the plan for the future
The state might play a role in helping to secure or promote equality, and the the State itself may operate under some equality based constraints. Many political philosophers begin with some assumptions about the importance of seeing each person within a society as equals in some important sense. For example, in accordance with basic rule of law of values, there's some sense that similar cases ought to be treated equally under the law. There should not be unequal treatment on the basis of wealth or of a certain racial or religious background. Similarly many think that we should all have an equal say in what political decisions are taken, or at least in who will serve as our representatives if we are to choose a representative.
There may also be a more positive role for the state to play in terms of promoting economic or social equality. The state may help by insuring that, despite very unequal starting positions, we all have equal opportunities to develop our talents and abilities, to become educated, to find meaningful ways to spend our lives, to pursue a wide range of careers, and to become influential leaders in our communities.
This sense of equal opportunity might allow for quite a bit of actual inequality, if there are significant differences in what each of us have to help us obtain X. So in this sense, I have an equal opportunity to run the 100 metres in the next Olympics as Usain Bolt. This raises the question of which of any of our talents, abilities, work ethics, and so on, should be treated as fixed in this way, as sort of a core part of ourselves. Should inherited wealth count? What about our parents' connections that might help us secure entrance into a better school or a better job?
We typically want to say no to these kinds of facts about our situation. They're in some sense not a part of us. But then, why should inherited intelligence or athletic ability be treated as something that's essentially or naturally ours? More generally, there's a question of why it's permissible for outcomes, whether we get X or not, to vary on the basis of natural or essential features of ours. So we were just lucky that we happened to be really fast, really smart, or really attractive. Whatever it is that helps us get X, the good thing, even something like effort or work ethic, has been shown to be in a large part a function of our genes and early upbringing and education, something for which we are not responsible.
Concerns of this sort are about equality of material resources. Some might think that the state should be concerned with equality of welfare, where we acknowledge that welfare can come apart in different ways from the opportunities we have, or even the material resources that we possess.
There are several answers to the question why should we have a state that focus on the promotion of welfare and happiness and on ensuring that demands of justice are satisfied. Many theorists argue that if there is to be a state and if it is to pursue these ends, it can morally permissibly do so only if the state abides by certain norms of equality. In this view the political value of equality is not just an aim of the state, but instead as a constraint on how a state with its monolithic power and potential use of course of force can permissibly operate.
This segment considers views that see equality as a constraint, particularly those that see equality as a constraint on legal processes and political decision making. The underlying idea behind seeing equality as a constraint in this way is that all human beings are in some morally important sense equals. This doesn't mean that we're equally nice, good, or talented or anything of that sort. What it means is that we all have a fundamental moral standing such that we must be counted and treated equally, at least for certain purposes.
The Declaration of Independence's famous phrase, we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was really about white men not women or blacks. Rights to vote, own property, and be treated equally in law and politics were denied to all others.
It's worth remembering all of that, certainly as we look around the world and see societies developing, but there's been great progress along some of these lines, at least in terms of the formal or nominal rights to equal participation and equal treatment. Many think that we should have an equal say or an equal right to participate in politics. We've mostly rejected the view that just a few of us, such as those with noble birth or with the most land or money, should have the right to rule over the rest of us. Most modern societies have rejected the view that men should get to make political decisions while women have no say.
In both of these cases the aim is to ensure that the laws of the state treat individuals in the same manner as others in similar conditions and circumstances. A violation of this norm of equality would occur, for example, if a state prohibited an individual from owning property or entering into an employment contract because he or she was a member of a particular race.
For example, a law might state that to apply for a certain job one must be above a certain height. This law might not mention sex or gender explicitly, but if average height is correlated with whether one is male or female then the effect of such a law might a significant disparate impact on members of particular groups. Different states, different governments, and different legal systems will handle issues of this sort differently.
Of course, spelling out the details becomes of vital importance. What does it mean that we should have an equal say? So many who discuss the right to an equal say take for granted that this is not to be meant exactly literally. In particular, there's the assumption that each of us will at most have an equal say in determining who has political power.
Thomas Christiano, one of the most important living philosophers working on democratic theory and one of the main proponents of the idea that there's a human right to democracy, specifies it as having a right to a formal or informal constitutional structure that ensures that persons are able to participate as equals in the collective decision-making of their political society. That set out the right that we have to democracy.
They have freedom of expression at least regarding political matters. These are among the conditions that Cristiano sees as part of the core of democracy. There are limitations to this kind of system. First, people are assured formally equal votes that determine who is in power, but, we don't have power ourselves.
