"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal ...." These mighty words begin the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence, in 1776. But what do they actually mean? And what message do theyhave for us today?
I shall ignore such questions as how the American Founding Fathers reconciled these words with the existence of slavery, or whether they viewed women as being equal with men (we can be fairly certain that they did not). To avoid confusion on this latter point, I shall use the word "men" to mean "males", and "people" to indicate both genders together.
The concept of equality is closely linked with that of Democracy (as in "one person, one vote"), and also with that of Justice, which Aristotle defined as "treating equals equally"; anything else being inherently unjust. It can also be linked with the concept of Human Rights, and also, more questionably, with that of Liberty. It also forms the basis of most generally-accepted views of Fairness.
So: in what sense are people equal, and should be treated as equal? And what should, or can, the state do about it?
One fundamental point is that we are clearly not equal by nature. Men, considered as a class, are bigger, stronger and faster than women considered as a class. Some people are much stronger or cleverer than others. Some have wholly different talents. I am no good at music, and not particularly good at games, though I enjoy playing them. My sister is good at music, but disliked compulsory games at school and has never played them since. We were both of us good at schoolwork and passing exams, where many teenagers have struggled.
Almost all modern political creeds, however, argue that none of these differences are very important: that most people are so nearly equal in nature that the similarities outweigh the differences, and therefore most deserve equal rights and treatment. There are only a few exceptions: for instance, it would not be just or fair to treat infants in the same way as adults, or the mentally disturbed or handicapped in the same way as sane people, particularly with regard to criminal responsibility. (John Stuart Mill, writing in the mid-19th century argued, more controversially, that pre-literate savages could not be treated in the same way as civilized people). This notion of fundamental equality forms the basis of Liberalism, Socialism and modern Conservatism. It is rejected only by such creeds as Fascism, Nazism and various forms of racism, where it is argued that whole groups of humans are so inherently inferior that they cannot be accorded equal treatment.
It follows from this that there should be equality before the law: that with just a few exceptions (infants, lunatics etc) no groups should enjoy privileges or face discrimination under the law. The abolition of slavery was a vital step forward here, as was the abolition of apartheid in South Africa.
Political equality; that is, "one person, one vote", was always more problematic, because voting gives a degree of power; and it was always argued that many people were simply not intelligent or well-informed enough to vote responsibly. Opponents of democracy, from Plato onwards, feared that the mass of the people were always in danger of voting for demagogues who made wild and irresponsible promises. (The rise of Hitler in 1932-33 might seem to confirm this fear) Anti-feminists joked that women would simply vote for the handsomist candidate, regardless of any other considerations. (This does happen, but is certainly not exclusive to women voters!) Mill thought that in principle everyone should have a vote, and was the first person to propose the enfranchisement of women in Parliament, but thought it best if the most educated people had more than one vote. He also stressed that democracy was unlikely to work effectively unless voters realised that some people might understand the issues better than them, and were prepared to be guided in decision-making.
The main problem arises when we consider equality of possessions. Plainly, people is not equal in wealth, and never have been. Marxists and other socialists have always argued that inequalities of wealth make nonsense of other forms of equality. How can everyone be equal before the law when only rich people can afford the best lawyers? Why should some people be able to buy better healthcare? How can there be equality of opportunity when the children of rich people can gain access to a superior education? And what about democracy? Mr Rupert Murdoch does not even have a vote, not being a British citizen, but has enormous power to influence politics through his ownership of newspapers. So, ought the state try to bring about more meaningful equality through the redistribution of wealth? When I discussed this with my students, someone at this point would intervene to say, "But surely if you've worked hard and made some money, you should be allowed to keep it?" Now if hard work was all that was involved, wealth would not be a controversial issue at all. In reality, however, both wealth and poverty have a strong tendency to be hereditary. Furthermore, some people work hard all their lives and never make significant money at all, whereas others seem to earn large sums for very little effort: media celebrities, for instance. In any case, redistribution of wealth by the state would involve massive interference in individual liberty; and here liberty and equality come into conflict. Conservatives would also argue that property redistribution would tend to undermine personal initiative and ambition, and thus damage the economy as a whole. What is wrong, they would say, in making money to provide your children with a better start in life? Surely this is a natural and laudable instinct?
Closely linked with wealth is equality of outcome. Why should some people get paid much more than others, and should the state do something about it? Certain aspects of this issue are now accepted without dispute: no-one now doubts that women and men should be paid the same money for doing the same job. But inequalities of innate ability come in at this point: it makes sense that a brilliant fooballer should be paid more than one who is less gifted.
But why should a footballer be paid vastly more than, let us say, even the world's best badminton player? Or what determines whether a policeman is be paid more than a teacher, or vice versa? In actual fact, such questions are determined by a combination of market forces and state intervention. Sevety years ago, professional sportsmen were paid wages approximately equal to that of a skilled craftsman, and they almost all came from the working classes. That some earn very much more today is largely due to money coming in from television coverage. Ultimately the state determines the wages of its employees, though it also needs to pay attention to market forces: if more policemen are needed, a simple solution is to raise the pay in order to attract more recruits.
Bernard Shaw once said that everyone should be paid the same, because any other system was just as unfair, and far more difficult to administer. Lenin once proposed that Bolshevik ministers should be paid no more than the average worker's wage, but this idea was soon abandoned, and under Stalin it was announced that equal wages had never been part of communist teaching.
In general terms, we agree that talent and hard work should be rewarded, and that skilled work should be better renumerated than unskilled; but it's where we go from there that the problems arise.
Most debate occurs around the vague but vital question of equality of opportunity: that all should have an equal chance to succeed. In some cases the meaning is quite straightforward. For instance, if we say that everyone should have an equal chance of becoming an Olympic athlete, it is quite obvious that at least 99% of the population have no chance, because of lack of the necessary talent. The same applies to senior judges, or brain surgeons. What we mean is that there should be no discrimination or exclusion on the grounds of, for instance, race. So far,so good. But here we come up against the problem of inequality of wealth, which gives a huge advantage to the children of the well-off. Not only do they have better access to professions like the law, but the top independent schools even provide wider musical and drama opportunities and better sports coaching. Also, contacts are established giving better access to future careers. So, effectively, inequality becomes entrenched from generation to generation; and even if there is no overt discrimination, children of the rich and well-connected have a huge inbuilt advantage over others. What can, or should, be done about this?
The obvious answer would be the provision of an equally excellent education for every child, but exactly how to provide this remains an unsolved puzzle. Clearly the state needs to provide a major role. But what else can the state do to ensure greater equality of opportunity? "Positive discrimination" in favour of people from disadvantaged groups? The imposition of quotas in admission to the universities and professions? These would be a major interference in liberty, and would be greatly resented by those who felt unjustly excluded.
All forms of discrimination begin by arguing that human inequalities outweigh the similarities; the most important underlying assumption being that of different levels of innate ability, deriving from race, gender, class or some other cause. From this, it is argued that political equality and equality of outcome are highly undesirable, and equality of opportunity largely meaningless. Even equal access to education is questionable: giving me an opportunity to learn a musical instrument could well be a waste of time. All discriminatory philosophies maintain that the "best" deserve superior treatment and the "rest" are ignored or regarded with fear or contempt.
(A typical question on all this might be "How should the government be attempting to bring about greater equality", or a more complex one, " 'We may prefer equality to liberty, but we should never confuse equality with liberty'. Discuss")