Equity Explained, Part 1: The Promise and Problems of Equality

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” (George Orwell, Animal Farm)

A new wind, balmy and soothing, is blowing through the halls of academe, the corporate world and civil society generally. Its name is equity, diversity and inclusion, frequently known by the acronym EDI. Its very suggestive reasonableness – even its resonance to the ear – lulls us into a gentle critical slumber. Perhaps the only slight uptick in awareness of the possibility the wool is being pulled over one’s eyes, leading to a momentary furrowing of the brow or raising of an eyebrow, is the unfamiliarity of the term ‘equity’, replacing what one vaguely remembers only last week was equality. Happily, suitable aphorisms and analogies are usually on hand to explain how equity is, in fact, fairer than equality and to soothe that qualm and allow us to sink back into our intellectual torpor.

It has to be said that equality has a rather disreputable recent history of association with revolution and tyranny, taking its cue from the French revolution cry of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” and the subsequent Reign of Terror. But the idea of equality has been around since antiquity and was roundly mocked in the Greek legend of Procrustes, a robber who placed his victims on an iron bed and either stretched or sawed off their legs to fit. We have inherited the term ‘procrustean’ to mean commitment to equality regardless of other considerations. In fact, commitment to equality, though to a lesser extent than portrayed in the legend of Procrustes, has always masked other subtle and sometimes not so subtle forms of injustice. That judgment applies across the board to the three types of equality that we recognise: formal equality under the law; equality of opportunity; and equality of outcome. The only question for those of differing political persuasions is how much and of what type of injustice are we prepared to tolerate. The introduction of the idea of equity is only another attempt to address issues of inequality and injustice. The difference is that equity (as an inseparable part of EDI) deliberately smuggles in one form of injustice in the name of addressing another declared to be greater.

Equality before the law is the oldest established form of equality and is the one which is observed in principle in all countries that refer to themselves as democracies, that is ones in which the rule of law is paramount. It has its origins in the Magna Carta of 1215, the document which powerful lords forced king John of England to sign, limiting his power to imprison or execute his enemies or raise taxes without consulting said lords, a group which formed a body that within a generation had evolved into the beginnings of our modern parliamentary system. Outside of perhaps the criminal classes, there are few who do not accept the principle of such formal equality. However, everyone recognises that in practice access to justice under the law is, and always has been, skewed in favour of the powerful and the rich, those who have access to the best lawyers for example, which is clearly a glaring injustice. Still, imperfect as they system is, few, if any, believe that the principle itself is wrong and that there are classes of people (such as the monarch) who should be exempt or above the law.

Most people recognise that formal equality is insufficient in practice, because of the problem of access. The fundamental shift that began with Magna Carta was one of the gradual transfer of power from an absolute monarch to the parliament and beyond that to the people, though this process took centuries and is clearly still ongoing. This is the long arc of liberty through history, which is the gradual empowerment of the individual, irrespective of background, wealth, gender, creed or any of the other characteristics that make up our individual identity. But this process could not be actualised without an increase in the substantive goods which at one time were the monopoly of monarchs and their close associates: education, wealth, a better diet, rest from labour and the possibility to exercise some say over the direction of one’s own life and that of the nation. These co-evolved with – made possible and were made possible by – the emergence of the idea of equality of opportunity.

Equality of opportunity has its roots in the Enlightenment, in the development of human rights – against arbitrary imprisonment and execution, to freedom of thought and speech, and to ownership of property – that strengthened the hand of the citizen against the state. Even so, progress was gradual and erratic until the industrial age allowed citizens to become generally wealthier. Reforms allowing increased political suffrage, the beginning of universal education, welfare and health care were enacted through the nineteenth century, though were only fully realised in the twentieth. This also coincided with the replacement of a culture of patronage with one of merit, the idea that the conditions should exist for the best and brightest to rise to the top of the professions, thus supercharging the efficiency and productivity of the economy and the institutions of state.

Citizens of developed countries today have unprecedented opportunities compared to the lives of people centuries or even decades ago, to travel and see the world, to enjoy a comfortable life, and even do work that they enjoy. Nonetheless, even a casual acquaintance with a meritocratic system reveals its flaws, perception of which has increased over time. In seemingly an echo of that biblical adage that “…whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath” (Matthew 13:12), wealthy families are able accumulate social capital, for example giving their children more life-enhancing experiences sending them to better schools, thus giving them increased opportunities to get into good universities, enter the professions, have status in society and marry people from a similar background, perpetuating the unequal distribution of opportunity.