And a person may have a formally equal vote but a very unequal position with respect to actually influencing who is elected. So a very wealthy individual who owns or controls powerful media institutions or someone who can influence what candidates by donating to their cause or not and influencing how those candidates are perceived through the media might have vastly greater political influence than an individual without great wealth or great power of that kind. So despite Christiano's claims that these conditions he identifies, can be characterised as amounting to a right to participate as an equal in the collective decision making of one's political society, it falls well short of securing political equality or a right to participate as an equal.
Political equality can be seen as a constraint on how states can permissibly operate. The basic idea, was that we are all in some fundamental sense morally equal. In particular, there's a sense in which each of us is an autonomous creature, and that we each have an equal claim to self-government in some sense. So if we're to be governed by a state, we'll have to have an equal right to some form of political equality. There's a question of what exactly this comes to.
There are two other principles. The first one is the equal right to participate directly. Each person in a political jurisdiction should have an equal right to participate substantively in determining what political action will be taken by that institution.
Because systems of representative democracy employ representatives to make decisions about political action they're not going to satisfy the equal right to participate directly or equal power to determine political action. And it's worth stressing that from a perspective of equality of political power those two conditions are arguably more central and significant than something like equal say.
The defender of representative systems might reply. In a representative system, it's true that not every one has equal power to decide what's done, but anyone can run for office, and everyone has an equal right to vote to determine who will be in the positions of political power. The individuals who have a role in collectively or individually determining what political action will be taken by a political institution, can be called determiners.
The second right is an equal right to participate in choosing determiners. So each person in a political jurisdiction should have an equal right to participate substantively in choosing the determiners. That's the equal right to vote part. Both are satisfied in modern representative democracies.
There was a time when political system was authoritarian or dictatorial in which the vast majority of us have had no say in choosing who would be steering the political machine. We're in a much better place in many societies than we were 300 or 400 years ago, and many of these transitions to representative democracy, are much more recent than that.
There's a question. Is that enough? Should we be satisfied with representative systems of democracy? Is it an acceptable compromise with respect to political equality, where we trade off some political equality for better outcomes based on the use of representatives? Is it a tradeoff that we should be morally willing to accept given the apparent workability of direct democracy, where we would all have a say on every issue?
These are hard questions and there are many things to note here. One thing that's going to be important, is will matter how the elections end up going. How do we actually conduct the elections? Do we have real choices when we go to the ballot box? Do the candidate representatives really seem to be candidates who represent us and our values? Are the elections really a good example of political equality, or do the details of elections and campaigns make it so that a few of us, perhaps the wealthiest of us and most politically powerful of us, end up having far greater influence than others.
There are a related set of questions. What are the real alternatives to something like electoral democracy? Would direct democracy actually be any better with respect to political equality? Much of the empirical evidence regarding referenda and ballot initiatives in places like California, where voters do get to decide some things directly, suggest that powerful financial interests there too have a hugely outsized influence.
The thought here is that even if we all have an equal right to run for these offices, and even if everyone has an equal right to vote in these elections, our chances of actually winning will vary dramatically depending on how much money we have and on how much financial support we're a, able to secure from the wealthiest people in our society. In the United States, for example, the average price of winning or holding on to a seat in the U.S. Senate averaged $10.5 million in the 2012 election cycle. Obtaining or being re-elected to the House of Representatives, which one must do every two years, cost an average of $1.7 million.
That's a lot of money to raise. Most of us don't have that in our pockets. One way to get that kind of money is to have it in your own back account. To get some sense of how non-representative the United States Congress is, in 2012 44% of congress persons had a net worth of over $1 million. Additionally, 82% were male, 86% were white, and more than half were lawyers, business people or people from the financial sector. Those who are not multi millionaires have to raise that money, and if we're advocating positions that the wealthiest people in our society favour, it might be much easier to get their support to raise that kind of money.
In the background of all of this are two features of elections in a place like the United States that might not be present everywhere. First, because of a certain interpretation of freedom of speech rights, there's a great deal of money in political campaigns in the United States, so that it's almost impossible to win an election without a great deal of financial support. If there were greater limitations on campaign spending or greater emphasis on public funding of campaigns, that might not be true. A second key background fact, is that in the United States and many other places, there's great social and economic inequality. One concern is that's it's very difficult to run a political system with real political equality on top of a society in which there's great social and economic inequality.
Almost everyone agrees that equality is good, but it's very hard to find agreement about what it is that should be equalised. Some views consider equality as a constraint on how political and legal institutions can act. They must treat people equally when applying the law to particular individuals, and they must give people equal political power or equal political voice.
The idea of equality itself can be seen as part of justice or as something of an independent moral issue. One can start by asking what is Egalitarianism? There are many different views that fall under this heading.
