Alexandra Kogl & David K Moore. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
Though simple as a mathematical concept, equality is complex and contested as a political goal and philosophical concept. Many political struggles, both historical and ongoing, have engaged in the contests over the nature of equality. This contestation revolves around the basic question, What kinds of equality matter? The answer to this in part depends on whether the topic is approached from a predominantly political, economic, ethical/philosophical, or social perspective. Discussing the history of ideas on the concept of equality poses two further challenges. First, equality is so intimately related to the concept of justice that it is impossible to fully untangle the two. Second, there are so many voices and movements to consider on the subject that any concise discussion requires difficult choices on who to include and who to neglect. This overview thus will (1) touch on many (but not all) the important thinkers and developments in the history of ideas in the Western tradition, and (2) introduce some of the major debates and conflicts in that tradition over the concept of equality.
Ancient Views of Equality
For the purposes of understanding the concept of equality within the Western tradition, one has to look back to the two most influential strands of thought that inform the modern West: the Hebrew (and later Judeo-Christian) tradition and the Greek. While the Hebrews did not undertake an analysis of the concept of equality, the worldview and subsequent laws were steeped with a sense of equality unusual in the Western tradition at or before their time. The distance between a supremely powerful single God and humanity was most likely fundamental to this world-view, in which God’s creations seemed relatively equal in comparison. Unlike other well-known law codes of the age (e.g., the code of Hammurabi), Jewish law applied to all Hebrews equally, regardless of their sex or class (see especially Exodus 19-35 and Deuteronomy 12-26). At the founding of the second temple in Jerusalem, Jewish law became a kind of first social contract—quite literally in the public reading of the Torah and the people signing that they will live by these laws—establishing a direct relationship between all the Hebrew people and their God (see Ezra-Nehmiah). There was not one secret teaching for the elites and another for the people; rather, all the teachings were available to all the people, and the covenant required the understanding and consent of all.
The first systematic analyses of equality as a concept comes from the Greeks of the classical age, which is perhaps not surprising given their intense interest in mathematics. One of the most thorough of these early systematic explorations of equality was undertaken by Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) in several of his works. In his investigation into the virtue of justice in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses the Greek word for “equal” (isos) but gives it a meaning that is more akin to “fairness.” Equality is a state to be striven for, intermediate between giving someone more or less than he or she is due, relative to a specific activity or social realm. In disputes over contracts, for instance, a judge must determine the differences in harms inflicted by the breaking of a contract and restore the position of equality by subtracting the profit the offender has reaped from the infraction (Ethics, 1132a1-19).
It is in Aristotle’s discussion of political justice that he examines equality in a way that more closely resembles the usual meaning of the term today. Political justice is a matter for citizens, whom he defines as “those who share in common a life aiming at self-sufficiency, who are free and either proportionally or numerically equal” (Ethics, 1134a27-29). Justice, in the political sense, can occur only among those who are free and fundamentally equal in their capacity as citizens, most importantly, in their equality in ruling and being ruled (Ethics, 1134b14-16). In the Politics, Aristotle further refines the concept of political equality in his discussions of justice in a political association. He tells us that the virtue of justice is agreed by all to be a proportionality based on desert or merit, but he adds that “some consider themselves to be equal generally if they are equal in some respect, while others claim to merit all things unequally if they are unequal in some respect” (Politics, 1301b35-39). As neither view is wholly right or wrong, and since reason alone cannot resolve the fundamental conflict, a good regime will attempt to see the legitimacy and limitations of both and attempt to arrange politics and political institutions so that the factions that normally form around these competing views enter into constructive negotiation rather than risk intense civil conflict or rule by superior power alone (Politics, 1301b39-1302a15, 1318a27-b1).
While Aristotle believes in some natural inequalities among humans that today we reject—between men and women, between “natural slaves” and free men—he does lay a foundation for a political critique of economic inequalities. The best regime will be one without extremes of wealth or poverty, not because these inequalities are inherently unjustifiable but because they undermine good politics. The wealthy, because they are unequal (i.e., superior) in wealth to their fellow citizens, believe they should be superior in political power as well—a false and dangerous belief. As a solution to the potential of class rule by either the wealthy or the poor, Aristotle encourages regimes to nurture the growth of the middle classes, whom he sees as better able to grasp the merits and limitations of the two extremes and thereby be a moderating political force (Politics, 1295a33-1296a21; for a brief general introduction to the topic, see Terchek and Moore).
