A hotly contested political debate occurring is about the eternally powerful concept of equality. This debate conjures up many mental images. These images range from The Founding Fathers and their views on equality, to celebrities and athletes who espouse equality ideals, to modern Marxists who claim that the goal of a totally equal society is still possible and desirable. Yet…as with many philosophical ideas, equality lies within the eye of the beholder. This is why the current debate is so strong.
In a nutshell, a difference of opinion exists as to whether it’s better to have equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome. This is where the debate gets intense. Basically, those who believe in a strong market-based economy tend to favor building a society that has a certain measure of equality of opportunity. In line with this is the assumption that its not in society’s interest to dictate who succeeds the most in life. On the other end of the spectrum are those who say that creating equality of opportunity is difficult at best. They claim that systemic limitations place certain groups at a disadvantage and that government needs to work at creating equality of outcome for them. Basically, many Republicans and Libertarians are in favor of a society that works to maintain equality of opportunity. On the other side, many Democrats and Socialists are in favor of a society that works to create equality of outcome.
On a common sense level, its obvious that creating a society where everyone has equal opportunity to achieve equal outcomes is difficult to achieve. After all, even in communist societies there are powerful members of the communist party that have opportunities for success ordinary citizens don’t. As a result, the outcomes in a communist society are not as equal as leaders advertise. Therefore, even in countries that verbally place total equality as a goal, the actual attainment of the goal proves hard to achieve.
The end of the Cold War and breakup of the Soviet Union ushered in recognition that attaining total equality of both opportunity and outcome was no longer possible. This recognition influenced communist countries like China to adopt free-market ideas into their economy. As a result, China now has a dynamic economy. The abandonment by China of seeking total equality taps into the psychological belief that people are not as bothered by inequality as previously thought. This is because many people value having individual freedom instead of creating a totally equal society.
One of the difficulties encountered in communist countries is that to achieve total equality they need tight control on most economic activity. As a result, economic production in communist countries is often weak due to the high level of control the government exerts. And subsequently, the low level of economic activity in these countries often has a detrimental impact on the lives of everyday citizens. The day-to-day struggles of those currently living in North Korea and Venezuela are examples of communist countries that have sacrificed economic progress in the name of creating total equality.
If total equality has been difficult to achieve, then why does it still have such a pull on the psyche? And in addition, why do so many in all walks of life talk about it in various ways? Part of the explanation for this is the fact that its been proven in many countries that having a certain amount of equality has created a more fair society. Therefore, human nature being what it is, the question of balancing out equality issues with other factors can sometimes be downplayed. The reasoning with equality is that if a moderate amount has been helpful, then increasing that amount will improve things more. Unfortunately, pushing for total equality often throws many things out of balance and can lead to tyranny.
In countries with a strong free-market such as America, many believe that equality of opportunity creates a dynamic society that benefits all in the long run. When this respect for equality of opportunity is coupled with the fact Americans enjoy a high amount of personal freedom, it explains how American history is full of stories of many who charted their own course and achieved much in their lifetimes.
As for the idea of trying to guarantee a certain amount of equality of outcome for those who’ve been at a disadvantage, it’s hard to say this is wrong. After all, it’s been shown that when judiciously applied, affirmative action has helped certain groups achieve a level of success they may not have achieved otherwise.
Although the debate between equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome will endure, the concept of ensuring a basic level of equality and fairness has proven to be eternal. The nature of the equality debate mostly revolves around how much equality is practical economically, and whether a loss of personal freedom is worth creating a totally equal society.
Historically, America represented one of the strongest breaks from the monarchical form of government. In this sense, America’s respect for equality of opportunity, whereby the old class structures of the monarchy were swept away, helped inspire many other countries to find the strength to give democracy a try. For this, we all should be eternally grateful.