Saturday, January 16, 2010

Poll: What role should equality play?

A book I am reading -- The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism by Robert Fogel -- raises an interesting question about the role of equality in the United States. Over the 1900s, there was a tendency for Americans to support equality of condition as the centerpiece of American egalitarianism. That is, popular culture endorsed redistribution of riches from the top half of the income distribution to the bottom half. Fogel argues that the entitlement programs spanning from The New Deal to The Great Society represented this trend of American support for equality of condition.

Since The Great Society, there has been a political/religious movement (which Fogel calls The Fourth Great Awakening) that pushes equality of opportunity as the means of attaining a more egalitarian American society. Equality of opportunity presupposes that everyone should have the same opportunities to succeed, but that the resulting economic conditions reflect the choices people made (and can be as unequal as people choose). In fact, inequality of condition can give people appropriate incentives to put more effort in where society needs more effort.

That brings me to the poll question of the week.

What role should equality play in America?

(a) We should support equality of condition
(b) We should support equality of opportunity
(c) We should support both
(d) Neither is feasible

Obviously, this is a normative question, so let your values be your guide. The poll is on the sidebar, and it is open for a week. Please vote early and often. Tell your friends to vote. I'm interested in seeing what you have to say.


  1. Hi tony

    You've addressed a topic I'm researching currently.

    Equality of opportunity is only possible for identical twins and even then for only a short period of their lives.

    Equality of condition isn't even desirable. Everyone on the planet wants something different in life.

    Equality under the law is desirable, but since imperfect people create and enforce the laws this will be something to strive for, but will never be perfect.

    Very interesting poll and topic. I raised a question about the tradeoff between equality and efficiency to Greg M. and he recommending the book "Equality and Efficiency, the big tradeoff" by Arthur Okun. I would recommend it also because Okun looks at much of what you are asking about and will stimulate thinking, but the data is old and in some cases no longer accurate or relevant.

    You say this is a normative question, but the positive aspect of it determines the normative answer. The highest well being of the lowest earning in society is a reasonable goal, but holding others back from "higher" conditions will not help them, but in fact will hurt them. It is also a limited question, because there is an implied assumption that observable conditions of people are an accurate measure of well being. The "grass is greener,"syndrome is alive and well, and harmful. There are countless examples of people in high conditions with horrible lives and people in poor conditions with fulfilling lives. People have succeeded from every horrible condition known to man and people have failed from every wonderful condition also. Circumstances affect peoples lives, but don't determine them. That is what freedom gives us.

    There also seems to be an assumption that people in "lower" conditions and people in "higher" conditions stay there, but there is considerable evidence that there is a lot of movement into and out of both.

    Both are impossible. Equality of Condition isn't even desirable by people. Equality of opportunity is impossible, but not necessary for the best well being of all people.

    Perhaps the real question is whether we want equal for all or better for all. I vote for better since equal is only possible at the worst of conditions, from which people will in varying degrees stet out to become better resulting in unequal.

    Tony I really appreciate your comments here.


  2. Thanks for your comments.

    To clarify, my intuitive definition of "equality of opportunity" (from reading Fogel) is what you call "equality under the law." It's the you-can-grow-up-to-be-anything-you-want-to principle.... If laws don't prohibit it and you can make the personal investments.

    I think the discussion would be better focused if we agreed on a normative criterion. From reading your comment, I think that we agree on the positive facts.

    Your suggested normative criterion is "well-being of low earners" (you assume this when you say, "The highest well being of the lowest earning in society is a reasonable goal").

    In contrast, my normative criterion for the sake of the post (not in general) is "egalitarianism for its own sake" which might be rooted in a broader class of normative criteria called "social justice." I'm not saying this is a good criterion (it might be the worst criterion imaginable), but I think that some people think this way (so it's an interesting question).

    There are other criteria, and maybe that will be next week's poll: What's your favorite normative criterion?

    I'll bring this up on Saturday with a longer comment where define different criteria... Interesting ideas.

  3. Final Tally:

    7 said Equality of Condition
    12 said Equality of Opportunity
    6 said Both
    7 said Neither


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