Athenian political practice is just as important as Athenian philosophy to understanding the Greek contribution to ideas of equality. Through the centuries of reforms that would lead to the rise of full-fledged democratic government, three stand out. The first, isonomia, means literally equality of law, embodying both the concept that all citizens be treated equally with regard to the laws and that they participate equally in their making. The second reform, isēgoria, or equality of speech, allows all citizens, regardless of class, to rise in the assembly and attempt to convince their fellow citizens on the best policies and laws. The final reform allows all citizens to participate equally in the agenda-setting aspect of politics rather than just expressing preference on the agenda given to them. While political equality in contemporary democracies has been restricted for most citizens to the voicing of preference rather than the ability to effectively participate in setting or influencing the political agenda, the Athenian reforms highlight that this is only one aspect of true political equality (see Ober, 1989, 1996).
Like the Athenians, Rome came to base its laws on the notion that they should apply to all citizens equally. And as with the Athenians, it was the result of a struggle between the many and the few. During the republic, the plebian class, angered that the laws were applied differently to them and to the elites of the patrician class, pushed for reforms that resulted in the adoption of the Twelve Tables. Stating basic laws in a clear way helped to eliminate their ad hoc alteration in legal proceedings, where they could be made to say one thing for the elite and another for the many.
Equality in the Church and the Protestant Reformation
During the Middle Ages, there were two important developments that affect the modern conception of equality. First, a natural law tradition developed around the notion that all humans, as God’s creations, are owed certain rights and protections and that these natural laws cannot be altered by political associations or rulers. Thus we see in thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224-1274) a rigorous defense of the principle that all people are due a certain minimal set of legal protections based solely on the fact of their humanity.
The second role the church played is more subtle, serving as a force for the gradual and irresistible movement toward a society organized around the fundamental fact of equality. The church took in members of the lower classes, gave them an education, allowed them to rise through the church hierarchy, and, given the important role church officials played in European state affairs, made it possible for individuals of humble origins to join the royal state’s inner circle of advisers. It thus provided a clear counterexample to the notion that one is born to one’s station, contributing to the decline of the view that society should be based on fundamental inequality in accordance with one’s birth (Tocqueville, pp. 9-10).
As the Protestant Reformation approached, Christian humanists set out to understand the precise meaning of the founding texts (the Bible and doctrines of the early church fathers). This, combined with the advent of the printing press and the widespread publication of the Bible and other writings in the common tongues of the people, created an atmosphere in which intense scrutiny of and debate over the meaning of Christian doctrine was considered appropriate, and individuals came to see themselves as capable of judging doctrine for themselves based on their knowledge and skills. This culminated in Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) statement, in a debate with Johann Eck, that the Bible, not the pope or church councils, is the sole guide for human conscience. It is a short leap from these views to the modern liberal notion that individuals, with no need of an intermediary or authority to tell them what to think, can best determine their own beliefs and interests. In the Reformation era, individuals became radically equal in their capacities to judge matters for themselves.
Liberalism, Civic Republicanism, and the Age of Revolution
Modern conceptions of equality are deeply rooted in both the liberal and civic republican traditions of thought as well as in the age of revolution. Here we will look at each of these as well as at the socialist challenge to liberalism in particular. As we will see, in addition to natural, legal, and political forms of equality, economic equality (or inequality) also concerns many modern thinkers.
At its core, liberalism grew out of the social contract theories espoused by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704). For Hobbes (a proto-liberal), the individual is naturally equal because in a hypothetical state of nature he or she is equally at the mercy of other people, as even the weakest can kill the strongest through guile or collected effort. Escaping this environment of all against all is the reason for and basis of our entering into a social contract whereby we agree to give over most of our natural rights to a sovereign who will protect us, thereby allowing us to pursue our own interests. The focus in Hobbes is on abstract and radically equal individuals, and in his solution he does not worry much about the individual carrying his or her equal natural rights into the civil society that results from the social contract.
As the first true liberal, Locke emphasizes natural equal rights, roughly equal reason, and the need for a social contract to protect equal rights to pursue one’s interests and realize the benefits of one’s labor and property. However, Locke deemphasizes the salience of economic inequalities for politics. As we shall see, unlike the civic republicans, Locke does not emphasize that property is a means to an end and therefore should not be pursued without limit. In the commons-based economy of Locke’s state of nature, and in the absence of money, it would be unjust to hoard forms of property that would “spoil,” but in a private-property-based, money economy there is no natural limit to accumulation and therefore no natural limit to inequalities of property. In fact Locke argues that since money only has value through the “tacit and voluntary consent” of human beings, “men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth” (Second Treatise, p. 29). Material inequalities are not only inevitable, humans have chosen them. Moreover Locke emphasizes that privatization of the commons—and the inequalities that entails—will allow a more productive use of resources. While Locke repeatedly reminds readers that God “hath given the world to men in common,” he offers no admonition—on the basis of natural law, reason, or religious teaching—that we limit our accumulation of wealth, and he does not offer warnings about the effects of inequalities of property on politics (Second Treatise, p. 18).
