EQUALITY -- WHAT IT IS
by Ted Honderich
We took it in the previous discussion of what equality is not, after putting aside many other objections to the politics of the Left, that what has been close to its standard expression is open to a serious and seemingly fatal objection. That is the objection that this politics, taken as resting on the principle of equality of results, is committed to mere relativities. It is concerned with no more than getting people into certain relative positions, positions of equality. Thus it is committed to having everyone equally well-off when the alternative is having some people still well-off to that extent and others better-off. It is committed, worse, to having everyone equally badly-off when the alternative is having everybody better-off although unequally so. It has to be added that the principle of equal results is not so clear and determinate as it might be.
There is a better expression of the various political traditions of the Left, notably democratic socialism and a traditional liberalism. This takes them to be based not on the principle of equality of results but on something related to it but significantly different. This can be dignified with the name of the Principle of Equality . Fundamentally this principle has to do not with treatment, with what is done to and for people, but with satisfaction. It fundamentally although not exclusively has to do, that is, with a result of treatment, what can also be named well-being, or the quality of peoples' lives, or freedom, or happiness. The latter term can be misleading, certainly so when happiness is somehow conceived as being a different and allegedly higher or more inner thing than the satisfaction of desires.
The Principle of Equality is directed, more particularly, to the satisfaction of fundamental categories of human desires. It has to do with the satisfaction of those categories of desire which were set out, when we were considering human nature, as giving us a general conception of that nature. They are, you might say, the desires which define human nature.
We all want, first, the material means to subsistence, a satisfactory length of life for ourselves and for others who are close to us. We desire, that is, lifetimes of something like 70 years rather than 35 or 40. We want, secondly, material goods in addition to those which will merely keep us alive for such a time. These will include things of importance: tolerable homes and environments for a start, and many such lesser items as means of travel. They are not properly described as luxuries. Although all the categories of desire can rightly be described as desires for freedoms, the third category is the one most naturally described as having in it desires for certain freedoms and powers. Some fundamental ones are political, others have to do with independence in one's work and other such smaller contexts of life. We want, fourthly, respect and self-respect, which we cannot have if we are, say, the victims of class-condescension or racism. We want, fifthly, the satisfactions of personal and wider human relationships. Some of these have to do with the family, others with membership of larger groups and a society. Lastly, we desire the goods of culture. Here we want, among other things, not ignorance or incompetence but the satisfactions of education.
No doubt there are other possible ways of sorting out our fundamental desires, but this will do. The Principle of Equality is concerned with extents to which these fundamental desires are satisfied. It has to do with different extents of well-being, this being nothing other than the mentioned satisfaction. It is a recommendation with respect to the distribution of this satisfaction or well-being.
Its formulation depends on first deciding on a definition of the badly-off, a class of persons who are badly-off. There is room for different decisions here, and somewhat different decisions are in fact made by different traditions within the leftward part of the political spectrum. Certainly there is no fact of the matter which by itself determines who is to count as badly-off, and no surprise or embarrassment in that. The answer to the question `Who is to decide who is badly-off?' is, of course, `Anyone proposing to make and use distinctions between different conditions of life'.
Here is one central definition of the badly-off: (i) those who fail to satisfy even the first or subsistence desire, and hence are frustrated in desires of the other categories as well; (ii) those who seriously lack further material goods; (iii) those who are unsatisfied in terms of freedom and power; (iv) those who are unsatisfied in terms of respect and self-respect; and (v) those who are minimally satisfied in all categories but the first.
The Principle of Equality is roughly to the effect that we should give a priority to policies which will make well-off those who are badly-off -- policies which will remove individuals from the class of the badly-off -- and that we should seek to act on these policies by having certain practices of equality.
The first policy is in part that of helping the badly-off without thereby affecting at all the well-off, the remainder of the population. Here no goods, which is to say no means to satisfaction, are transferred from the well-off to the badly off. Rather, new means are brought into existence. If this endeavour by itself could be successful, that would be the end of the matter. No question of transfers of goods between the two classes would arise. And, if there remained inequalities within the now universal class of the well-off, the Principle of Equality would have nothing to say of this state of affairs.
In its other part the first policy is that of transferring goods from the well-off, but goods whose loss would not significantly affect their well-being. It is arguable, to say the least, that there do exist such goods, means to well-being which their possessors do not trouble to use. Again, if these transfers could be successful in achieving the goal of the principle, that would be the end of the matter.
The second policy is that of reducing the number of the badly-off by transferring goods to them from the well-off, with the known effect that this will reduce the well-being of the well-off. Given our earlier scepticism of Conservative claims as to an incentive system, we can take this as a real and large possibility, in no way an ill-fated enterprise. That is, we can reduce the number of the badly-off in this way. This policy may be regarded, in fact, by proponents of the Principle of Equality, as their most important.
The third policy is a partner to the second, and not much less important. It has to do with what can be granted, that the goal of the principle may be served by having a kind of incentive system, perhaps as well described as a compensation system. It will involve certain favourable inequalities, of limited extent. The policy presupposes that what individuals require, by way of any such inequalities, is certainly no matter of human nature, no matter of iron law. It is properly described, rather, as a matter of their attitudes. If present attitudes have been passed on from generation to generation, they are nonetheless open to change. To revert to terms used earlier, they have to do with social altruism or rather the lack of it, and of what mainly gives rise to this state of affairs, an absence of social persuasion. The third policy, then, will reduce very greatly the inequalities of incentive or compensation which are expected or demanded by individuals if they are to forward the end of a society. These inequalities are to be reduced, of course, just in order to leave greater resources for the relief of the badly-off.
