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Midway through summer, the bank changed its office plan.

Unthinkable: Are freedom and equality inevitably in conflict?

When Anderson had started, the bookkeepers worked in rows of desks. Then cubicles were added. Their capacities as workers were affected, yet the change had come down from on high. These problems nagged at Anderson that summer and beyond. She had arrived at college as a libertarian who wanted to study economics. But she was stirred by his observational writings about the experience of work. Her summer at the bank drove home the fact that systemic behavior inside the workplace was part of the socioeconomic fabric, too: it mattered whether you were the person who got a clear check or a bounced check, whether a hierarchy made it easier or harder for you to excel and advance.

Yet economists had no way of factoring those influences into their thinking. As far as they were concerned, a job was a contract—an exchange of labor for money—and if you were unhappy you left. The nature of the workplace, where most people spent half their lives, was a black box. Anderson grew intellectually restless. She liked how philosophy approached big problems that cut across various fields, but she was most excited by methods that she encountered in the history and the philosophy of science. Like philosophers, scientists chased Truth, but their theories were understood to be provisional—tools for resolving problems as they appeared, models valuable only to the extent that they explained and predicted what showed in experiments.

A Newtonian model of motion had worked beautifully for a long time, but then people noticed bits of unaccountable data, and relativity emerged as a stronger theory. The bank experience showed how you could be oppressed by hierarchy, working in an environment where you were neither free nor equal.

But this implied that freedom and equality were bound together in some way beyond the basic state of being unenslaved, which was an unorthodox notion. Much social thought is rooted in the idea of a conflict between the two. If individuals exercise freedoms, conservatives like to say, some inequalities will naturally result. Those on the left basically agree—and thus allow constraints on personal freedom in order to reduce inequality. In this respect, it might seem odd that, through history, equality and freedom have arrived together as ideals.

What if the way most of us think about the relation between equality and freedom—the very basis for the polarized, intractable political division of this moment—is wrong? Working at the intersection of moral and political philosophy, social science, and economics, she has become a leading theorist of democracy and social justice. She has built a case, elaborated across decades, that equality is the basis for a free society.

Her work, drawing on real-world problems and information, has helped to redefine the way contemporary philosophy is done, leading what might be called the Michigan school of thought. Because she brings together ideas from both the left and the right to battle increasing inequality, Anderson may be the philosopher best suited to this awkward moment in American life. She builds a democratic frame for a society in which people come from different places and are predisposed to disagree. With a bit of time before her talk, she sat in a high-backed chair and spoke with undergraduates about her work.

The students, looking a touch wary, listened intently and stared.

Freedom and Equality - Oxford Handbooks

People who meet Anderson in the world often find that she is more approachable than they imagined an august philosopher to be. Most days, she wears a colorful cotton blouse, hiking sneakers, and hard-wearing khakis that could bear a carabiner full of keys. A few friends felt unsettled when she was interviewed on cable news earlier this year; it was the first time they had ever seen her wearing makeup.

In Ohio, she wore a loose black dress, trimmed in hot pink, over billowing pants and black flats. She crossed her right leg over her left and blinked as students formulated questions. As the students listened, she sketched out the entry-level idea that one basic way to expand equality is by expanding the range of valued fields within a society.


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Unlike a hardscrabble peasant community of yore in which the only skill that anyone cared about might be agricultural prowess, a society with many valued arenas lets individuals who are good at art or storytelling or sports or making people laugh receive a bit of love. She was trying to understand how hierarchies of esteem could be compatible with equality. Anderson replied with a bright cackle of delight: Hah-hah-hah!

Friends have noted that her laughter, like the autumn weather, comes in warm and chilly forms. There is, more ominously, a rough, guttural chuckle of declining barometric pressure Hhhh-aahr-aahr-aahr , with which she introduces ideas she considers comically, dangerously bad. In general, Anderson is outgoing when conversation turns to ideas and shy about other things.

Now she cleared her throat noisily. She spread her hands wider. A few years after her summer at the bank, Anderson was back in Cambridge, as a Harvard graduate student, studying political and moral philosophy under the mentorship of John Rawls. At a dinner party one evening, she was introduced to a former philosophy undergraduate named David Jacobi. He was smart, winsomely geeky, and uncommonly kind, and he had a thing for brainy women.

They began dating.


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Jacobi wound up in medical school. Anderson wound up teaching at Michigan. She was touched when he requested a hospital near her, in Detroit, for his internship. Sometime after that, they got married, though neither recalls exactly when. As Anderson toured apartments, though, she noticed other forces in play. Greater Detroit was effectively segregated by race.

1d. Democratic Values — Liberty, Equality, Justice

Oak Park had middle-class white sections and middle-class black sections. Now she felt herself being swept, as a middle-class white woman, into a particular zone. To the extent that it constrained her options, it felt like an impingement on freedom. To the extent that it entrenched racial hierarchy, it seemed anti-egalitarian as well. Do we want things to be equal where we start in life or where we land?

When inequalities arise, what are the knobs that we adjust to get things back on track?

Individually, people are unequal in countless ways, and together they join groups that resist blending. How do you build up a society that allows for such variety without, as in the greater-Detroit real-estate market, turning difference into a constraint? How do you move from a basic model of egalitarian variety, in which everybody gets a crack at being a star at something, to figuring out how to respond to a complex one, where people, with different allotments of talent and virtue, get unequal starts, and often meet with different constraints along the way?

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The problem, she proposed, was that contemporary egalitarian thinkers had grown fixated on distribution: moving resources from lucky-seeming people to unlucky-seeming people, as if trying to spread the luck around. This was a weird and nebulous endeavor. Is an heir who puts his assets into a house in a flood zone and loses it unlucky—or lucky and dumb? Or consider a woman who marries rich, has children, and stays at home to rear them crucial work for which she gets no wages.

Why equality is unhelpful as a political goal

If she leaves the marriage to escape domestic abuse and subsequently struggles to support her kids, is that bad luck or an accretion of bad choices? Egalitarians should agree about clear cases of blameless misfortune: the quadriplegic child, the cognitively impaired adult, the teen-ager born into poverty with junkie parents. But Anderson balked there, too. By categorizing people as lucky or unlucky, she argued, these egalitarians set up a moralizing hierarchy. In the article, she imagined some citizens getting a state check and a bureaucratic letter:.

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To the disabled: Your defective native endowments or current disabilities, alas, make your life less worth living than the lives of normal people. To the ugly and socially awkward:. This was, at heart, an exercise of freedom. The trouble was that many people, picking up on libertarian misconceptions, thought of freedom only in the frame of their own actions. Egalitarians should focus policy attention on areas where that order had broken down. Being homeless was an unfree condition by all counts; thus, it was incumbent on a free society to remedy that problem.

Anderson was born early, at three pounds six ounces, and stayed small through childhood, wearing toddler-size clothes into the second grade. For years, she scarcely spoke; she had a lisp and seemed loath to reveal the imperfection. Eve recalls passing her bedroom and hearing her practicing her name repeatedly, E-liz-a-beth, trying to get it right. It was the first full sentence that she had ever uttered. Their household, in Manchester, Connecticut, was mixed and fluid. They helped found a local Unitarian Universalist worship space.

Eve volunteered at the local Democratic Party headquarters and had campaigned for Adlai Stevenson; in , Olof was elected to a Democratic seat on the Manchester board of directors. She, in contrast, felt awkward and anxious. The reading led to other interests. The world outside seemed untidy; she found peace in the stability of shared ideas.