Lawyers and public commentators in Barbados have now discovered the concept of human rights, but missing from public political and economic discourse is any reference to inequality, the moral foundation of a fair and just society. The nearest we come to any mention of inequality in public space is the flawed reference to so-called free education, which disciples of the late Errol Barrow hold as the mark of his great contribution to post-war Barbados. But, after dominating public discussions since the Black Power era and the student rebellion of the 1960s, both Left and Right have returned to look at the relevance of equality in modern society. Some people have even intimated that in the post-Obama world the battle over equality has been won and we should move on. It is disingenuous. Even someone as radical as Roberto Mangabeira Unger, the Harvard professor and former minister of strategic affairs in Brazil, has called on progressives to abandon equality and replace it with something called deep freedom.
The posing of equality against freedom and human rights is a false dichotomy. What do we mean by freedom? Freedom from what? What do we mean by human rights? The idea of ‘freedom’ is a vacuous philosophical concept that has no grounding in the day-to-day lives of people living in a liberal democracy, despite its imperfections. A minority in control of an oppressive police force or military can understandably talk of freedoms, but that is a misinterpretation of the illegal behaviour of a powerful institution. A good example of this is the stop-and-frisk in New York or its equivalent stop and search in Britain, which has replaced the old Sus law, under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, introduced to control begging by deformed soldiers who had returned from the Napoleanic Warts. But the concept of equality has a firmer philosophical meaning, since it does not mean equality of outcomes, but of opportunities. It is also superior to the concept of human rights since embodied in equality are all the rights under the portmanteau term human rights.