Equality. Equity. Egality.

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen takes on this equality versus equity meme. One appeared on by LinkedIn feed this morning and I wanted to comment. I thought I’d have posted on this before and wanted to link to it. If I did, I couldn’t find it, so here’s a fresh accounting. I searched Google for the original image and cobbled together my own versions, if only for visual continuity.

 L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Social Equality vs. Equity Meme

The meme renders something like this:

There are two frames being compared—equality and equity. In both, we see three people trying to view an event, but a barrier obstructs their view. The people are of different heights—tall, medium, and short—, metaphorically representing some intitial social status.

In one we see a representation of equality. In the spirit of equality, each person has one crate upon which to stand. This represents equality of condition. Each person is ensured to start the game on equal social footing. At a glance, it’s easy to discern that this intervention allows two of the people to see the event but leaves one of the three at a disadvantage and unable to view.

In the other, we see a representation of equity. In this frame, we see the same three people and a redistribution of the three crates. Equity is more in tune with equality of opportunity if not of outcomes. The taller person who had been standing on a crate had no need for it as he was tall enough to see over the barrier without it. The mid-size person, who could see the event with the crate but not without it, retained the crate. The shortest person was given the crate from the tallest person, now standing on a stack of two. The result is that each of the three people can now view the event unimpeded.

This comparison is such a nice conversation starter. It’s a hot button topic for some—and I’ll get to that presently. For me, it illustrates the concept of framing. There are several things left out of frame—at least one literally. In this meme, we are given a binary frame, but we can pull the shot back and there’s a third option: egality. This term has fallen out of favour in English, but the French retain it—égalité. In this frame, there is no need for crates, and the plank barrier is replaced by a chain-link fence.

Social Equality

Yet there’s the matter of metanarrative device. Why should there be any barrier? Why focus on these three in the foreground? Do the seated people represent the haves and those standing represent the have-nots? Might we interpret this as bourgeois versus proletariat with the focus on the struggle between the prols distracting from the broader issue? —being further distracted by the circus event? Have we lost the forest for the trees?

As it happens, people along the way have inserted their own social commentary through like-memes. I’ve similarly reconstructed these.

Societal Common Ground

In the beginning there are no crates. They are simply a device. At the start, only the tallest person can see over the barrier. At some point three crates appear ex nihilo and each person obtains one as depicted in the equality of condition frame, which leaves one of our participants better off and the other in no different of a social status, though a bit off the ground in the event of flash flooding. Small wins.

Past Burdens and Generational Wealth Transfer

Some shared the opinion that at least we all start on common ground, and yet others—likely Left- or Liberal-leaning—propose that some people start in a hole. Others might have noted that whilst some start out in a hole others start out with inherited boxes—or houses or networks—showcasing the transfer of generational wealth . Another might be able to view if there was a crate available. Given the negative starting place, the third would likely require three boxes to be on par to view, so even a redistribution of the three boxes would be insufficient.

For my first diversion, I’d like to spend a few moments defending a common response for the Right and Libertarians. Firstly, no one who supports this level-setting is suggesting that the advantaged be put into a hole like the disadvantaged. Nor is anyone asking for The Prince and the Pauper treatment where they trade places. This is a silly attempt at a strawman attack. Secondly, in a similar vein, no one is asking for the best off to relinquish everything and now be unable to see whilst the meek inherit the earth. As if that could ever happen.

Some people were overly optimistic—presumably representing the ‘if some is good, more must be better’ contingent. Why don’t we give everyone two boxes? Aside from the fact that only three are necessary for everyone to view the event, there was no mention where the original three crates came from let alone these additional three. I suppose they might have fashioned them from the fence. Who knows? But this leads us into contributions from the advocates of Capitalism.

Capitalism: Libertarian Vantage

Let’s chalk this up to the Right can’t meme syndrome. To this cohort, Capitalism is the solution. In fact, there will be more crates than one could possibly use. A rising tide rises all boats—and crates. None are left behind. In fact, this is what Capitalism is known for. Of course, this suffers from several cognitive biases: survivorship, selection and availability. But who’s really counting?

For this less fond of Capitalism, this illustrates excess and waste. We needed three crates, yet we produce over thirty. Moreover, these less-fond likely also notice a capital distribution challenge with Capitalism.

Capitalism: Democratic Vantage

The prevailing view by one cohort is that some of the excess crates ‘owned’ by the tallest person should be redistributed whilst the polar perspective holds that this person ‘earned’ those crates and is entitles to keep them. And why can’t that woman just hold her child so he can see? Don’t get me started.

Capitalism for Sale

You really do have to love Capitalists. The solution is always ‘you just have to pay for it. Duh’. Without going too far off track, many of these people—likely vastly most of them—can’t afford what they want, yet they stand by this mechanism.

