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Finding the definition of equality

Column by Ben Levine

Levine is a junior politics major
and can be reached at

Ben Levine ColumnistOne would be hard pressed to find somebody whom is not for equality. Of course, there are certainly outliers: some people are simply bigoted and don’t want to see others be treated as equal. I’m not trying to diminish that fact, but I do believe that, generally, people support equality among all individuals. The problem then, is not whether or not people in America are for equality but rather how they define equality.

One of the most productive talks I have had on this issue was in Dr. Joanna Mosser’s “Concepts in Politics” course in which we analyzed the various ways that one can define equality. My aim here is not to push a certain concept of equality but rather shed light upon the totally legitimate and honest differences people have when defining the much evoked term of equality.

Take, for instance, the libertarian position on equality: Everyone is equal when each individual is left alone to be able to live his or her own life as he or she wishes so long as he or she does not infringe on the rights of other individuals to do the same. Individuals are equal when they are free to operate in the marketplace, free to speak their minds.

Equality is simply being treated equally by the law and the law is meant to be used rather sparingly. It is meant to protect the individual from infringement but not impose much on the individual. But, also, to the libertarian — at least generally speaking — equality is actually quite unnatural. Nobody is equal in the sense that one is never identical to the other. A difference in opportunity and outcome will be noticeable in the libertarian society but this is, for all intents and purposes, natural. I’m good at many things but I am equally as bad at other things. Certainly, this seems quite simple on the surface. However, upon further scrutiny there are problems with the definition. At what point does one begin to infringe on the rights of another individual? Drawing that line is difficult and making laws to carry out such a philosophy is equally as difficult.

Additionally, the libertarian perspective does not advocate state intervention in order to establish equality of results. This is rather contentious but, at least from my experience, it is not what troubles individuals about libertarianism the most. Instead, it is the fact that the libertarian argues for such a hands-off approach by the government that equality of opportunity is seemingly jeopardized.

How could one argue that somebody in relative poverty has the same opportunities in life as a wealthy, upper-class citizen?

This has led many to believe in a safety net, welfare or some sort of government program to ensure that equality of opportunity is intact. It is supposed to bring everyone to a level playing field and ensure that nobody is starting out with a serious disadvantage. Of course, it is never perfect. Nevertheless, these programs at least make an effort to ensure the equality of opportunity, some may argue.

There are other arguments to be made, such as the construction of a system that produces equality of results as mentioned briefly above. Perhaps this would take form in an equal income regardless of the type of work one does. Everyone would earn the same wage no matter what his or her occupation is. All of these concepts of equality have their merits. What I believe is most important, though, is understanding that the difference we have when it comes to equality is not that people do not want it but that people define it in varying terms. This is frustrating and I definitely have a hard time understanding certain people’s definition of equality. I take issue with the practicality and morality of certain conceptions but I nevertheless recognize that they are typically genuine. If we all recognized these differences as genuine it might make policy debates — and classroom discussions — less hostile.

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