For Adam Smith (1723-1790), the key economic inequality of his time that needed to be eliminated was mercantilist monarchy’s awarding economic opportunities not to all alike but to a few well-connected subjects. Out of Smith’s critique of mercantilism comes the notion of equality of economic opportunity. Given equal economic opportunities, individuals will pursue their own interests on the basis of their abilities, and the fact that inequality of outcome will result is not a problem for Smith as long as political equality is protected. Smith is fundamentally worried, however, about an economic system in which the players have unequal market power. His ideal market comprises many small producers and consumers, none of whom have the power to significantly influence prices and thereby infringe on the liberty of others by extracting benefits beyond what they would as equally powerless players. Furthermore, while Smith does not worry overly much about economic inequality per se, he is troubled both by the dangers of pursuing wealth too avidly and by the deprivations of having too little, especially when they force one into dependence on a work environment that dulls one’s reasoning faculties.
A slightly different strand within the liberal tradition follows Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant’s important contribution to the notion of equality has to do with his contention that from a moral or ethical point of view there is an obligation (categorical imperative) to treat individuals as ends in themselves and not merely as means for some other end. This rises from the human capacity to reason and therefore the will to be self-determining (see Practical Philosophy,pp. 77-82). This notion will deeply influence modern ethical thought, especially thinking about human rights as it informs the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948.
The civic republican tradition—including thinkers such as Aristotle, Niccoló Machiavelli (1469-1527), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)—differs from that of the early liberals by emphasizing economic inequality as a threat to liberty and democratic government. For Rousseau, liberal social contract theory undermines itself in that it does not resolve the fundamental conflict over the unequal private property that lies at the very heart of the social contract. For thinkers such as Locke, individuals form a social contract in order to escape the conflicts that develop over property so that they may enjoy their property and the fruits of their labor. Rousseau, however, contends that by leaving property unequally distributed, Locke failed to resolve the conflict that stands in the way of civil peace and individual liberty. For Rousseau, the logical missing step necessary to solve Locke’s error is for all individuals to give up their private property as a condition of entering the social contract. This property is then distributed equally as a private holding of all citizens under the contract. This arrangement allows all individuals equal capacity to tend to their interests and needs and to participate in their collective self-governance. Rousseau’s ideas will inform the French Revolution and its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which calls for liberty, equality, and fraternity and attempts to eliminate the privileges of the old aristocratic order.
For Jefferson and for other early U.S. thinkers such as J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735-1813), one of the great characteristics of the United States was its egalitarian distribution of property compared to Europe’s. Americans, according to Crèvecoeur, work for themselves, not lords. He boasts that in America, even the “meanest of our log-houses is a dry and comfortable habitation. Lawyer and merchant are the fairest titles our towns afford” (Letters, p. 46). We see here an American expression of the civic republican aspiration of working for oneself, with no master or overseer. This aspiration is also egalitarian in its societal outcomes: the poorest live in dry and comfortable homes, and the richest are merely lawyers or merchants.
Clearly the reality in the colonies and the United States was never this egalitarian. However, Crèvecoeur’s vision is an exemplar of mainstream American views on equality in that it does not require anything other than equality of opportunity. The redistribution from the rich and aristocracy necessary to achieve some kind of equality in Europe is rendered invisible through the myth of a frontier of largely empty land that can be settled by Americans of European descent. The equality of opportunity that is the basis of the American consensus has never been the sole cause for the realization of the ideal of a citizen free from overt dependence (Bercovitch; Appleby).
Jefferson was similarly egalitarian in his attitudes toward work and property (and perhaps similar in his tendency to neglect the realities of inequality in early America). In 1785 he wrote to James Madison that
I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property.… Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.
He goes on to argue that where persons are excluded by the privatization or enclosure of land, governments must “take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation” (Jefferson, p. 396).
For Jefferson, as for other thinkers in the civic republican tradition, a relatively egalitarian distribution of property and the ensurance of all households’ livelihoods are not merely ends in themselves but are important means to good democratic citizenship.