Socialism Kills

Some people who despise Socialism have a rather macabre perspective on how socialism operates. To them, equality can only be acheived via some Harrison Bergeron mechanism—primarily because they choose not to distinguish between social and physical equality. And maybe they are simply sadistic and enjoy watching people suffer.

My personal favourite is the one for liberation.

Liberation is Liberating

We don’t need no fences. No barriers. No boundaries. Sit on the boxes. Fill them with food for the hungry.

But in the end, if all you are fighting for is free access to cricket matches and other circus events, you aren’t really liberated anyway. You are the slave that Rousseau wrote about, ‘Man is born free but everywhere is in chains’.


Disclaimer: For the record, I have been using the term, Capitalism idiomatically equivalent to a market economy because Americans just don’t want to separate them. I think they feel that if they can pretend they are the same, that criticising Capitalism would be tantamount to criticising market economics. This is wrong on so many levels, but, at least in North America, the terms are inextricable. The fact that Capitalism is a means of production, and the other is a distribution mechanism, people—from syndicalists and worker coöperatives to Mercantilists, tradesmen, and craft-workers—could choose to distribute goods and services through a market system without consequence. It’s not even worth expending a breath. Even English dictionaries have given up and conflated the concepts. Economic textbooks are the last bastion of academic sanity.

Diversity Frame

One if the biggest foci of postmodern philosophy is the metanarrative. Employment diversity is a place that the metanarratives go unquestioned by most. The most predominant aspect is the frame. Don’t accept it.

Inside this frame, some uncritically adopted narratives are as follows:

  • Work is good
  • Work builds character (proportionately to the effort exerted)
  • Work defines your value or worth as a human
  • Work signifies your place in society
  • Work is its own reward (except for monetary payment and recognition)
  • Value is defined by monetary achievement
  • Worth is defined by your place in an enterprise

And so on…

In this HBR article*, the frame has been established as a corporation and the diversity within this context. What this say by omission is that money and power is the measure of a meaningful existence. If only women were afforded a seat at this table—proportional to their population in society—, things will be even.

Women should start their own successful companies. Women should rise to the top of existing companies. Especially if they buy into the aforementioned narratives. Many women and men buy into this story lock, stock, and barrel (whatever that means), but only is you accept this as a frame is this relevant.

It’s easy to imagine a world where money is unnecessary, where labouring is unnecessary.

It’s easy to imagine a world where money is unnecessary, where labouring is unnecessary. Some have imagined a world without work, where people could instead pursue artistic endeavours, but this is just adopting a different set of narratives—like the person who exchanges drugs or alcohol for Jesus or some such. Out of the frying pan into the fire. This is the lie.

Interestingly, the HBR article makes these points:

  1. Quantify gender equity in terms of economic gains for the company.
  2. Hold leaders accountable for change by tying DEI metrics to performance reviews.
  3. Offer development opportunities to increase gender intelligence, empathy, and self-efficacy.
  4. Pull back the curtain on misperceived social norms.
  5. Establish cross-gender professional relationships.
  6. Frame, focus, and integrate interventions into core business outcomes and mission.

Notice that each of these operates from the perspective of the company. Granted, this is HBR, where the B is for Business, but still. Here’s the low down.

  1. Gender equity will at some point increase your bottom line.
  2. Create diversity metrics (and incentives) and tie them to performance review—presumably tied to the economic performance expected in bullet 1.
  3. Offer diversity training—notwithstanding the body of evidence and long history that diversity programmes are not only ineffective but sow seeds of discontent.
  4. Educate your executives and staff to the misconceptions—so long as you don’t question the deeper metanarratives.
  5. Essentially, the ask here is to establish male-female protégé-mentor relationships. Of course, this could be expanded to break binary gender stereotypes, too.
  6. Back to business, frame the frame. But to tell the truth, I don’t even know how to interpret and summarise the provided example. It seems this is an admixture of points 1 and 2, given metrics should ladder up to stated objectives and outcomes.

asking for this equity in diversity is a short-term fix

In any case, asking for this equity in diversity is a short-term fix, but it’s unimaginative and buys into the worldview of the patriarchy. There is no reason to accept this prima facie. As with the notion of Democracy, I’d be willing to argue that the system itself is the problem and that any tinkering within the system is limited by the system itself.


* Apologies in advance if HBR has a paywall. Typically, the first 3 articles are free, but if you are like me that exhausts on day one.

On Property

We take property for granted. John Locke espoused life, liberty, and property. Rousseau observed that “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine”, and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.

But property and its defence is nothing more than some accepted rhetoric. Libertarians presume this to be some inviolable right, and Anarchists and Socialists believe that property—well, private property anyway; real property—is a common good.

I have an issue with ownership of real property, though I don’t have such a strong opinion on possession. In reality, this is more of a practical matter than a defensible philosophical position. It has emotivist roots. As Hobbes noted (or I’ll paraphrase liberally), even animals in his state of nature have possessions, but there is no right to these possessions (which belong to the monarch anyway in society); there is only the ability to try to retain ownership through force.