This situation, the growth of an economic and cultural elite and the increasing sidelining and alienation of a significant proportion of society, is becoming evident across the developed world and leading to increased polarisation in society. It mirrors the phenomenon which the American sociologist Talcott Parsons identified in education in the 1950s, which he termed anomic strain. Parsons saw that as educational standards and required levels of achievement rose, they did not take school pupils as a whole with them but resulted in increased levels of resistance to schooling. It seems that a similar phenomenon is happening in the economy as a whole; the switch to a service economy and now a digital economy is increasingly opening up an educational and aspirational divide in society.

The assumption of a meritocracy is that given more or less equal opportunity, outcomes are then determined by individual effort. At one time, when both social conditions (including our acceptance of social privilege) and our understanding of human psychology were different, this might have seemed a simple proposition. Now, in a very different world, where the line lies between social, economic and cultural opportunities for advancement and the motivation to advance oneself through individual effort is more contested. In other words, we have difficulty quantifying what does, or even could, constitute equal opportunity. Developed societies have made headway with universal public education, health care and welfare, but beyond a certain point the distinction between broad social opportunities and the individual ability to make use of those opportunities becomes unclear. It is well documented that children from poorer backgrounds make less use of the opportunities provided by state education. But what we might call the inequalities of access go far beyond economic considerations. For example, children born earlier in the school year and entering school up to a year older than those born later have been shown to progress through their education and subsequent career better because of superior physical and mental abilities for their class year which provoke positive feedback from teachers in terms of help and advice that then becomes self-reinforcing. And those who are taller and more physically attractive are known to have overall better job opportunities and of course mating and marriage opportunities. This is even before we take account of cultural background, language skills and mental or physical prowess or disabilities, which can all be keys or barriers to opportunity.

The proposed remedies to these realities have been different. Social conservatives have traditionally emphasised individual resilience and effort, which tends to ignore the sometimes almost insuperable barriers to opportunity, while social liberals have emphasised the role of the state in providing more focused opportunity for disadvantaged groups, which opens the floodgates of an almost bottomless demand and, in the case of positive discrimination (affirmative action in the US) cannot help but undermine the principle of advancement through merit. As an interesting pointer to an underlying truth, regardless of declared political affiliation, when it comes to their own children, given the means, parents almost never rely on the beneficence of the state but invest in whatever improves their chances of success, such as private education.

There have been serious attempts to address the problems relating to equality of opportunity. The most well-known is John Rawls Theory of Justice. Rawls builds his theory around several key principles: freedom, equal rights, social cooperation, fairness and reasonable distribution of social goods. He accepts that there might be advantages to unequal economic outcomes, such as giving people aspiration to improve their lives, but that the richest should not be rich at the expense of the poorest, nor should the poorest in society be so poor that they have no access to the social goods. Rawls outlines the principles of what we call social democracy. It is a rational attempt to balance the principles of freedom and fairness. Unfortunately, it relies on at least two presumptions that no longer apply in much of the developed world: the existence of an educated public and social cohesion. In economically advanced societies we are seeing the failure of the public education system to produce citizens educated enough, and a population willing to read seriously enough, to engage in the debate of ideas necessary for the level of cooperation required for social democracy to operate.

Problems with the implementation of equality of opportunity have led those on the political left, particularly the radical Marxist left, to advocate for a procrustean equality of outcome, meaning that in a socialist or communist society essentially everyone, whatever position or occupation, would receive the same income. There are obvious theoretical shortcomings – the disincentive to succeed or develop, the hurdle to exploiting individual variation in desires and abilities that generate innovation, and the necessity for state ubiquity in the minutiae of individual lives to curtail any unauthorised economic activity, for example – that enable one to predict both the unrealizability of the ideal and the probable social and economic disaster of any attempt to realise it, predictions that have been amply borne out in actual experience, that is to say, catastrophic failure in every case. The perpetual political embarrassment of claiming that every actual attempt to implement socialism was “not real socialism” after all, may have had some influence on the left to ditch ‘equality’ in favour of ‘equity’, but the reasons are far more complex.

Part 2 of this essay will examine the levels of meaning of equity in postmodern identity politics and its distinction from equality.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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