“Equality” is a word often heard in political discourse. But those of differing views tend to use it with incompatible and even opposing meanings. So today, I’m going to look at different ways in which the word “equality” is used in a political context. And I’ll try to elucidate my own view on the matter.
As a first cut at answering the question “What is equality?” I’ll simply give two quotes from the great 17th-century liberal thinker, John Locke:
- [Equality is…] “...that equal right that every man hath to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man.”
- “A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.”
So, in a state of equality, no-one has a right to control others or to order them around. And any one-sided power, which one has over another, must be counterbalanced by equal and opposite power, which the other has over the one. For Locke, equality is political equality.
And here are views on equality from four more fine thinkers of the past:
- “Equality consists in the same treatment of similar persons...” – Aristotle.
- “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.” – Milton Friedman.
- “A claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers.” – Friedrich von Hayek.
- “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” – George Orwell.
For a view from the political left, I’ll give you words of the American labour leader and pacifist, Eugene Victor Debs. “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” Such a criticism could just as well be levelled at today’s ruling classes; including politicians, those that set their agendas, and their corporate cronies.
Kinds of equality
So, what kinds of equality are commonly put forward as desirable for all?
First, political equality, as understood by Locke: no right to rule over others, and no subjection to others. Second, moral equality. Under this kind of equality, right and wrong are the same for everyone. This leads towards the concept of the rule of law.
Third, equality of opportunity. The idea here is that people should be allowed to advance themselves by using their own talents and abilities, and putting in their own efforts. And they should never be denied opportunities merely because they have, for example, the wrong skin colour, religion, gender or sexual tastes, or because they don’t belong to the right family.
Fourth, favoured by many on the political left, is equality of outcome. This is the idea that rewards should be similar for all, regardless of talents or of how well an individual applies them.
Areas of inequality
Those, that claim to favour equality, perceive problems of inequality in many areas. The most obvious is economic inequality. Some people are paid more than others. And there are those that think this is wrong in itself, even when an individual justly earns everything he receives. Some go even further, saying that it’s wrong for some people to possess more wealth than others.
Other areas in which they see inequality as an issue are: Gender inequality (which today is usually an accusation of mistreatment of women by men). Racial or religious inequality; for example, failure to allow civil liberties to those of particular races or religions. And social inequality, such as one class of people obstructing the prospects of other classes of people. Among such claimed divides we may include capitalists against workers, the “toffs” against the “plebs,” the public sector against the private, and the rich against the poor.
Then there is international inequality, which is said to favour unfairly those who live in relatively well run countries, against those who live in relatively badly run ones. And even within countries, there are claims of inequalities between groups in areas like education and health care.
Looking at these shades of inequality, I see that those that make inequality out to be a problem often want to go well beyond equality of opportunity, towards something much closer to equality of outcome. This, as Hayek pointed out, can only be accomplished by a tyranny. And moreover, a tyranny that has no compunction about taking resources from the talented, the hard-working, the honest and the deserving, and re-distributing them to the mediocre, the lazy, the dishonest and the undeserving.
My own view
I am a strong supporter of political equality. For me, no-one has an innate right to control other adult people. This is not to say that people may not, by mutual agreement, enter into a contract, in which one may tell the other what to do in a limited area of life. The relationship between an employer and an employee is a case in point.
I also do not mean to imply that I reject the idea of government. For when people form a government to defend themselves and their rights and freedoms against internal criminals or external attackers, they delegate to it sufficient powers to enable it to carry out these functions. But government should be like an umpire in a sporting contest. It must not try to become a player in the game. It must not take sides. It must not try to impose agendas. It must not let itself become a danger to, or a drain on, the people it is supposed to defend. And it must stay within the remit – for example, the maintenance of peace and the implementation of civil and criminal justice – for which the people gave it its powers in the first place.
On moral equality, my view is both strong and clear. Every individual, without exception, is morally equal. I like to put this as: What is right for one to do, is right for another to do under similar circumstances, and vice versa. And to those that quibble, I say: If not, then exactly who is to be allowed moral privilege over others? How much? When? For what reasons? Who are you to decide? And why should you yourself not be thrown down to the very bottom of the heap?
Further, I contend that there exists a basic core of morality, which is, or should be, common to all human beings. Though I do, of course, recognize that groups of people may choose to get together, and to obey among themselves particular sets of laws and customs which differ from, or go beyond, this core. Such as, for example: Venerating a particular deity. Holding property in common, not privately. Not eating pork. Not drinking alcohol. Or not allowing abortions.
As to equality of opportunity, I think the idea is misconceived. What everyone should have is not equality of opportunity, but abundance of opportunity. No-one should ever put obstacles in the way of those who want to create and to take opportunities, both economic and personal, as long as their actions do not cause damage or unreasonable risk to others.
Lastly, I find that those, that promote equality of outcome, fail to acknowledge that the political action needed to bring about such equality requires huge inequality of political power. And they are, frequently, among the richest and the least productive in society – for example, politicians that are paid huge fees to give speeches.
Worse, the political actions they favour are often based on a zero-sum view of society. They seem to think that the only way to benefit the people they claim to want to help is to take resources away from other people and re-distribute them. They focus, not on helping the few who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own, but on forcing one group of people to help another. Moreover, they like to demand sacrifices from other people, but they usually won’t make any such sacrifices themselves. And they often take away from people the opportunity to help themselves, and end up doing more harm than good; as with minimum wage laws.
To sum up. I favour political and moral equality for all. I want to see, not equality of opportunity, but abundance of opportunity. And I am entirely opposed to those that seek to bring about equality of outcome without regard to talents and application.