What is the Difference Between a Liberty-Centered Democracy and a Equality-Centered Democracy?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

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.

FDRs New Deal was a shift toward equality-centered government.
FDRs New Deal was a shift toward equality-centered government.

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's republic arose out of the French Revolution, which was partly a reaction to the significant mistreatment of the lower classes by the nobility.
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.

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.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I think this is an interesting topic for discussion. Both the values of liberty and equality are important. The freedom to have some control over your future is important. And, having some people live in abject poverty while others live extremely well doesn't feel good either.

The question, I think, becomes one of degree. On the spectrum, I think I fall somewhere in the middle, but closer to the liberty side. But I think you might find a difference of opinion on this issue, at least among Americans, based on immigration. I have a feeling that immigrants that came from other countries without opportunity (like perhaps those from former communist countries) value liberty more than equality. And perhaps Americans that haven't really known what it is like to not have that liberty, focus on equality because that is what they may have experienced. It's the lack of opportunity, to earn according to their hard work that immigrants may have most felt without in their former homes.

Perhaps liberty has primary or more importance in a democracy, and then after that liberty is achieved we can entertain a more nuanced issue of equality. But complete equality or near complete equality, I think, doesn't spur hard work and innovation. Seeing the fruits of your labor, I think, does.

As for the US, it is known as the land of opportunity rather than the land of equality, no? And isn't that (opportunity), the appeal that America has had since it's inception?



I couldn't agree less. I think that we have long had a liberty centered democracy that has not focused enough on the equalities necessary for all to pursue happiness. Liberty centered democracies do things like deregulate, and we can all thank deregulation for the current conflict in the stock market.

Imagine how this sort of liberty idea would have affected a privatized social security system in the last few days.

Freedom is great if all act as if they live together-- when people don't act this way, and they frequently don't act as if their neighbors, employees and the like are actually equal partners in the society, then using regulatory measures in the form of laws and regulations to define what constitutes good behavior and citizenship is important.

Your point about high taxation and hard work is unfounded based on the nations where higher taxation exists: the UK, Denmark, France. There are plenty of hard workers in these states and still plenty of freedom too.


In a liberty-oriented democracy there is an equality of opportunity. So while everybody has a chance, a possibility of achieving, not everybody achieves equally. This is because achievement is the result of an individual's ability and willingness to work hard.

In an equality-based democracy, liberty is lost to a large degree with laws that stifle individuals' drive for achievement and accomplishment. Since there is high taxation, there is less incentive to work hard, with some exceptions of course, but in the general sense.

The reason the US is so accomplished and people from other parts of the world want to immigrate to the US is precisely for for that reason, equality of opportunity.

I hope the US has enough wisdom to continue with the liberty-oriented democracy.

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