarians, socioeconomic inequalities might result. To have true equality, however, additional laws might be imposed on the people, thereby limiting their freedom.
Examples of Differences
The differences between a liberty-centered democracy and an equality-centered democracy manifest themselves in the areas of taxation and social welfare. The U.S., because of its focus on liberty, generally taxes less than France, for example. This gives U.S. citizens greater freedom to use their money as they see fit. Alternatively, because of its focus on equality for all citizens, France taxes more heavily but provides its citizens with benefits such as universal healthcare, which the U.S. did not provide as of 2011.
Arguments are often made for both types of governments. Shifts in political orientation among public leaders and the populace at large can change a government's focus. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, attempted to use the New Deal to shift the U.S. to a more equality-centered government. Those who wished to keep the U.S. liberty-centered often resisted his efforts.