As remarked, the Principle of Equality is also to the effect that the three policies are to be forwarded by certain practices of equality.
The most important political one is one person one vote, or rather, a practice which goes further than that in securing effective democracy. It will certainly involve fair restraints on the financing of particular political parties and on their influence over the press and broadcasting. Also, there is the practice of equal provision of many material goods and of many opportunities. If we are not in fact perfectly equal, in any of the ways suggested by what was called the principle of natural equality , we are sufficiently alike so as to make equal provision, for the most part, an economical and rational practice. That we are alike is the fact of our shared fundamental desires. Still, if these two practices of equality are of the greatest importance, they are not the only practices allowed by the principle. If we are alike, we are also different. It is not always true, evidently, that an equal provision of a good will serve the end of the principle. The sick need what the well do not.
The Principle of Equality can now be more explicitly stated.
The goal or end of a society must be to make well-off those who are badly-off, by the policy of increasing the means to well-being and of transferring unused means from the well-off, the policy of transferring means which will affect their well-being, and the policy of reducing inequalities having to do with incentive or compensation, these three policies to be advanced in good part by practices of equality.
This is not vulnerable at all to the objection having to do with mere relativities. What it recommends is not the goal of people being related in a certain way to one another, being equal. The goal is to get people out of the condition of being badly-off. It is the goal of ending frustration or distress. Certainly, if it is achieved, there will be a large side-effect ª- all people being equal in the sense of being other than badly-off. But nothing but woeful or wilful confusion can give anyone the idea that the goal is itself a relational one. The same is to be said in connection with the mentioned practices of equality. They are greatly important means, but not the end. If I am convinced that more democracy is the way to a society in which people do not have to sleep in the streets, and want such a society above all, it is absurd to suppose that in this respect I have democracy as an end-in-itself.
It is as clear that the principle does not entail that we should have everyone only equally well-off if the alternative were everyone unequally better-off. Nor does it entail the worse upshot that we should have everyone equally badly-off if the alternative were everyone being unequally well-off. This is the case if we understand these several terms, `badly-off' and so on, in the way we have defined them, and also if they are used in related ways. Using the terms in the defined way, the fact of the matter is that the principle does not speak of the situation, not yet nearly in sight, where there might be a choice between everybody's being equally well-off and everyone still better-off but unequally so. The spirit of the principle is very definitely for the second option. Nor does the principle have the consequence that we should drag down the well-off if that had no good effect, but rather made all of us equally badly-off. On the contrary, the principle prohibits this. The second policy requires that transfers from the well-off decrease the numbers of the badly-off.
The formulation we have of the Principle of Equality is not the only one, and not identical with a formulation that has seen the light of day in the past. We need not suppose we have its eternal and canonical form -- or a form as agreeable to all other supporters of it as it is those of philosophical habits. Economists, no doubt, would couch it differently, and political theorists differently again. If the subject of the inquiry we are now ending were the Left rather than the Right, the principle would get a lot more attention. We would look into various questions raised by it and various recommendations of it, and relate it to the various generalities about equality looked at earlier.
We would also consider its great capability of withstanding objections -- such as the objection about liberty -- which are also withstood by the principle of equality of results. We might spend a moment or two on an issue that is less than paralysingly crucial, its name. It can be grumbled, of course, as it has been, that since the aim of the principle is not a mere equality, but the alleviation of distress, it should be called something else. There are good reasons for its name, but, if you want, call it something else. Call it, for example, because of what it can certainly be said to concern, the Principle of Freedom. For something about all of that, and for the earlier formulation, interested parties must turn elsewhere.
As assumed already, the Principle of Equality is an adequate summation of what we have been calling the politics of the Left. Conceivably it is among the best of such summations. It, unlike the principle of equality of results, can properly be spoken of as giving the rationale of the Left. There can be no doubt about that. Whether or not some egalitarians have been inclined to describe themselves in the way of Tawney, in terms of the principle of equal results, it is nonsense to suppose that the actual political traditions in question have pursued mere relativities. It is nonsense, for various reasons, to suppose that they have pursued any sort of equality over any sort of inequality.
They have not, in connection with education, had a goal which might in conceivable circumstances have been achieved by destroying all possibilities of education, say by burning down all the schools, thereby producing an equality. They have not had a goal which in conceivable circumstances might have been achieved by reducing all education to to some rudimentary level of instruction, thereby again producing an equality. Consider something yet more fundamental. It is the truth that in Britain the life-expectancy of the fifth social class as officially defined is strikingly smaller than that of the first social class. The Left has not had a goal which might have been exactly as well achieved by shortening the lives of the first social class as by lengthening the lives of the fifth, or of course by reducing both still further to any situation whatever of equal lifetimes.
It needs to be seen clearly that exactly such a benightedness or awfulness, one which has these possibilities within it, is exactly what is assigned to the Left by those who identify it with the principle of equality of results, or that principle as it can be understood. The traditions of the Left have not conceivably had a goal which in conceivable circumstances might have been perfectly achieved by producing equal ignorance, equally short lives, or an equal poverty, or an equal captivity and powerlessness, or a terrible equality of frustration with respect to our other fundamental desires. It cannot conceivably be that the concern or commitment of these traditions has been a relationship, a mere relativity. Anyone tempted to the silliness of saying otherwise can be cured by considering those societies which have actually made some progress towards the given ideal, and comparing them to what they were before.
For an application of the Principle of Equality to the subject of democracy and political action, have a look at Hierarchic Democracy and the Necessity of Mass Civil Disobedience. Also After the Terror: A Book and Further Thoughts.
Postscript to a reader who would like page references, and the text actually to be quoted for any purposes: Get the book Conservatism , Chapter 8.