Equal Authority

In my last article I argued that equal treatment is not a principle of justice. There are various formulations of equal treatment – equality under he law, equality of opportunity, or equality of outcome, for instance. I’ve sought to demonstrate that these formulations are incoherent, that they add nothing to justice, and they strongly tend to erode justice.

In Equality: The Unknown Ideal, Roderick Long points to a very different kind of equality as the foundation of justice. First he draws our attention to a passage from an early draft of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable: that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But what sort of equality did Jefferson have in mind, in claiming to derive rights from “equal creation”?


For the answer to this question we must turn from Jefferson to Jefferson’s source, John Locke, who tells us exactly what “equality” in the libertarian sense is: namely, a condition

wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection….

In short, the equality that Locke and Jefferson speak of is equality in authority: the prohibition of any “subordination or subjection” of one person to another. Since any interference by A with B’s liberty constitutes a subordination or subjection of B to A, the right to liberty follows straightforwardly from the equality of “power and jurisdiction.” As Locke explains:

[B]eing all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions…. And, being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorise us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours.

Locke points to the self-evident fact that no individual is born with moral authority over, or moral subordination to, any other individual. By nature individuals have equal authority – legitimate authority over their own lives, but not over the lives of others.

Right there, Locke has essentially derived the non-aggression principle, a priori. The fact that individuals naturally have equal moral authority means that no individual can morally aggress against another.

Notice that equal authority in no way implies equal treatment of the types previously discussed. The only offense against equal authority is forceful interference with another individual’s legitimate authority over himself.

This coincides perfectly with what I said in my last article:

So what is just? There is a very simple principle of justice and it has been identified by libertarians – justice is embodied in the principle of non-aggression. Aggression is unjust and the proper goal of libertarianism is to identify and curtail such injustice. That’s it.

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