What Kind of (In)Equality Do We Want?

Photo Credit: Jessica Tam Flickr

When analyzing any phenomena, it helps to have a good idea what we want to achieve. In political science as in life, equality has great significance. Analysts tend to think quite differently from the general public, however, about what constitutes equality and how we should use the term. Let’s consider a thought experiment to sort out the difference between ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of condition’.

If we imagine that equality of opportunity and equality of condition are kinds of ideal types at opposite poles, with a spectrum of variations in between, then the picture might look something like this: under ‘equality of condition’ everyone would experience the same life outcomes: equal incomes, equal standards of living, and equal levels of education, health care, and work. How would things differ? Likely inequality would creep in through limited means: for example, some may work longer hours, have more or less education, spend more or less time skiing, etc.

What is wrong with this picture? The most common criticisms of this ‘absolute equality’ are:

It reduces the incentive to succeed, and 2. It distorts the value of things, leading to scarcities and gluts in supply.

Society involves differential treatment.

But these are practical criticisms, not questions of justice.   Would absolute equality actually be ‘just’?  Assuming for the moment that such a system could be workable (and I’m not saying it is) then an argument could be made that it actually creates injustice by failing to differentiate among people with ascribed or inherent differences who deserve differential outcomes.  Those who work harder or are more creative or who are disabled or ill should be treated differently.  Some may deserve preferential access to resources either as a result of their extra effort, their accomplishment or contributions, or by virtue of need.  Tellingly, the right more often argues for differential outcomes based on effort and accomplishment, while ‘need’ tends to take second place. It is sometimes said that such a system would be communistic.  However, under Marx’s vision of communism, the ideal form of equality actually allowed for differential rewards focusing on need rather than accomplishment or contribution. Contrary to popular belief, Marx did not advocate absolute equality of condition. Indeed, nobody has, in all seriousness, ever really proposed that large-scale industrial societies impose absolute equality of condition.  This is because serious thinkers would quickly realize that equality of condition, even in its ideal form, would inevitably raise both practical and fairness questions since there would still need to be some argument for different treatment of some people.  Nobody is average.

Now, what about equality of opportunity? That sounds like something we can all get behind: everybody can try or fail equally well, and those with the greatest accomplishments and talents will rise to the top. This is kind of what Paul Summerville argues when he says:

Equality of opportunity is a virtue when it is twinned with unequal outcomes. It is meaningless without it. What is the point of equality opportunity if success is discouraged by custom, law, or taxation?

But, to respond to this, how can we be sure that everyone actually has an equal opportunity to try, and to win? Inequality all by itself is not evidence of equality of opportunity. What if the winners try to ‘kick the ladder out’ from behind them, blocking the upward advance of others? What if they use their newfound positions to favour their heirs and families and friends rather than allow their loved ones to fail? Perhaps when we see that some are able to climb up to the top from the very bottom of the social ladder without artificial assistance from the state, then we can say that equality of opportunity exists. But how many of these examples are sufficient to prove it? One? One in ten? One in a thousand? The fact is there is no natural or inevitable level of inequality that can tell us when everyone truly has an equal chance. We can point to clues: perhaps when the top 1% is as diverse and representative of the entire society, or when every member of the top group can claim to have climbed out of the gutter, but that seems as unlikely as the ideally equal society discussed above. The question of fairness rises again: even in a society in which opportunities are purely equally distributed, there will be unfairness due to the same factors mentioned above: What about those disadvantaged by illness or age or poor upbringing? What about highly talented or accomplished individuals who don’t manage to make it through no fault of their own? why value some talents more than others?

Given differences, how can we be sure that equality of opportunity exists?
Given differences, how can we be sure that equality of opportunity exists?

Again, the argument to treat some people differently in order for equality of opportunity to be realized is present. But, the same question arises: what should be the basis for differential treatment? Here, the differences between the two poles start to disappear: the essential argument is not about equality at all, but about the basis and rationale for differences. Both sides work toward an ideal world that is impractical and unfair, yet both sides argue for ‘differential’ treatment on the basis of different individual characteristics. The right argues that differential treatment should be based on talents or contributions, while the left focuses on compensating for special needs and other (class) disadvantages.

The world we actually live in is of course far more complicated. Equality before the law, which is the dominant discourse of equality in Canada and other Western liberal democracies, is actually a fall-back position avoiding both of the options described above. It doesn’t guarantee equality of opportunity and it doesn’t mitigate inequalities of condition. At most, it provides a measure of our progress toward some compromise on fairness and practicality. It’s not irrelevant, far from it! The legal guarantees of the Voting Rights Act or protections for gay marriage or for equality between religious beliefs do matter, but not for the reasons we think. They matter less because they create equal opportunities, and more because they clarify the legitimate grounds for treating people differently. The fact that people are all, in some way, treated differently by society still needs to be acknowledged by all participants in the equality debate.

The next two blog posts will address the sources of present-day inequality in globalization, and the basis for differential treatment and its centrality to equality.

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