What Does Equity Mean
|February 17, 2002||Posted by Staff under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Equity — A Vital Part of Justice
The Meaning of Equity
by Kenneth E. Boulding
The psychological nature and the history of each individual are crucial in determining the difference in feelings of injustice from one individual to another. On the other hand, these feelings are not arbitrary or wholly random, and there are some configurations in the outside world which are more likely to be perceived as unjust than others. (We perceive injustice much more readily than we perceive justice, just as we perceive the absence of breathable air much more readily than we perceive its presence, which we take for granted.)
It is very important to inquire into the variables that are regarded as relevant to the perceptions of the level of justice in a society. There is a place here for empirical research. John Rawls argued at great length and with considerable persuasiveness that a sense of fairness may be the major value in the justice function, though I am not sure this does very much more than rename the concept. (John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1971).)
Rawls does suggest a very ingenious intellectual experiment as an aid to evaluating subjectively the justice of different societies. He asks us to imagine which society we would prefer to be born into if we did not know whom we were going to be. In the United States we might find ourselves being a sharecropper or a Rockefeller; in the Soviet Union we might find ourselves a prisoner in a slave labor camp or a member of the Politburo. The trouble with ferreting out this sort of information is that most people would probably vote for their own societies because they are more familiar. We tend to prefer the devil we know to the devil we do not.
Any attempt to identify the variables of the justice function will conclude that equity is one of the components. This in itself is a complex concept with a number of definitions. Perhaps the most important definition would be equal treatment for equal cases. In terms of the law this means that the same crimes should get the same sentences, that people having the same responsibilities should pay the same taxes, that there should be no arbitrary discrimination in jobs or promotion because of characteristics which are irrelevant to the situation. Just what is irrelevant of course may be a tricky question. The movement against racial, sexual, and religious discrimination is clearly motivated by a widespread feeling that the arbitrary exclusion of certain groups from some of the benefits of society cannot be justified. Discrimination oddly enough represents the failure to discriminate, the failure to treat like cases alike and unlike cases unlike, which is a violation of the fundamental principle of equity.
A further pursuit of the principle of equity suggests the further principle of equality of opportunity. This is a very intricate problem, simply because it raises the whole question of inheritance and the right of the family as against the larger community and the rights of property owners in general. Inequality of opportunity arises simply because people are born into different families. A baby born into a rich family, with well-educated and well-financed parents, is likely to have a better chance to develop her or his full potential than a baby born into a family on the edge of a shantytown.
Most of the wealthier societies seem to attempt to offset the impact of family inheritance by providing a social inheritance in the shape of free public education, headstart programs, aid to dependent children, and so on, but in no country do these public programs more than offset to a small degree the enormous inequality of opportunity that arises from the differences in the status of each family. This is just as true in socialist countries as it is in the free market world. Children born into well-placed families will have much better chances of rising to a prominent place in all societies than children born of peasants, dissidents and sectarians.
On the other hand, virtually all societies are reluctant to abandon the family as an instrument of transmission both of nutritional and genetic structure and of social knowledge and skill. We have here a clear example of the conflict of equity with other values, and there has to be some kind of a tradeoff. One of the principles of normative science is that no particular values are absolute, and the tradeoff problem is universal.
Another principle, not to be confused with the principle of equality of opportunity, might be called the principle of full realization of potential. Every baby is born into the world with a certain genetic potential for growth, knowledge, skill, love, happiness, and so on. For the vast majority of babies, perhaps indeed for all, this potential is never fully realized because of the limitations of poverty, lack of skill of the parents, unfriendly environments, poor education, restriction of information, and so on. Where there is a strong sense of the nonrealization of human potential because of the environment of the person, there is a sense of injustice or at least dissatisfaction.
The realization of human potential, however, may be much more a function of the average wealth and status of the society than it is of any internal distribution. A society may be egalitarian in the sense that every baby born into it has about the same set of opportunities, and yet these opportunities might be highly restricted by the general poverty or cultural pathologies of the society. The overall level of riches, competence, skill, and productivity of the society is an important element in the justice function. This is something beyond equity, which is concerned primarily with distribution.
We must be careful, however, of the conventional measures of the overall level of development in society, such as the per capita GNP. The human being has great potential for evil and pathology as well as for goodness and health. There has to be a critique of the kind of potential which is realized. The society with a high GNP per capita may be full of alienated, strife-ridden, miserable people, and the society that is much poorer as measured by income may produce healthier, more interesting, more fulfilled persons. Yet there is at least a rough relationship between riches and the capacity to fulfill the potential, even though the potential may be misused.
Attempts have been made to define equity in terms of envy. (H. R. Varian, “Distributive Justice, Welfare Economics, and the Theory of Fairness,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 4 (1975): 223237.) This, again, is very tricky. Envy, like all the deadly sins, tends to have a nonlinear, somewhat parabolic relation with goodness. A little envy may be a spur to achievement, but envy can also become a corrosive and utterly destructive emotion, producing neurosis and internal decay. The demand for equality which is made solely on envy does not strike me as very satisfactory as the foundation for a good society. The radicalism which arises from hatred and envy of the rich has very different results from that which arises from compassion for the poor.
Another source of frustration in the demand for justice is what I have called the illusion of the pie. This is a metaphor beloved by economiststhat there is a static pie of goodies which is divided among the members of the society, presumably by a rather skillful wielding of knives. In this case the only way to help the poor would be to take away from the rich.
Reality is much more complex. There is no single pie, but there is a vast pattern of little tarts, each growing or declining at its own rate. The growing ones get richer; the declining and stationary ones get poorer. Some may stabilize at a good level; others may stabilize at a level of misery. This is not to say that greater equality cannot be achieved by redistributionthere is some spooning from one tart to anotherbut it is difficult, and it is easy to destroy more than we distribute.
Equality in an absolute sense would be advocated by nobody. On the other hand, it is very clear that there are degrees of inequality in a society which threaten its legitimacy and stability. Again, we can use the Rawis experiment to ask, Would you rather live in a society in which everyone was equally poor or a society in which some people were as poor as in the first one but others were rich? Most people would opt for the latter. They prefer some chance of being rich to no chance of being rich.
But, on the other hand, suppose we had to choose between a society in which some people were desperately and miserably poor and others were excessively rich and a society in which there was a floor of poverty, so nobody was allowed to fall into destitution even though others might be rich. Then we would almost certainly vote for the second. We would rather have a society where there was no chance of being desperately poor than one in which there was a chance of being desperately poor even though there was also a chance of being filthy rich. What seems to emerge from this discussion is that a moderately unequal society, where there is a floor below which nobody falls, seems to get high marks and should be able to establish a substantial legitimacy and internal stability.
This essay is extracted from Kenneth Boulding’s book, Stable Peace.
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