The desire for a more equal society, satirised in Orwell’s novel, has been the driving force behind numerous political movements: from communist revolutionaries and pro-democracy campaigners to feminists, civil rights activists and advocates of VAT on school fees. Equality is a fundamental value in socialism and – in a different guise – liberalism, while even one-nation conservatives caution against allowing an excessively large gap between rich and poor.

But what exactly are the various advocates of equality attempting to equalise, why do they support this, and what criticisms may be levelled at their arguments? This article attempts a brief overview of this complex terrain.

Socialists – from Marxists to moderate social democrats – typically argue for greater economic equality of outcome. This is normally understood as meaning a more even distribution of income and/or wealth (and access to the goods they can purchase) than those seen under capitalism or other hierarchical systems such as feudalism or imperialism. Only the most extreme, however, seek absolute equality; indeed, Karl Marx himself does not, as his adage “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” (1875, Critique of the Gotha Programme) acknowledges that people should have different roles in society and receive different shares of its resources. Individuals’ requirements may differ, for instance, depending on their age, family circumstances or state of health, so simply assigning everyone the same income would not result in them all being equally satisfied. In democratic contexts, socialist governments have tended to focus on reducing income inequalities rather than eradicating them altogether, through such measures as progressive taxes, means-tested benefits and statutory minimum wages, as well as ensuring equal access to the most ‘basic’ goods – health, education, housing – through state provision. The principle of the NHS funded by taxation and ‘free at the point of delivery’ is an apt example.

For liberal thinkers, their goal is not typically to equalise outcomes but rather processes, or way that individuals are treated in certain respects. Classical liberals support a foundation of equal rights – to life, liberty and property as a minimum – backed by equal status before the law and, as democratic institutions became more commonplace from the late nineteenth-century, a degree of equal input into public decision-making. However, while rejecting traditional social hierarchies based on class, ethnicity or gender, classical liberalism is nonetheless willing to tolerate a considerable degree of economic inequality. Its favoured free market system tends to result in significant disparities between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, with family support and inherited wealth often having a decisive impact on one’s living standards and career prospects. Levels of poverty such as those seen in Victorian Britain, under a broadly classical liberal regime, restrict prospects for social advancement no matter how hard one worked. And notwithstanding the liberal commitment to equal rights in principle, major disparities persisted for example between the economic and political standing of women and men.

In response, modern liberals of the twentieth century such as T H Green and (later) John Rawls, adapted the classical view to embrace equality of opportunity. To stand an equal chance of flourishing, they argued, all people must have the same access to ‘enabling’ goods such as education and health care, which give them the chance to succeed through their own efforts. This in turn necessitates a degree of economic intervention by the state. Notably, however, Rawls explicitly rejects equality of outcome, instead favouring a “difference principle” which aims to maximise the well-being of the worst-off person or group in society (1971, A Theory of Justice). So, if an unequal distribution affords those at its lower end a higher absolute level of income than they would enjoy under a more equal distribution, Rawls’ preference is for the former (with the proviso that everyone has equal opportunity to rise through the economic ranks). A market economy may thus be better than egalitarian communism, provided the greater prosperity it generates also benefits those at the bottom of the income-scale.

Some on the radical left counter that the modern liberal notion of equality of opportunity is insufficient to ensure social justice. Socialist philosopher R H Tawney (1931, Equality) used a memorable metaphor of a pond which every spring contains thousands of tadpoles, only a tiny percentage of which are destined to become fully-grown frogs. The vast bulk of them are eaten, outcompeted for nutrients or otherwise fail to achieve adulthood. Tawney argues that while no tadpole is technically refused an equal opportunity to survive, the chance of this so negligible that it is of little meaningful benefit to them. Likewise in human society, he infers, ’opportunities’ are only meaningful if one has a realistic prospect of taking them.

Arguments for equality can be justified on a number of grounds: moral, political and economic. They broadly divide in two strands: those which view equality as inherently valuable (broadly philosophical in nature), and those which emphasise the beneficial consequences of an equal society (potentially provable by evidence). The view that an equal distribution of goods is morally just may be grounded on the ethical assumption that each human is fundamentally of equal value or worth, or indeed the theological basis that we are all ‘equal in the eyes of God’. It might be deemed especially unjust that factors beyond an individual’s control – their family of birth, genetically-determined abilities and talents, and other sources of good or ill-fortune – should translate into significantly different levels of material living standards.

Those who focus on the positive consequences of equality cite a number of supposed advantages in comparison with unequal societies. These include, among others: crime rates (unequal shares being a possible motive for unlawful behaviour), poor health or educational outcomes (which are often the product of an impoverished and excluded underclass), or less tangible goals such as a better sense of community and civic belonging. In Sybil (1845), Conservative Prime Minister Disraeli expressed his fear that a profoundly unequal society could fracture into “two nations […] the rich and the poor”, as people of vastly differing lifestyles have little understanding of each other’s experiences, priorities and desires. An interesting empirical study of the relationship between equality and social outcomes can be found in Pickett and Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level (2010), which uses statistical data to suggest that, on average, more equal societies do better on measures such as life expectancy, mental health, literacy and crime prevention.

Opponents of equality again divide into those who reject the idea outright, and those who condemn the means used to implement it (or the unintended consequences thereof). Belief in a natural or divinely ordained social hierarchy, as advocated by French counter-enlightenment figure Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), may be somewhat outdated. But a larger number still defend the view that resource allocation should be based on individual merit, with those who are law-abiding and industrious deserving better social and economic rewards than criminals or free-loaders. Defenders of a market economy make the related, if more pragmatic, argument that inequalities of income and wealth are necessary to provide motivation to work hard, and create businesses and innovations which drive economic growth. They ascribe the poor economic performance of communist states, for instance, to the lack of financial incentives offered to higher achievers. And lastly, right-wing libertarians such as Robert Nozick see the reallocation of goods to achieve a desired distribution as threatening freedom, as it involves removing the property of some people (by taxation or other forms of asset seizure) to benefit the perceived interests of others. For Nozick, this is an unacceptable infringement of the rights of individuals, who he insists “may not be sacrificed or used for the achieving of other ends without their consent” (1974, Anarchy, State, and Utopia).

With recent discussions addressing income disparities on a global scale, and those which continue to exist between demographic groups, debates about equality and its value seem more relevant than ever. The quest for equality among human animals remains as far from resolution as the power struggles on Orwell’s farmyard.

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