The socialist commitment to equality (egalitarianism) is the core feature of socialism and is what makes it very different from the other two main ideologies (liberalism and conservatism). This belief focuses not just on equality of opportunity or legal equality, but on social equality- equality of outcome. They believe in this for three main reasons;
Social equality upholds the ideas of justice and fairness that are taken away when people compete against each other. The inequality that exists in society has been created by the competitive and selfish nature of capitalism. Socialists do not believe that people are naturally equal in skills but do believe that each person plays a role in society and therefore should receive an equal reward. They think that the differences between people are exaggerated by the competitive nature of society.
Equality underpins community and cooperation. If people are more able to identify with each other they are more likely to work for the common good. Equality therefore strengthens a feeling of solidarity with each person and their fellow humans. They believe that inequality causes conflict and selfishness and leads to a breakdown of society.
Socialists believe that ‘need satisfaction’ is the key element of freedom and not the ability to act as each individual chooses. Each person should be treated by society according to what they need (not want) and therefore the whole of society benefits. Karl Marx said ’from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’, meaning that as everyone contributes to society (albeit in different ways), everyone should have their needs satisfied in society.
Socialists are egalitarians, believing that equality is a core political principle and an aspect of our human nature. A belief in equality of outcome is possibly the most important belief in socialism. If you don’t believe in it, you are not a socialist. Equality of outcome goes beyond liberal arguments for equality as it looks at the end point and is focused on resources. Socialists argue that liberal beliefs in equal rights and equality of opportunity are illusory due to the unfair structure of society. They are referring to inherited privilege, both financial and personal or status related. Socialists argue that capitalism has caused great inequality as it is based on competition and as such there have to be winners and losers, and some have to be exploited to create profits for others. A good example is the education system. There might be equal opportunity in theory, e.g. any student can apply to Oxbridge, but if you attend a private school with fantastic resources, small class sizes and highly skilled and motivated staff, plus having family support and an expectation that you will gain a place, you are clearly more likely to succeed. Socialists do not believe, naively, that we all have the same skills and talents. However, they argue that this is not the main cause of inequality, which is in fact something over which we have no personal control: the unequal structures of society. Social equality will lead to true positive freedom as it allows us to flourish and fulfil our potential without the restrictions of debt, poor health and housing, etc. It will also create more harmonious and stable communities as there is a sense of justice and fairness. We will receive what we need rather than what we can afford. There is a debate in socialism about what exactly equality of outcome means — narrowing the gap or removing it altogether? This is based on their preference in terms of economic systems. Fundamentalist socialists argue that capitalism should be abolished, leading to a redistribution of wealth and the abolition of private ownership in favour of common ownership. In contrast, social democrats such as Anthony Crosland argued that the welfare state should be used to narrow the gap between rich and poor, without the need to abolish capitalism, using progressive taxation. Third way supporters such as Peter Mandelson moved away from equality of outcome altogether, arguing instead that it was fine to be ‘filthy rich’ and instead focusing on reducing social exclusion and introducing various measures to reduce poverty, such as tax credits and the minimum wage.