Here [in America] every one may have land to labor for himself.… Every one, by his property, or by his satisfactory situation, is interested in the support of law and order. And such men may safely and advantageously reserve to themselves a wholesome control over their public affairs, and a degree of freedom, which, in the hands of the canaille of the cities of Europe, would be instantly perverted and to the demolition and destruction of everything public and private. (Jefferson, p. 538)
Ordinary Americans have something to lose; they have something at stake in the political economic regime. (On stakes in civic republican thought, see Terchek, 1997.) They will not threaten property relations since they are neither impoverished nor exploited. Therefore, from the perspective of elites, ordinary Americans can be trusted as democratic citizens. Extremes of economic inequality—in which some citizens have much more than they need and others have no livelihood with which to sustain themselves and their families—are not just violations of natural law; they threaten democracy by undermining the respect for law and moderation that allows democracy to function well.
We need also notice the important role equality plays in the founding of the United States. Jefferson inserts at the heart of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence the 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.” However, while espousing a basic equality at the very core of the American political experiment, the 1787 Constitution also institutionalized a great deal of inequality. First is the compromise that protects the practice of slavery and determines that slaves count as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of determining representation, even though they cannot participate in selecting those representatives. The Constitution excluded those who do not own property from full citizenship until the reforms of the Jacksonian era, and women were excluded from full citizen status until the beginning of the twentieth century. Furthermore, even once the United States adopted universal adult suffrage, it maintained one of the most unequal instances of representation in any of the stable, advanced democracies: the U.S. Senate. The Senate is based on the principle of equality for states, not for citizens. Thus a citizen of the least populous state has about sixty times as much voting power as a citizen of the most populous state in determining Senate representation.
Although the socialist tradition is much more diverse than this choice suggests, we will focus on the ideas of Karl Marx (1818-1883) as exemplary of the socialist critique of liberal capitalism. The political economic philosophy of Marx approaches economic inequalities with a concern for freedom, rejecting the liberal assumption that economic inequalities do not affect political equalities and breaking with both the republican and liberal traditions by focusing on the inequalities of neither individuals nor citizens but entire classes. For Marx, the most fundamentally problematic inequality is that between those who own the means of economic production and those who do not. That some are rich and others poor is of concern, but this is only symptomatic of the former, deeper inequality. Moreover, from a Marxist perspective, inequalities that seem not to be economic in nature—inequalities between the sexes, for instance—are outgrowths of the fundamental economic inequality that forms the basis of a capitalist political economic system.
In a capitalist political economy it is not just the economy that is driven and controlled by the capitalist class. All the institutions of society, or superstructure of society, rest on an economic base and serve to legitimate but also disguise that base. The ideologies of liberal democracy only serve to legitimate what is in fact a system of freedom and democracy only for some. The political equality emphasized by liberals is but a veil for the economic inequality that is so fundamental to a capitalist society and so detrimental to human freedom.
For Marx, the central normative problem with capitalism is not simply the poverty or powerlessness of the proletariat or the inequality between the classes in and of itself. The central problem is that no one is truly free in a capitalist regime. According to Marx the fundamental nature of our species is to produce—ideas and art as well as the material objects necessary for survival. By appropriating the workers’ product, capitalism denies them, or alienates them from, their fundamental nature. In this alienation workers are unfree, because they are unable to become their fully human selves. Even members of the bourgeoisie are unfree, because in using others to produce for them they are also alienated from their nature as producers. Freedom, then, would be the end of alienation and the realization of humanity’s species being as producers. A classless society, in which all own the means of production and all are producers in the deepest sense, is the only means of achieving the end of alienation and therefore freedom (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844). As for other thinkers, equality is not an end in itself for Marx. Instead, equality in ownership and control of the means of production is a necessary prerequisite for freedom.
There are several important developments in contemporary thought about what equality means and which equalities matter. In contemporary capitalist democracies, political theorists and philosophers still debate whether or not the economic inequalities generated by a capitalist economy are consistent with political equality. Defenders of the theories and practices of capitalism, such as F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, argue that if a political economic system provides all persons with an equal opportunity to succeed, then inequality of outcome or result is acceptable. That some are rich and others poor fairly reflects individuals’ differing aptitudes, work ethics, and even luck. Free markets, according to such thinkers, justly distribute the economic products of a society among its members because they reward economic contributions on the basis of existing demand for those contributions. Efforts to equalize the living standards of rich and poor would rely on coercive governmental power that would sacrifice individual freedom and rights to a kind of equality that may not even be politically important. For such thinkers, then, economic inequality is not problem as long as political equality—equal rights and capacities to participate in political processes—exists.