In practice, this is what society does. Insomuch as the force is more potential than kinetic, allowing the state or community to exercise this force by proxy, it is not dissimilar to our consumption of meat products at arm’s length by sheltering the violent reality by intermediary grocers.

And we shelter ourselves through language. We don’t eat cows and pigs, we eat beef and pork, chateaubriand and bacon.

Returning to property, real property, it’s yours as long as you possess it, but it is not yours from a distance, and it’s not yours to bequeath. If we are to embrace capitalism—which I don’t, but for the sake of argument—, we should allow the property to go to the purpose that will provide the greatest utility. History as a judge demonstrates that it is unlikely to happen to be the someone’s heirs.

Utilitarianism

As I read his Utilitarianism, I want to like John Stuart Mill. He seems like such a clever man, but he is a victim of his Enlightenment Age. Attempting to fabricate order created by science’s encroachment on the absolutes of religion and the shifting sentiments toward monarchies, Mill tries to replace this moral compass with Jeremy Bentham‘s utility.

£1 ≠ £1

The problem is that despite (sort of) dispensing of religious doctrine, Mill was still fettered by the dogma of virtue ethics of dignity and duty. To this, he adds happiness. Not to go full-on Foucault, but these are concepts leveraged, like religion, to maintain power—take an elevated system in a constructed society, and the duty becomes a burden to the bottom, save for pretence of duty and dignity at the top.

I’ve had an issue with the concept of virtue and all of its offspring: duty, justice, and so on. I’ll likely write about this later. I expect that I’ll be reading Mill’s On Liberty next, so stay tuned.

Ignoring my contention that Utilitarianism is baseless, I have two other issues, using economic examples, each related to prospect theory (pdf):

  1. Regressivity: A person with less money values an incremental dollar more than a person with more money.

  2. Loss to gain asymmetry due to risk aversion: A person values losing a dollar more than earning a dollar, ceteris paribus.

Pareto efficiency, a cornerstone of Classical economics, does not take this into account. For this theory, all dollars are created (or perceived to be) equal, so it doesn’t matter whether person A, who earns £10,000 p.a., or person B, who earns £100.000 p.a.,  gets £100, but in the real world, person A would give it a higher value, so a transfer from A to B would be an inferior transaction to a B to A transaction.

This said, person B values the £100 more than having gained the amount, but it is not clear how to reconcile (in order to reach perceived parity) what the fair equilibrium would be, allowing that equality of outcome might not be the desired outcome.

All equalities are not equal

I have long been interested in notions of social justice and equality, but somehow it all felt a bit loosey-goosey and amorphic. To be honest, I feel this way about the entire composition of government, politics, and jurisprudence, and other power structures, but those are topics for some other days. Also, I won’t endeavour to speak to the artificial income-market construct, so for the purposes of this post, I’ll take this as given, as anachronistic and quaint as it might otherwise be. Nor will I discuss whether the system itself, apart from the equality question, is optimal or even makes any sense from a broader vantage, or whether competition has a role in an otherwise coöperative society.

Along with empty virtue notions as freedom, liberty, and justice, (topics for another day) equality is a post-Enlightenment Age catchphrase. As with its counterparts, it sounds nice; it has a nice ring to it, but it is just as specious. These are words invoked to raise emotions, but as with a pointillist’s painting, if you attempt to scrutinise them too closely, they become unintelligible.

hb_51.112.6[1]
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat

Aside from maths, equality is an issue for sociology as well as political philosophy. In maths, the concept is tautological.

“In sociology, the study of the causes and consequences of inequality in its various forms – class, race, gender, power, status, knowledge, wealth, income – is one of the most pervasive themes of the discipline. In philosophy, theories of justice and rights are centrally concerned with the problem of justifying and criticising different kinds of inequality.” [1]

Sociologist, Bryan Turner, identified four flavours of equality:

  1. Ontological Equality

  2. Equality of Condition

  3. Equality of Opportunity

  4. Equality of Outcome

Political Philosophy is more concerned with accepting the sociological definition as given and discussing it in the negative sense of inequality.

Tautological Equality

In maths, we have likely been made accustomed with equalities since grade school. In fact, that’s what makes the other notions so compelling. It all appears to be so tidy and scientific.

1 = 1

2 = 2

1 + 1 = 2

Amazing, right? Two values balanced on either side of an equals sign. The problem is that these equations—these equalities—are logical tautologies. They are equal because this is in fact how they are defined, defined in the same manner as we define a red lorry as red. Equal in this context is not useful for us, save as a familiar reference.

Ontological Equality

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America employs ontological equality, where ontological is defined as “relating to the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being”.

“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.”

