Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Fair Inequality

We hear a lot about equality.  It's a popular agit-prop word, sure to elicit a knee-jerk reaction. Everyone, apparently, is in favor of equality.  Until, that is, we stop to think about it.  What do we mean by this term?  Equal opportunity?  Equal legal rights?  Equal income?  Equal responsibility? Equal status?  Equal wealth?  Equal health?  Equal appearance?  Equal sexual prowess?

We really don't mean all of those things, do we?  And we really don't believe very strongly in equality, except in very specifically delineated contexts.  For instance, most Americans would agree that everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed in life (i.e., equal access to education and employment; we quibble about health care, but mostly about how to finance it, not about whether or not we should have it.)  Similarly, most Americans would espouse the notion that everyone should be treated equally before the law--though not necessarily the corollary that every law should apply to every person.  In other words, we believe that an individual, in whatever endeavor he/she engages, should be judged and "positioned" according to his merits, as measured by a criterion common to all. 

Beyond that, I'm not sure.  Generally, our outrage against inequality springs less from not having the same qualities as others and more from not having the same opportunities as others and/or not being evaluated according to the same standards as others. Any reasonably sentient person understandably resents being treated as intellectually, socially or economically inferior to people who, in an entirely objective world and judged according to universally standard measurements, would themselves be the inferior parties.  The catch here, is that notion of "universally standard measurements."

What is the universal standard against which people should be measured and according to which rank, wealth and influence should be distributed?  I'm guessing here, but I wonder if our "merit meter" isn't pretty much the same as our "morality meter," i.e., we assign both merit and morality to behavior that serves to advance the common good, that serves to enrich our lives as human beings and as a community (and not merely the life of a particular individual within the community). On the other hand, conduct that does not contribute to the common good or behavior that affords advantage only to some, often at the expense of others, is perceived as both "immoral" and "unfair" (inequitable).  Similarly, compensation of any sort, when incommensurate with one's contribution to the commonweal, provokes resentment.

Thus, I rail against the uber-rich Kochs (and feel "cheated" by them), not because my economic inferiority is wrong per se, but because in "buying" elections, the Kochs are using their wealth in ways that are not justified according to our "merit/morality meter," in ways that exploit rather than contribute to the overall well-being (including mine).  On the other hand, I can honestly say that I felt no sense of injustice in being subordinate (in both authority and salary) to a talented principal such as Walt Holmes or to a brilliant mind such as Brandon Zaslow.  Both of those men were contributing more than I was and, probably, more than I ever could, given the inalterable and/or freely accepted circumstances of my life.  

So maybe what we mean by "equality" is nothing more than our quest to be treated--by society and the "system"--at least as well as others who a) possess similar qualifications and competencies, and b) against whom we are either obliged or freely choose to be judged (an important point, I think, since voluntary refusal to be "measured" is tantamount to an acceptance of inferior status).

In any event, my main point remains the same:  human beings do not really believe in absolute equality. Rather, we quite comfortably accept elaborate hierarchies of responsibility and compensation, even as we occasionally (rather sheepishly) whine that "it isn't fair."  We know, deep down, that much of the time it is fair--and that we, personally, could never (or would never) perform the function that the envied person performs.  And so, our resentment is directed more at the randomness and arbitrariness of the universe than against any individual incarnation of that arbitrariness.  We believe in FAIR inequality, but we want the playing field to be level (I hate that hackneyed metaphor, but it's useful) and we want the criterion used to distribute rank and reward to be a criterion applied universally and objectively to all people who either must or wish to be measured.  Fair enough?

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