Capitalism and Its Critics
Critics of free-market capitalism attack these claims on philosophical, historical, and practical bases. Many question whether indeed the market is a just distributor of the economic products and economic burdens of a society—and therefore whether economic inequalities are just in and of themselves. More generally, non-Marxist critics such as Michael Walzer want a society in which no social good “serves or can serve as a means of domination” (Spheres of Justice, p. xiv; see also Lindblom, 1977, 1982). Other thinkers approach concerns over economic inequalities from a more ethical perspective that incorporates the Kantian and social contract approaches to liberalism. Most notable among these is John Rawls, who contends that to correct the inequalities that arise in society we should begin with a thought game in which we imagine ourselves behind a “veil of ignorance,” not knowing what circumstances we will be born into, what attributes and handicaps we will be born with, or what fortune will bring us in life. If we did not know what our situation was, how would we arrange society and what programs to remedy inequality would we propose? He contends that as rational beings we would favor an initial position in the social contract that is basically equal and maintains some meaningful degree of fairness. According to Rawl’s difference principle, inequalities are justified only to the extent that they are designed to bring (and actually bring) the greatest possible benefit to the least advantaged among us.
Generally, political thinkers today also debate whether equality of opportunity—assuming it truly exists in advanced capitalist regimes—is indeed enough to ensure political equality, which all in liberal democratic regimes agree is necessary for a polity to be just. Many observers of U.S. politics today, including some who support a free-market capitalist economy, worry that the wall separating political from economic inequalities is regularly breached. One of the most obvious ways in which the wall is breached is through the financing of political campaigns by private, independent economic actors. Such contributions amount to a powerful form of political influence with which it is difficult for ordinary citizens to compete and which undermines the political equality on which democracy rests.
A less obvious way in which the wall between economic inequalities and political equality is breached is described by Charles Lindblom. For Lindblom, even when corporations do not gain unequal political influence through campaign contributions, they enjoy a “privileged position” in policy-making because of their very real ability to shape economic outcomes. For example, polluting industries have special leverage in lobbying Congress not to enact stricter air-quality standards because they can convincingly claim that the effects of such standards would cause them to lay off workers.
The concentration of economic power in the hands of a few, then, may translate quite directly into a concentration of political power in the hands of the same few. Even if economic inequalities are tolerable in and of themselves, most agree that political equality is sacrosanct and that the translation of economic inequality into political inequality is a serious problem when or if it occurs. These problems with economic inequality exist alongside any threats to good democratic citizenship discussed by civic republican thinkers, such as the tendency of rule by one class in its own interest, which worried Aristotle, and the threat to democratic stability posed by a class with nothing to lose, as Jefferson discussed.
Another, more recent set of questions has been raised by those concerned with global inequalities—especially those inequalities between the economically advanced countries and the less wealthy nations of the world—who point out that limiting discussions of equality and remedies to address perceived inequalities within the nation-state are not appropriate to a highly economically interconnected world. The international political economic environment has inherited inequalities of the colonial era, to which are added the unequal outcomes of international goods and capital markets and the privileging of economically advanced countries by the major international political economic institutions, principally the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and World Trade Organization (WTO). Yet most of the mechanisms by which we address socioeconomic inequalities within a nation-state are inappropriate or impractical for use in addressing global inequalities.
Related to these concerns are challenges raised by the rise of international governance institutions—the above-mentioned political economic institutions, the United Nations, regional international organizations, bodies set up to address specific issues, and so on. If the notion of equal representation is fundamental to liberal democratic politics, how ought it be applied to international governance bodies? Generally today such bodies give representation either to each nation-state equally (as with the United Nations) or in some proportion to financial contribution (as with the IMF). The former approach is a holdover from the early days of the modern nation-state, when the state was identified with a monarch who was being represented in the international realm. However, liberal democracy is based on representation being roughly proportional to population of districts or regions—but this could privilege the elites of populous but nondemocratic states. Basing representation on IMF contributions, many argue, simply reinforces the global economic and political advantages already possessed by the advanced capitalist regimes.
Movements for Equality—Equal to Whom?
