Equality has often become a rallying cry on the left for progressive causes (see equal rights) but many conservatives call for certain kinds of equality as well. Equality can, after all, refer to many different aspects of life - from rights, to opportunity, to pay. It can imply all are ‘equal under the law,’ or ‘equally loved by God’ or ‘share the same dignity.’ It can mean equality of opportunity, respect, and life chances (not to mention weight, height, ability, and so on). Unfortunately, people often call for equality of one kind or another but don’t say exactly what they’re talking about. It can sometimes be helpful to ask: “equality of what?”
Social conservatives, libertarians, and economic conservatives typically defend equality of opportunity, with acceptance that such equality, when combined with liberty, will lead to unequal outcomes because people have different priorities, passions, skills, levels of work ethic, temperaments, personalities, interests, and abilities. From this perspective, unequal outcomes are understandable, fair and just. From this perspective, many (or even all) existing inequalities within nations that have fully capitalist economies arise from a system that offers significant equality of opportunity, and therefore liberal attacks on inequality are largely unjustified. The key for these conservatives is the provision of fair rules and equal application of those rules (equality under the law), with no favoritism, subsidies, or prohibitions imposed by government. From this vantage point, if societies provide liberty to all and impartially defend property rights and other rights, mostly as outlined in the Constituion, then any inequalities in those societies are just.
That said, there are complications. Most conservatives, for example, agree with liberals in thinking that there are certain goods and services that need to be provided fairly equally, with the help of government, because that provision either supports market activity or because those particular goods and services won’t be provided well by the “free market.” For example, some conservatives believe that government needs to play a role in providing water, or public parks, or quality education. When it comes to education, they may argue that markets need educated workers and owners, and markets on their own will not necessarily lead to investment in schooling everywhere that is needed. Conservatives do not, however, agree with each other on exactly which goods and services fall in this category (some very much disagree that government-provided education is good, at least in its current state, but perhaps ever). But they do agree in thinking that there are only a few such goods and services.
Most liberals and all leftists, on the other hand, believe that every industrial society, and the United States in particular, is now way too unequal in outcome. No one, however, argues for each person to be treated in identical fashion, or that everyone should have the same amount of everything (no, not even Karl Marx). The point of agreement among the left is this: when inequality that is greater than a certain amount (with disagreements on the amount or which things count), then equality of opportunity is simply not possible. And liberals and leftists think inequality has reached that point in the U.S. and then some.
Liberals and leftists often offer a longer list than conservatives of things that have to be equally possessed or available for society to be fair. And they have a longer list of goods and services that they say markets will never on their own provide in ways that meet people’s basic, essential needs. Can free markets provide equal opportunity to all to live in safe housing? Many say no, interventions are needed. This has led to what leftists say is a need for focus on equity rather than equality.
It should be clear by now that a big point of contention when it comes to equality is the fairness of capitalist economic systems, with a central issue being the degree to which labor markets provide equality of opportunity. Some would point out that where someone is located in the occupational structure (what kind of job they have) is central to so much about their lives: their household’s income and wealth, their life chances, their ability to exercise responsibility and make decisions at work, their health and safety, their provisions for retirement, if they can send their children to good schools and to college, how much flexibility of scheduling they have if any, and so on. Conservatives often defend any occupational structure that is the result of economic freedom, because, they say, that structure got to be that way because it is most efficient at wealth production, it rewards those who work harder and thus creates hard work, and it gets people into the jobs they are good at. Leftists say that these are merely fables and that power (including the political power companies have once they are big, the power big businesses have over small businesses, the power that employers have over employees) has everything do with the current occupational structure, that ladders of opportunity for ordinary laborers have been disappearing at a rapid rate, that much is inefficient about today’s oligopoly economies, and so on.
QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:
-Is it a bad thing that inequality exists in the world, or is it a natural thing?
-Is equality in every area equally important, or are there areas of equality that are more important than others?
-Do you agree with all efforts to improve equality, or are there some efforts that you oppose?
-So much of the polemic surrounding the word “equality” today sooner or later conjures up references to (or, depending on one’s point of view, “shades of”) Karl Marx. Do you think this matters? Does it matter what Marx actually said or thought on this matter? Why or why not? Wherever you stand on this question, it might be interesting to read an essay by Allen Wood on Marx’s views on equality here , or listen to Terry Eagleton’s views on Marx here, and discuss this with someone who disagrees with you.