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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.