A Few Thoughts on Equality as it is Used and Understood in Western Political Philosophy
There are quite a few concepts that are generally considered as unequivocally good. Although most people will concur that these concepts – freedom is one example - are desirable, the same people will rarely agree on what their desirability implies in practice. This is partially because terms such as freedom have for many lost their precise definition (if they ever had one) and instead represent a form of emotional association. It is no coincidence that terms such as rights, freedom, justice, and many others have been thoroughly misused by a wide array of authoritarian sentiments which, in actuality, do not further freedom and justice but rather, promote their most perfect opposites. This apparent contradiction makes plenty of sense when one recognizes that the emotional potential that the misused words carry is so great that even illiberal forces cannot resist them. But given that we are fortunate to live in a democracy, we ought to attempt to examine the meaning of the words we associate with the democratic order on a daily basis with more precision, for they do have a meaning separate of their emotional appeal. Let us briefly consider the concept of equality and its utility for democracy.
The basic tenet of democracy as a modern, Western, intellectual philosophy is that all men are created equal. Now, what exactly does that mean? Ohio State’s John Mueller makes in one of his papers two arguments concerning the role of equality in democracy. On the one hand, Mr. Mueller writes that “political equality is something that evolves without much further ado when people are free – it is subsumed by, dependent upon, and indistinguishable from liberty.” In this view, political equality is something natural which, if left to its own devices, evolves in a society. The democratic practice, as John Mueller observes, often looks somewhat different: “In practice, then, democracy is a form of government in which the individual is left free to become politically unequal.” What the author has in mind, and this connects the two thoughts, is that equality as it has often been used in democracies really stands for equality of opportunity.
Although I would agree with the latter conclusion, I think the first statement needs to be problematized. Some might suggest, together with Mr. Mueller, that equality is the natural order of things and that is why people generally tend towards equality. Equality represents an equilibrium of sorts and as all equilibria, it serves as a focus towards which things naturally gravitate. In other words, and this is perhaps the story told by most genuine democrats, there has to be a sustained distortive force for inequality to prevail. For instance, Louis XVI. had his army that kept the populace at bay and it was not before this army of his, a distortive force, was eliminated from the picture, that natural equality arose (if one is willing to accept the interpretation that the French Revolution brought about, at least for some time, relative equality). Two sound objections can be raised with respect to the notion of equality as a natural equilibrium: a) there have been many places and times when people have not been equal and some of them have been fairly stable and b) it is obvious that people are not equal in many respects (physical ability, intellectual capacity, and personal discipline). Some of these characteristics are malleable (discipline) but others are not. Clearly, the argument cannot be brushed away by saying that all could develop to “equality” if only they had the right conditions. People are not equal and equality is, in a fundamental sense, a social construct. Let us return to the example of the French Revolution. It was not only the king’s army which kept the commoners at bay. It was also the people’s belief, perhaps not accepted by all at all times but certainly accepted by many most of the time, that the king was in fact naturally superior and had, just as the people themselves, a natural place in society. It was only when the common people rejected this idea, and replaced with another one, that the supposed disequilibrium became intensely felt. In other words, the notion of equality needed to be constructed, for it was hardly found out in the open. Having said this, there is a certain undeniable connection between what I term here “the lived human experience” and the stability that a specific notion of equality offers. This notion, however, is not the one that everyday users of the word ‘equality’ assume. In order to understand what I have in mind, consider that what people seek when they revolt (as they did in the case of the French Revolution) is rarely the achievement of a clearly defined ideal. Rather, it is the removal of an undesirable set of conditions that prompts us to seek change in the first place. We rarely revolt in pursuance of a lofty ideal, we revolt against that which is no longer acceptable.
As John Mueller presciently writes, the reason why democracies based on political equality are stable is that they allow those who care about this equality to enjoy it and those who are ignorant of it to ignore it. The ignorant may one day wake up and make use of democracy’s equality but the industrious and able have no other option in a rigid society other than to overthrow the system. This latter mechanism, to be sure, applies to both rigid, absolutist societies and utopias seeking to bring about equality of outcome.
Let me dwell on this last point a little longer. Orders that deal people inequality and systems promising equality of outcome are unified by their lack of flexibility and it is this lack of flexibility which naturally leads to their rejection, not the purported attractiveness of quite another ideal. Equality of opportunity, the kind of opportunity that John Mueller writes about, which is also the kind of equality that liberal democracies practice, persists not because other, “less equal” systems tend to it, but because it alone offers the kind of stability that other social orders lack.
The reason behind this, as is the case with many human ambitions and enterprises, is that our knowledge is forever doomed to remain incomplete. Thus, the only way to design a socially stable order is to give up the lofty ambition to do so. One can certainly imagine the possibility of assigning everyone his or her place in society based on their abilities. In fact, Plato argued for such organization of society. The difficulty is that we would need to be able to ascertain each individual’s ability in order to assign her a proper place. We would further need to agree on a definition of abilities, their exact measurement, as well as their hierarchy of importance. Because this is practically impossible, we would soon default to allocating proper social roles (that is, inequality) to entire classes, countries, political groups, etc. Indeed, that is what Plato did. He wrote that the philosopher class should govern, the soldiers should protect their country and fight, and the producers should provide for the material needs of the state. Plato’s seemingly intuitive justification was that philosophers love truth, soldiers love courage, and producers love manual work. What, then, would be better for a stable society, and the social classes themselves, than a rigid system which enables everyone to play the role they ought to play? One begins to see that this ideal society, whether it is designed by Plato, Louis the XVI and the tradition of his time or those dreaming of equality of outcome, is prone to turning into a prison.
The “painting with a wide brush,” which is practically necessary to distribute equality unequally (according to one’s abilities, divine rights or something else) leads to gross mistakes. Because the manual workers in Plato’s ideal state, similarly to the commoners of Louis XVI’s France, will one day realize that they, too, love truth and courage, they will seek change. And if not them, then their abler children, who either happen to be born with more abilities or who improve through discipline or pure luck, will one day perceive the injustice that is the world they inhabit. Ultimately, realizing that they are relegated to a status lower than they deserve, they will seek change and if revolt is the only path to this change, then revolt they will.
What we therefore mean when we speak of equality is precisely the ability to move socially. Notice that even though people often use the language of equality, what they really mean is an equality of opportunity. Equality of outcome has thus always been an illusion. Equality of opportunity to determine one’s future, on the other hand, is a natural need emanating from the lived human experience. Although using the language of the former, the history of liberal democracy is an undeniable testimony to the importance of the latter.
 MUELLER, John. Democracy and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery: Elections, Equality, and the Minimal Human Being. American Journal of Political Science. 1992, 36(4), 983-1003, p. 988