Equality is one of the hallowed values of the post-Enlightenment west.
It’s celebrated in the French revolutionary slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” and in the American Declaration of Independence, which asserts that it is “self-evident” that “all men are created equal,” as well as that all men have “inalienable Rights” such as “Liberty.” The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms asserts that “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination,” as well as asserting the “fundamental freedoms” of “conscience and religion,” “thought, opinion and expression,” “peaceful assembly” and “association.”
When the Levellers in the mid-17th century lobbied for equality before the law, one objective was for the removal of special exceptions and benefits for aristocrats. In the following centuries, liberals called for equality of economic opportunity to succeed in gaining wealth. The communists of the late 19th and 20th centuries went farther, aiming to take from producers to allocate to others according to their need.
In the 21st century, this has been simplified to a campaign for equality of result, for everyone ending up with the same amount of wealth, status and position.
This is not a marginal voice, but rather the voice of former U.S. president Barack Obama and the Democrat Party, ranting against the “one per cent.” Indeed, exit poll surveys of Democrat voters showed that their first priority for the country was for the rich to pay more taxes!
For the political left, and the ever more left-leaning Democrat Party, the priority is redistribution of wealth from those who produce and own it to preferred recipients, usually those likely to vote for the Democrat Party. The Occupy movement took the demand for redistribution of wealth to the streets and parks.
So too in Canada, where the left-leaning Broadbent Institute argues that “Economic inequality, the uneven distribution of income and wealth, is one of the critical challenges of our time. The surge in inequality in Canada, which occurred primarily in the 1990s, remains at high levels today. … To reverse the trend, progressives must demand public policies that focus on shared prosperity.” Similarly, the Canada Centre for Policy Alternatives says Canada must solve “one of the biggest challenges of our time: Worsening income and wealth inequality in Canada.”
The problem is that self-appointed equality advocates have not maintained the balance between equality and other basic western values, but have raised equality above all others. This is remarkable because selecting equality as the sole ideal is a repeat of the major political movement of the 20th century: communism.
In a cross-cultural study of selected, well-documented societies from around the world, it was demonstrated that in societies where economic equality exists, individual liberty is highly restricted. Conversely, in societies where there’s a high level of individual freedom, there’s a corresponding high level of economic inequality. The reason for this is clear: in state societies and peasant communities, people will not voluntarily share their wealth, and must be constrained and coerced by state or community institutions to share. This state and community coercion restricts individual liberty.
So full economic equality and full individual freedom are incompatible. The more you have of one, the less you have of the other. Advocates of full economic equality are also advocates of strong state measures to guarantee equality: confiscation and redistribution of wealth and property by government is the means to achieve greater economic equality.
In contrast, political pluralism typical of liberal democratic societies is seen in multiple parties with multiple policies; liberal democracies are characterized by limited measures in support of economic equality, such as welfare state policies, and substantial but restricted freedom. Advocating for greater equality is also advocating for less freedom.
Another value that might be tested by greater economic equality, or by the government measures to ensure greater equality, is that of prosperity. It has been hotly debated whether state control of the economy results in poor productivity and little innovation. The evidence from the communist countries is not encouraging. The evidence suggests that freedom to benefit creates incentives to be productive. It follows that advocating for greater economic equality is, in fact, advocating against incentives for work and productivity, and thus against prosperity.
In the past, liberals focused on equality among individuals. Progressives now demand equality among categories of persons: gender, race, religion, sexual preference, ethnicity, national origin, language, etc. Equality here means inclusiveness. So that a school class without an East Asian, a police force without a Sikh, a football team without a Jew, a city council without an African-American, a ballet troupe without an Italian, a civil service office without a Muslim, a fire department without an employee who is homeless, a company board without a gay/lesbian/transsexual would be incomplete, racist, and unjust. The more minorities, and visible minorities, included in every sector of society, the more equal, and thus the more just.
One cost is the loss of individual identity, with racial, national, religious, sexual categories being imposed on individuals, whose individuality is reduced to the defining feature of the category. A second cost is merit, the ability to do the specified job. So advocates for collective equality are also advocates against individual identities, and against achievement, merit and the quest for excellence.
Philip Carl Salzman is professor of anthropology at McGill University, senior fellow at Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and fellow of the Middle East Forum.