A Brief for Equality


Liberal critics of economic inequality are willing to say that it’s wrong for the richest 1% of households in the U.S. to own 42% of the nation’s financial wealth or to pocket 20% of all annual income. But even mild criticism of economic inequality is often accompanied by the disclaimer “but I’m not saying that everyone should get the same.” This verbal retreat from equality helps to deflect accusations of radicalism or naive egalitarianism.

Perhaps it’s stating the obvious to say that American liberalism does not truly aspire to equality. The goals, more modestly, are to reduce poverty, raise the lowest wages, create more jobs, mend the social safety net, and eliminate discrimination—all so that more people get a shot at claiming a slice of the economic pie. These are the eminently decent goals advocated by Robert Reich, Bernie Sanders, and other social democrats.

But if equality is a moral good in itself, one that resonates with other moral goods and yields many practical benefits, we should not back away from defending it as a long-term goal. We should instead examine and reaffirm its value. Treating economic equality—not just the marginal reduction of gross inequality—as an ultimate goal also reminds us that it’s necessary to abolish the political and economic arrangements that disallow it.

Liberal arguments generally reject equality in favor of equity. Disparities in wealth and income are fine, it is said, as long as these disparities are proportionate to differences in ability, effort, and contribution. In this view, fortunes fairly earned, presuming that such fortunes don’t impose hardship on anyone else, are not obstacles to a good and just society.

In a class society, however, endorsing equity protects deeper inequalities, given that abilities and motivation are largely the results of circumstances over which people have no control. What class means is that nurturance, resources, and opportunities—those things that underlie the development of ability from childhood through adulthood—are unequally distributed from the start. Thus to invoke equity to justify inequality is ideological artifice. In the context of a capitalist society, to invoke differences in ability to justify inequality is to use the outcomes of inequality to justify the perpetuation of inequality.

The claim that economic inequality is justified based on the differential value of people’s contributions to society is no less ideological. It is not an objective weighing on Platonic scales that leads us to think that a doctor should earn more than a mechanic, or that a hedge fund manager should earn more than a teacher. If we accept such inequalities, it is because our thinking about what constitutes a valuable contribution has been shaped by the impression management of occupational groups and by a capitalist culture that would have us equate social value with money-making prowess. The conflation of money with value performs another ideological trick: it implies that wealth is the best indicator of the deservingness of wealth.

When the writers of the Declaration of Independence said that all men are created equal, they were thinking of themselves—not only in relation to each other but especially in relation to European aristocrats. They were not thinking of women or people of African descent. Yet if we take it at face value, we can admire the moral grandeur of their premise: that no one is naturally or divinely endowed with more dignity, spiritual value, worthiness of respect, or right to thrive than anyone else.

But extolling equality is mere posturing if it engenders no resistance to slavery, or to the exploitation of labor, or to inequality in wealth, or to inherited privilege. This contradiction is apparent looking back at the founding fathers, though it is harder to see when looking at ourselves and the unequal arrangements we accept today. Rather than gloss this contradiction with tranquilizing rhetoric, we should strive to resolve it, concretely, in favor of equality—meaning that, yes, everyone should get pretty much the same.

One reason we are willing to resign ourselves to inequality is that we too seldom consider the value of equality. Taking it to be self-evidently true that equality is right and good does little to help us think about why equality is desirable. It also leaves us in a weak position to oppose the counter axiom that all people are not equal in any way that should dictate an equal distribution of resources. Why, then, is equality more desirable than inequality?

One reason is that inequality is incompatible with democracy. If we believe that everyone ought to have some say-so over the conditions of his or her life, then it’s clear that economic inequality—which always creates an imbalance of political power—is a bad thing. Democracy, by implication, can be fully realized only by equally sharing the material resources that enable people to join effectively in community decision making. If we believe in democracy, we should prefer equality to inequality.

A second reason is that economic inequality skews the development of human potential. To the extent that economic inequality allows some people to develop their capacities to the fullest, while denying others this possibility, there is an injustice done to individuals. The human community suffers as well, given that inequality wastes potential that could, if developed, benefit us all. If we believe in the right to develop one’s potential to the fullest, and believe that guaranteeing such a right serves humanity as a whole, we should prefer equality to inequality.

A third reason is that economic inequality impairs empathy. Wealth inevitably conduces to diminished regard for the humanity of those who live by selling their labor. It might even be said that inequality requires a limiting of empathy, it being necessary for those with wealth to ignore the desires and suffering of those whom they treat as instruments or resources. To feel fully with the other, the other who suffers from inequality, would threaten the emotional detachment that cements every unjust social order. If we believe that empathy is essential to being human, we should prefer equality to inequality.

A fourth reason is that economic inequality undermines human dignity because it allows some people to free themselves from boring, dirty, dangerous work, while putting the burden of this work onto others, who are then disdained because of the low-status work they are compelled to perform. There is a parallel here to racial segregation. Just as segregation came to be seen as inherently unjust because it encodes a message of inferiority, so we should recognize that class—the unequal distribution of resources, opportunities, respect, and self-determination—encodes the same message and produces similar harm. Believing in the right to an equal measure of dignity and respect, we abolished racial segregation. For the same reason, we should abolish class.

A fifth reason for preferring equality to inequality is that economic inequality is rooted in exploitation. This is true of any economy in which some kind of force, if only the compulsion to work for those who own and control the means of production, is used to extract value from the time, labor, and intellect of others. In such a context, to accept economic inequality is to accept the legitimacy of the economic relations that generate it. If we believe that exploitation is wrong, we should strive for equality as a way of affirming this belief.

Many people steeped in the culture of capitalism have been taught to believe that an equal sharing of the world’s resources would result in a drab sameness—a gray, sackcloth-and-ashes existence. But the opposite is true: equality would produce a flourishing of creativity and constructive diversity. The cultivation of talent that is possible now for only the privileged few would be possible for all. What’s more, an equal sharing of resources would by no means hinder the appreciation of virtuosity. There would in fact be more virtuosity and accomplishment to appreciate.

There is still no escaping first principles. My brief for equality rests on asserting the values of democracy, self-realization, empathy, dignity, and mutuality. Other people might reject these values. To this I offer a consequentialist rejoinder: only a society built on values consistent with equality will allow everyone to enjoy what the vast majority of human beings have sought from life throughout history. No society organized to enrich a ruling few at the expense of the many can produce such a result.

What I have called the liberal critique of inequality retreats from advocating the equal sharing of economic resources and turns to hollow talk of equity because this critique remains committed to capitalism, and a commitment to capitalism is a commitment to inequality. If we truly believe that equality is a moral good in itself and that it reflects and affirms what we most value in human social life, then the only politically coherent stance is to insist on it as a goal to aim for in the long run, no matter how far off it seems today.

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com

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