Aside from an unsubstantiable claim that these so-called “truths” are somehow “self-evident”, this weakest form of equality is a claim “that all men (read: people) are created equal” at birth because “their Creator” (read: God, an obvious metaphysical nod) “endowed” them with this  aspect.

Translating this into common parlance, this states that we are all equal in the eyes of God [sic]. In essence, to commence a racing metaphor, this means that we all get to participate in the race, and that sounds good, right?

The problem with ontological equality is that it outright ignores existing inequalities, so whilst you may be equal in God’s eyes, that’s where it ends. Essentially, you get an empty promise. If you’ve got something to say about, say a prayer; God’s got operators standing by. At least you get to play the game.

Man U
Manchester United football club players

Equality of Condition

Where ontological equality leaves off, equality of condition steps up. Beyond the metaphysical promise, it claims that all people get to start at the same position, that we each get to start at the same starting line. That sounds fair, right?

The problem with equality of condition is that whilst you may get a place at the starting line, you still face any systematic or structural adversity in play, whether that be discrimination, wealth disparities, access to quality education or other public services, and so on, at least you get to play the start at the same place.

Starting Line
High school girls at a starting line

Equality of Opportunity

My Libertarian associates seem to love this one. In fact, in their world, the only conversation is about equality of opportunity (also known as formal equality of opportunity) versus opportunity of outcome. It’s a cage match to the death, and opportunity is their champion.

Cage Match
Cage Match Fight

This flavour of equality doesn’t claim that a person has the right to start in the same place—only that the rules will be the same.

The problem with equality of opportunity is that it makes a specious claim. Besides ignoring the condition and situation and any past infractions—letting bygones be bygones (especially when they have given you the advantage that you wish to retain).

A parallel would be to allow a steroid-pumping athlete to compete by rationalising that, well, the race has started, so let’s just keep playing. Afterall, we’re playing by the same rules, so that makes it fair. Forgive and forget, right?.

The privileged live in better neighbourhoods, have access to better schools, can afford tutors and summer programmes. Many live in more stable family environments growing up, and they have access to networking benefits. This is further reinforced in university, and, like compound interest, the earlier one starts, the greater the effects of compounding.

Future-value-of-a-present-value-or-principal-using-compound-interest-(given-nominal-annual-interest-rate)-234[1]

Again, equality of opportunity might sound good on the surface, but, yet again, it disintegrates on scrutiny. Its main purpose is a feel-good head fake to keep one’s eyes off the prize.

Substantive Equality of Opportunity

A subset of equality of opportunity is substantive equality or fair equality of opportunity. Under this model, additional remediation is asserted to the disadvantaged person. This might be a familiar concept to golfers, who have handicaps. The goal is to—whilst also enforcing a similar rule set—accomodate those with some head start advantage. In the everyday context, it could be providing additional funding or resources to underprivileged children.

The problem with substantive equality of opportunity is that the deficiencies are multifaceted, the system itself is too complex to account for all material dimensions and measures, and most assessments are normative in nature.

Equality of Outcome

Equality of outcome is particularly pernicious. It claims that in the end, everybody wins, and everyone gets the same prizes.

Image of Alice taking with a dodo bird
‘At last the Dodo said, everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’

This is a potential result of Communism, that is if the definition is taken to the absurd. This is a common criticism by some when every participant receives a participation prize—a manifestation of the notion that everybody is special.

The problem with equality of outcome is that, among other things, not everybody wants the same thing, so this logic basically boils down to I want what I want if what you have is what I want as long as everyone else who also wants what I want has it, too. Of course, we could reduce this down from actual equality—apples for apples and oranges for oranges—into value equality, where everyone has access to some comparably equivalent value (whatever that might mean, especially insomuch as different people assign different values to the same goods and services).

Kurt Vonnegut depicted this in his short story, Harrison Bergeron (PDF), where, not being able to raise certain persons, people were instead reduced to the lowest common denominator, so rather than elevate the cognitive ability of low IQ people, the solution was to diminish the capacity of higher IQ people, so as to produce the same—albeit lower—results.

Dancers
Dancers represented in Harrison Bergeron

Closure

In the end, ontological equality is nothing more than vapour; equality of condition fails to account for material differences among people and their situations; equality of opportunity also fails to account for disparities of condition; and equality of outcome is an unrealistic pipe dream that would be too complicated and complex to implement.

In order to further communication, if that is indeed even the purpose (rather than obfuscation, which I feel may be the prime motive), we need to use different concepts, to find new terminology.

End Notes

[1] Equality: Sociological & Philosophical Perspectives, Brighouse & Wright, 2009 (https://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/Sociology%20915%20&%20Philosophy%20955%202009%20syllabus.pdf, retrieved 5-9-2017)

Also note, that I reserve the right to make inline edits to this post in an attempt to extend, clarify, and otherwise elucidate this topic on equality.