THERE’S no better way of assessing the importance of a political idea than to count the different definitions it manages to attract. Using this criteria we see the importance of ‘Equality’.
The mainstream definition is the French Revolution slogan ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ - a humanistic counterpart to the Christian trinity of ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’. Its power has been such that few have dared openly reject this idealistic landmark of modern Western democracy.
A later and equally fundamental political landmark, the Russian Revolution, brought in its wake a monumental perversion of the idea of equality - Stalinism. Orwell’s lampoon ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’ may have been aimed at the Soviet Union but was and is applicable to many ostensibly left-wing regimes today. And the right has its share of hypocrisy too. Even Orwell’s Ministry of Truth might have recoiled from South Africa’s grotesque use of the term equality in claiming its segregated races are ‘separate, but equal’.
The American constitution proclaims the equality of all men to be self-evident. However it took until the Civil War to decide that ‘all men’ includes black men. And the battle continues today to extend constitutional equality to women - with the Equal Rights Amendment tantalisingly short of getting enough support to become law. Indeed White House opposition is one of the major forces against the Equal Rights Amendment. The election of Reagan was a major defeat for supporters of equality; for the first time since well before the Second World War a US administration came to office openly rejecting equality as an objective.
It’s a shift paralleled in Britain. Twenty years ago Prime Minister Harold Wilson was saying: ‘All children have the right to a start in life, but not a flying start’. Today the job is held by Margaret Thatcher who believes: ‘Opportunity means nothing unless it includes the right to be unequal’.
Equality has become an unfashionable idea, with its supporters on the defensive and right wing opponents attacking their motives. Working people seeking better pay will find themselves accused of practising ‘the politics of envy’ while better off egalitarians attract allegations of hypocrisy and labels such as ‘bleeding heart’. New Zealand multi-millionaire-politician Bob Jones has gone so far as to produce scientific evidence maintaining that egalitarians are psychologically inadequate and use their politics to compensate for personal feelings.
The thrust of the anti-equality attack is that wealth differences are both-natural and beneficial. Freedom to be unequal releases individual dynamism within economics - benefitting the whole of society by providing more jobs and greater wealth for all to share. Attempts to produce greater equality, it is claimed, will destroy this dynamism.
Greater equality, say its opponents, is contrary to human nature, Conservatives tend to pride themselves on their grasp of the self-interested motives of humanity - what one British MP called ‘The doctrine of original sin.’
Conservatives tend to see the current order of society as natural and inevitable. Attempts to interfere with it are an assault on the balance of nature and civilisation as we know it. Their classic spokesman is the apocryphal US Senator who reacted to the interviewer’s statement: ‘You’ve been in Congress for 40 years now, and must have seen a lot of changes’, by saying: ‘Yep - and I’ve opposed them all’.
He and his like have in the past seen child labour, slavery and the exclusion of Jews and Roman Catholics from Parliament as part of the natural order which should not be interfered with. All now seem grotesque - yet legislation to destroy them was seen as an attack on the natural order and liberty.
The lost-ditch argument buttressing systems of inequality is the supposed impossibility of achieving exact equality. This is of course ignores the fact that socialists and radicals are not calling for this. And to prove that mathematical equality is unattainable in no way stops existing equalities being attacked and reduced.
Yet we continue to accept spectacular financial inequalities within and between societies. Newspapers attacking British miners for striking to prevent pit closures also carried news of Prince Charles’ gift of a $90,000 toy car to his son. The Duke of Westminster and Sir Y K Pao with their millions inhabit the same societies as $80 a week health workers and the girls in the sweat shops of Hong Kong. Haiti’s per capita annual income of $312 compares with Canada’s $11,764 - and there are greater extremes than that. As R H Tawney said: ‘Mankind, it seems, is more easily shocked by the unusual than the shocking.’
Few opponents of financial equality reject other forms which were once seen as radical - such as one person, one vote. Indeed they may point to universal suffrage as the means of redress always open to egalitarians: ‘We’ve all got one vote. All you’ve to do is win a majority and you’ll have your way, they say.
They’d have a point if it was that easy. But it isn’t. Money is power. The better-off in all countries and the wealthy nations themselves are well aware of this and make sure their economic muscle is used.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States. Current observers may be inclined to echo Clarence Darrow’s jibe that ‘wheA I was a boy they told me anyone could become President - now I’m beginning to believe it. Today it’s more a case of anyone who can raise 30 million dollars.
It was Rose Kennedy who when talking about the Kennedy clan pointed out that ‘obviously not everybody in the world has two very nice houses, a couple of boats, a tennis court, a swimming pool, and a Rolls Royce or two in the family. Even fewer have the money to finance the succession of expensive campaigns that made John Kennedy President at 43. There’s no doubt that he caught the imagination of the nation - and even less that without the family millions he’d never have had the opportunity. In 1984 Democratic candidate Walter Mondale is reputed to be spending over 20 million dollars just to get his party’s nomination.
There is of course far more to power than getting elected to presidencies. American political philosopher Philip Green in The Pursuit of Inequality’ defines power as the ability to modify how others behave and at the same time prevent one’s own behaviour being modified.
Wealth means the power of influence and clout in international relations. Brazilian working people are discovering this as the implementation of the International Monetary Fund’s extremely austere ideas on how to run an economy leads to substantial cuts in standards of living. The IMF has the cash, Brazil needs it. So what they say goes.
This is not to say there is a conspiracy against equality. The problem is far more deep-seated, Where wealth equals power those without wealth face an uphill battle against those who have a vested interest in the status quo. Life is seen as a balance sheet, with the belief that the creation of greater wealth will benefit everyone. A sentiment amply reflected by Mrs Thatcher’s statement that ‘Nobody would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions. He had money as well.’ In the free market, demand will equal supply.
In fact, it depends who’s doing the demanding. Housing is a basic and crucial human need. The great cities of the world, particularly in the developing countries, are desperately in need of adequate, low-cost housing for their people. That’s demand in human terms, if there ever was, But cheap housing has never been profitable enough in financial terms for developers. Economist J K Galbraith points to this as a consistent failure of private industry. By contrast there’s rarely any shortage of people wanting to build luxury flats or offices, A London block, Centre Point, now occupied by Britain’s ‘Bosses Union’. the Confederation. of British Industry, became a symbol of this in the 1970s as it stood empty with its developers writing it off as a tax loss while London grappled with its considerable housing problems. To misquote Orwell some demand is more equal than others - even for a fundamental human need like housing. And bad housing leads to poor health - putting the poor at yet another disadvantage.
Tawney reminds us that ‘Freedom for the pike is death for the minnow.’ ‘Free market’ definitions of liberty produce precisely that freedom. Wealth is the arbiter, allowing its owners to perpetuate their control.
Free market enthusiastics think as if everybody operated in a vacuum and had no effect on other people. It’s not so of course and if we return to Green’s definition of power we see how inequality damages our world.
In the free market the property owner or employer has enormous power to modify the behaviour of others. The propertyless and the employed have little - and are constantly modified themselves. It’s a one-way relationship with the property owners able to use their power to consolidate their advantages.
Equalising economic power would equalise the relationship. Free market supporters claim they are individualists, They are, but only for the fortunate few who modify others’ behaviour. Greater equality would provide more opportunity for the many, who’d have greater scope to exercise their personal abilities.
If individualism means the right to self-expression and some control over one’s own life then the true individualists are the egalitarians who wish to see this right extended to everyone.
Huw Richards is a London-based freelance journalist specialising in social and economic issues.