Since the mid-1800s, equality has been the rallying cry in the United States for abolitionists, suffragists, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, gay and lesbian movements, and even some sectors of the environmental movement. One striking aspect of many such movements is their persistence in appropriating the language of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” or, more broadly, in returning to what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “great wells of democracy … dug deep by the Founding Fathers” (“Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” pp. 33-34). Frederick Douglass’s abolitionism, the Declaration of Sentiments of the early U.S. women’s movement, King’s rhetoric, and some voices in the gay and lesbian movement have generally called not for changing the fundamental institutions or political values of the United States but for fully and equally including particular groups in American political life. Equality for these movements has to a large extent meant equal rights, including equal voting rights for women, equal civil rights for African-Americans, and equal marriage rights for same-sex partners (although the latter is debated within gay and lesbian communities).
Members of such movements have debated whether this emphasis on inclusion—in place of a broad critique of the system that has excluded certain groups—is a strength or a weakness. More moderate activists have argued that American ideals and institutions are fundamentally sound and that the problem lies in the unequal inclusion in practice of certain groups into political life. Radical voices in all these movements have suggested that it is not enough to assert a right to the privileges enjoyed by heterosexual white men. The political theorist Wendy Brown has built on this critique. She argues that to the extent that feminists as well as racial and ethnic minority movements operate within the framework of the liberal individualist tradition, they privilege their particular identity as the basis for equality claims. Such thinking “overburdens” their particular identity with the harms they perceive. It also overburdens with blame members of the group defined as dominant in the unequal relationship between identity groups (for women, men; for African Americans, whites; for gays and lesbians, heterosexuals). A larger analysis of the political economic system and inequalities that come from their other social relationships (particularly class) tends to be absent. This, in Brown’s words, “wounds” equality claims by failing to notice the power of the capitalist political economic system to unequally distribute harms and goods. This overburdening also can produce a backlash by placing too much blame for one group’s perceived harms on members of the dominant identity groups. In a sense the dominant group is “wounded” beyond the harm they may have caused when a critique of the political economic system is missing. Such thinking also fails to notice that many harms are also suffered by members of the dominant group who are in inferior social relationships themselves along some axes of domination—especially class.
Questions such as what kinds of equality are important, as well as equality to whom and for whom, are still contested, even within movements for equality. Multiple identities—ethnic, racial, class, sexual, religious, and so on—create multiple sites for inequalities to emerge, and movements often choose to focus on one site of inequality, sometimes at the expense of another. Moreover, with the globalization of economic production and consumption and the emergence of institutions such as the European Union, questions about the equal treatment and equal rights of migrant and minority groups remain unresolved (see Kymlicka).
Concerns about Equality
Many political thinkers have worried that applications of an ideal of equality may undermine freedom. For Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), equality can easily come to dominate people’s political aspirations. As he puts it, citizens (Americans in particular) “want equality in freedom, and if they cannot have that, they still want equality in slavery” (p. 506). Worse, people may tolerate not being free as long as everyone is equally un-free. Equality also isolates individuals, according to Tocqueville. It ends any sense of mutual responsibility that may have previously existed; there is no longer any sense of duty either to one’s “superiors” or one’s “inferiors” because there are no real superiors or inferiors. Hannah Arendt echoes Tocqueville in her distinction between liberation and freedom. Liberation of the poor from crushing material necessity and dependence on others is a prerequisite to freedom, but it is not freedom because it does not entail participation in self-governance. However, there is a tendency for revolutionary movements to settle for liberation—for relative material equality—rather than seeking complete freedom. Finally, the liberal John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) is concerned that with the undermining of “differences of position” in society, and with “the ascendancy of public opinion in the State,” groups and individuals are increasingly the same and find less and less room for dissent and nonconformity (p. 70). All these thinkers share a general sense that while some forms of equality are key prerequisites of a good politics, equality must not be mistaken for the ultimate political ideal, which for these thinkers is freedom.
For political thinkers concerned with what constitutes good democratic politics, concentrations of power are sources of concern wherever they are found. This is especially the case when these concentrations of power threaten the basic democratic notion that citizens should have a meaningful capacity to govern themselves and participate on a roughly equal basis with other citizens in their collective self-governance. In thinking about what constitutes a good democratic politics we need to recognize the inherent contestability of the very concept of equality and that equality is one value among many (albeit a very important value to democracy). Democracy, by its very nature, requires that no conception of the nature of equality can be taken off the table of political discourse and debate. Furthermore, no single conception should always prevail in democratic deliberations or it risks the commitment of citizens who do not share the dominant conception of the democratic project. It is in fact the rich contestation over equality and its relation to other political values that helps ensure that new forms of domination cannot creep unnoticed into democratic polities.