The first is the equality of what question. This definition specifies that we don't want some to be worse off than others, but worse off than others with respect to what? One's material possessions? Income? Talents? Education? One's job? One's position in society? These are all different things we might try to equalise.
For some luck egalitarians, the aim of a distributive principle is to counter the effects of luck on a persons' opportunity for well-being; for others the aim is to mitigate the effects of luck on the social distribution of goods and resources among persons. But however different luck egalitarians work out it's implication, the intuitive idea that they all share is that persons should not be disadvantaged or advantaged simply on account of bad or good luck.
There are lots of different things we might think about equalising and there's lots of debates here. It's worth noting that however we answer this equality of right question, it's a distinct question from the question of whether one should be a strict egalitarian or luck egalitarian tolerating inequalities that result from our different choices or different efforts if those are not the product of luck.
At least two broad categories of answers to this question of why have equality at all why care about that. The first category offers an intrinsic defence of equality. So, equality is an intrinsic good in itself. The second category offers an instrumental defence of equality. So, equality isn't good just in itself, but it's good because of what it can bring about.
A focus on equality, and particularly on equality as an intrinsic good, may require that some people are made worse off just for the sake of making them equal with others, and not because this is in any way good for these others, but just for the sake of equality.
One response for the intrinsic strict egalitarian about everything is to be pluralistic about value. This means that although there would be something intrinsically good about bringing equality, equality is not the only thing of moral importance. And there might be cases in which the good of equality is outweighed by the badness of the decrease in the welfare.
For many it'll still implausible that there's anything intrinsically good about this. Intrinsic egalitarianism might be more plausible if we motivate the idea a little bit, and narrow the dimensions along which we measure our relative position, and limit the equality of what answers. So, if we think that we all are creatures that have a certain kind of moral standing, and are owed a certain kind of moral respect, there may be something intrinsically good about a distribution of political power that reflects this, so that we all have equal political power.
A very different kind of egalitarian view is one that's instrumentalist about equality, noting the importance of various relations we might be in with respect to each other, such as social relations, economic relations, political relations, legal relations, and even interpersonal relations.
This view focuses on equality as an important relational value, and notes the great instrumental benefits that attach to people being relative equals along some dimensions. Equality is not just valuable in it's own right, but equality along one dimension allows for something else that is good.
In an earlier work, vindication of the rights of men, she argued that social inequality undermines the possibility of society, harming the wealthy, the middle class, the poor and women. As she put it, among unequals there can be no society, since society is in part based on friendship which is based on mutual respect. And there are other problems that stem from class and economic inequality according to Wollstonecraft. There are ways in which inequality produces bad things and so we want equality to rectify that.
For example, the rich who live off their inherited wealth, and are not required to discharge duties to others, as a result don't develop social virtue. And they don't form true friendships, she argues, because they're constantly exposed to flattery because there's this kind of hierarchy. The rich eat unhealthily because they're able to eat lavishly anytime they wish, and they fail to be inventive in the face of necessity because they're never forced to do without.
So, in a very influential recent paper, what is the point of equality, she writes, recent egalitarian writing has come to be dominated by the view that the fundamental aim of equality is to compensate people for undeserved bad luck: being born with poor native endowments, bad parents and disagreeable personalities, suffering from accidents and illness, and so forth.
She also suggests instrumental value to being in the sort of community of equals, suggesting that egalitarianism ought to reflect a generous, humane, cosmopolitan vision of a society that recognises individuals as equals in all their diversity. It should promote institutional arrangements that enable the diversity of people's talents, aspirations, roles, and cultures to benefit everyone and to be recognised as mutually beneficial.
She identifies this as one of the core values of society, and one that we can't really take advantage of unless we have a society of equals. So, we can think of equality as being of either intrinsic value, or instrumental value, and again a hybrid position here may be appropriate. Perhaps economic equality is not intrinsically valuable, but it's instrumentally valuable for bringing about political equality. And maybe political equality is intrinsically valuable.
Many people have noted that political equality and equality under the law, is difficult to achieve under circumstances of great social and economic inequality. If we think that equality, or something close to it, with respect to political power, is a constraint on how our state can operate, and if we think that equal treatment under the law is also a constraint, then if this is true, this would provide a strong reason to think the state also must be concerned with great social and economic inequality.So why do social and economic inequality, make political and legal equality difficult? The answer depends on certain assumptions about the political system in question.
