Debates about equality

'We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal' The Declaration of Independence.  This ideal is common to conservatives, liberals and socialists but they draw very different conclusions about how society should then be organised.

A key debate within socialism focuses on the extent to which social and economic equality can or should be achieved. In many ways, this is a debate about the role of the state. Revolutionary socialists, such as Marxists, demand absolute equality for everyone in terms of material rewards and life opportunities. Such equality can be guaranteed only by the controlled distribution of goods and services, the abolition of private property and the introduction of common ownership of all means of production. Under this system, the state exercises common ownership and supervises the distribution of resources to prevent the return of social and economic inequalities.

By contrast, social democrats call for more limited state intervention to achieve relative equality Within society via welfare measures, government spending and progressive taxation. Their primary  aim is to remove absolute poverty and, if this can be achieved, then a certain level of inequality can be tolerated. For social democrats, the state does not own or control all the means of production its role is to adjust distribution to narrow differences in wealth and life chances. In essence, social democrats seek to reform rather than abolish capitalism and for this reason maintain that material incentives continue to play an important role in human motivation. As a result, the social-democrat position on social equality is flexible enough to embrace equality of opportunity.

Equality of outcome

Equality of outcome maintains that rewards should be based  on an individual's contribution. Since this will vary from person to person some inequality will persist but differences in rewards will not be as marked as in the free-market system.

Equality of outcome tends to be supported by socialists who reject capitalism as a way of removing the free  market's influence but is opposed by social democrats and the Third Way as a form of artificial social and economic 'levelling'.

In his 1987 book The Passion for Equality, analyst Kenneth Cauthen suggested that there were moral underpinnings for having equal outcomes because there is a common good—which people both contribute to and receive benefits from—and therefore should be enjoyed in common. Cauthen argued that this was a fundamental basis for both equality of opportunity as well as equality of outcome 

Equality of opportunity

Equality of opportunity is based on the principle that everyone should have an equal chance to make the best of their abilities. There should be a 'level playing field' with no artificial barriers to progress for those with ability, talent and a positive attitude to hard work. This approach is supported by social democrats and the Third Way on meritocratic grounds but rejected by Marxists because it does not seek to remove capitalism and its structural inequalities.

Asset based Egalitarianism 

 Absolute equality

Absolute equality is based on the notion that everyone will receive the same rewards, providing they make a contribution to society. Over time, each person will make a broadly equal contribution. This approach is supported by Marxists as the basis of a communist society but rejected by social democrats and the Third Way as impractical and potentially divisive.


Equality of welfare

Equality of welfare accepts that human society is inevitably unequal but also maintains that every individual is entitled to have an equal minimum standard of living guaranteed by state welfare provision. Equality of welfare is endorsed by social democrats and the Third Way because it provides a vital safety net for the most vulnerable in society. Marxists reject it  because this welfare provision does not seek to remove capitalism and its structural inequalities.

Political opponents of socialist ideology have rejected social equality because:

·      it is unjust - in treating everybody the same irrespective of their attributes, it does not reward people according to their skills and abilities

·      it lowers human ambition, motivation and initiative by removing or downgrading material incentives, leading to economic underperformance

·        it restricts the liberties of the individual because it can only be implemented through extensive state intervention and control

·        it stifles diversity and individuality, encouraging a 'colourless' social uniformity.