What classical liberals call the market order — and what many people just make do with as “the free society” — is about reciprocity, not equality.
Further, the governmental institutions of such a society should not be based on the family, but should enable families and other voluntary, peaceful organizations to coexist. Neither of George Lakoff‘s competing family paradigms, right-wing “paternalism” or left-wing “maternalism” — nor the Abel-to-raise-Cain “fraternalism” of the French Revolution — should be idealized for great-society governance.
The “family” paradigm of the State, or civil society, is dangerous.
What we want are the standards that treat strangers not as family members, but as non-threats. That is, the stranger is not your brother, or sister, worth special concern. But neither should he or she be assumed to be The Enemy. The non-familial other must not be automatically regarded as an out-group usurper — unless the stranger actually starts usurping.
So, to repeat, the standard for the free society must not be family-based, but merely civilized. Allow for the stranger. Do not immediately include the stranger in intimate society.
In other words: a middle ground. Between social inclusion and social exclusion lies the just indifference and toleration and forbearance we give to unknown but sometimes quite nearby others. This middle ground is where manners should have its most important governing role.
Each person should not merely be allowed to favor his or her allies and clans and friends, but encouraged to do so. But those instances of inclusion must not be automatically construed so to exclude the outsider with force, bigotry or institutionalized persecution. The freedom of association that allows such a varied mix to flourish also requires non-inclusion, just not belligerent exclusion.
The equal application of the standard of justice is not equality as construed by today’s self-styled progressives. The classical republican virtue of the equal application of a universal standard allows for, indeed requires, reciprocal relations as the social norm. Not equality-as-identity, or as identical (or even comparable) allocations.
Now, the regime of contract that this enables is a kind of social equality — and that is all that Tocqueville meant when he wrote about the amazing “equality of conditions” in the America of 1835 — and is basically freedom as practically understood. This standard does not demand Christian charity to all comers. It demands the kind of commutative justice and limits to coercion that serve as the inherited commonsense morality of the Western tradition (and many Eastern traditions as well).
Distributive justice — “social justice,” with its advocates’ perverse love of a literal “equality” — has no place in the open society other than in voluntary associations. Which include families and clans and churches and synagogues as well as the local Rotary or Odd Fellows.
The motto for freedom-loving liberals (“libertarians”?) should not be “liberty, equality, fraternity,” but “liberty, reciprocity, civility.”