We can take, for example, a relatively developed system like the United States. There're elections, everyone has a right to vote, there's freedom of speech and association, there's freedom of the press and the media, and anyone can run for office. Similarly with the legal system, everyone gets a trial, anyone can bring a case, everyone has a right to a lawyer in criminal cases, and no one can be barred from hiring a lawyer to help them. This all sounds pretty good from a perspective of legal and political equality, and from a certain perspective, it's definitely much better than systems in which we don't have these things.
The difficulty comes in the ways in which financial resources, social influence, educational advantages, and other forms of power, enter into these legal and political systems. In the United States, political campaigns are very expensive and require either great personal wealth or the support of enough people with enough money to donate to one's cause. Similarly, wealthy individuals control most of the press and media institutions. Most people who hold office come from a relatively wealthy and educated class of people.
Here and elsewhere there're concerns about political corruption and political officials being bought off by the rich and powerful. Legal outcomes are dramatically different depending on how much money one spends on a lawyer, or whether one can afford to hire a lawyer at all. So, having various formally equal powers or formally equal rights in the legal and political arena turns out to be insufficient to establish actual equal political power or actual equal treatment under the law. We don't see the kind of equality we might expect, given this sort of formal equal rights.
A second different kind of response is trying to eliminate the inequality itself. We might do this through the state, for example by nationalising all private property, so that no one owns more than anyone else. This was something that was done in many places in the 20th century. We might ban private schools or other private institutions that confer advantages on those who can afford to attend them. We might force people to work in all occupations, rotating through them over time. We might impose very high taxes and provide great redistributive benefits so that the gap between the richest and the poorest would become much smaller.
Many of these were attempted during the 20th century, sometimes with disastrous results. One worry is the levelling down concern that we might make everyone equal, but only by making everyone much worse off, for example by crippling the economy, and losing the epistemic and informational advantages that some argue come with markets and market prices, losing the benefits of specialisation and division of labour, and losing the productivity advantages that might come if we have certain kinds of incentives for effort and for innovation.
A worry might be that this is the vision that all reformers have. Nobody starts with the top-down state approach but the disasters have resulted when this vision didn't have adequate social support, or when it became corrupted, or insulated from change and reform, should such change or reform be desired or demanded. One worry about a lot of the experiments with communism and socialism in the 20th century is that whatever initial interest there might have been, when people stopped wanting the system, or wanted to change in various ways, rather than allowing that or figuring out how to accommodate that, there was instead a lot of repression going along with the vision for the society.
In a 1962 work, Ujamaa, the basis of African socialism, Nyerere argued that socialism like democracy, is an attitude of mind. In a socialist society, it's the socialist attitude of mind, and not the rigid adherence to a standard political pattern, which is needed to ensure that the people care for each other's welfare.
So importantly for Nyerere, the current society could look to traditional beliefs and moral views that Nyerere thinks are clearly superior to the more contemporary capitalist values. So he wrote, in rejecting the capitalist attitude of mind which colonialism brought into Africa, we must reject also the capitalist methods that go with it. One of these is the individual ownership of land. To us in Africa, land was always recognised as belonging to the community.
Nyerere says, in tribal society, the individuals or the families within a tribe were rich or poor, according to whether the whole tribe was rich or poor. If the tribe prospered, all the members of the tribe shared in its prosperity. Similar points have been made about the moral and social beliefs to other so called traditional societies, including Native American groups such as the Lakota.
Nyrere's Arusha Declaration of 1967 set out a socialist vision and socialist set of policies for Tanzania. Much of the economy of Tanzania was subsequently nationalised. So in 1967, the government basically became the largest employer, with the state expanding into almost every sector. There were serious complaints about corruption, cumbersome bureaucracy, misappropriation of public funds, widespread bribery, and even the literal destruction of private property, and the forcible transfer of people into collective farms if they didn't wish to go.
There was central government that controlled the economy, and in particular emphasised producing and selling tobacco and tea. As a result food production plummeted and famine was averted by foreign intervention. Tanzania, which had been the largest exporter of food in Africa, became the largest importer of food because of these choices. Many personal goods, things like toothpaste, became almost unobtainable.
There're also questions about how we want to measure social and economic success, to evaluate this kind of experiment. There might be limitations on thinking about GDP as a measure of success, in part because it doesn't focus at all on the distribution of wealth. Here we might be confronted with the question, what if the society as a whole is somewhat poorer, but the worst off people are much better off? That happened in a lot of places in the 20th century, often with mixed results.
One argument that's been made about our efforts to alter our social or moral beliefs in a more egalitarian direction, or to reduce social and economic inequality through state top down control and regulation, is that it goes against human nature. A part of this critique is that it goes against our natures as independent creatures, with our own specific concerns, ambitions, and attachments.