The intellectual uses of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’

In response to my implied criticism of Andrew Leigh for assuming that increases in inequality are bad and decreases good, but never specifying for what level of inequality would satisfy him, commenter Leopold responds:

one could turn the criticism around. Liberals believe in liberty – but how much liberty, exactly?

Leopold’s argument (I am paraphrasing here) is that preferences for greater equality or greater liberty are rules of thumb to be applied to specific circumstances, but there are cases where social democrats could accept less equality and liberals accept less liberty. We can’t always precisely calculate the final overall result of all these complex trade-offs to say what is the exactly right amount of equality or liberty. But this doesn’t invalidate the initial assumption that, all other things being equal, more equality or more liberty (depending on your philosophical position) is desirable.

I think Leopold’s point is reasonable. For example, I say that there should be less tax, and while I have clear pet hates among government spending programmes (eg FTB) that I think should be cut to reduce general tax rates, I never say exactly how much tax I think should be levied or what tax rates I would be happy with.

High-level political abstractions gives us intellectual tools that help organise our understanding of the world, but they don’t necessarily provide answers for specific problems. That requires far more detailed analysis.
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