Why Equality Matters

Lady Justice holding scales(Photo: Scott*) The history of equality from antiquity onward reveals that the notion of equality has been considered a constitutive feature of justice whether in its formal, proportional or moral sense. Until the 18th century, human beings were considered unequal by nature, an idea that collapsed with the introduction of the notion of natural right first developed by the Stoics and later in the New Testament Bible and both the Hebraic and Islamic traditions. The principle of natural equality only became recognized in the modern period beginning in the 17th century in the tradition of natural law as defined by Hobbes and Locke and in social contract theory first postulated by Rousseau. Kant’s categorical imperative formulates the equality postulate of universal human worth and the idea is taken up formally in declarations and modern constitutions, notably the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” (1789) (“Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen”)(1), the American “Declaration of Independence” (1776)(2), The US Constitution (1787)(3) and the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (1948)(4). As Stefan Gosepath (2007) explained, “This fundamental idea of equal respect for all persons and of the equal worth or equal dignity of all human beings … is accepted as a minimal standard by all leading schools of modern Western political and moral culture.” It has not always been so.

The landmark US Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954, Brown v. the Board of Education, was a turning point for the US. The case initiated the modern civil rights movement. Chief Justice Warren delivered the opinion of the court: “We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does … We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” And he prefaced his opinion with the following statement:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.[5]

As the Brown Foundation web site summary makes clear: “From the earliest times in American history, the US educational system mandated separate schools for children based solely on race. In many instances, the schools for African American children were substandard facilities with out-of-date textbooks and insufficient supplies.” The first documented school desegregation case goes back to 1849 (Roberts v. City of Boston).(6) Yet, as James D. Anderson (2004) said, “A half century after the US Supreme Court found that segregated schools are inherently unequal, there is growing evidence that the nation’s public schools are becoming more segregated and that academic achievement is becoming more unequal.” He concluded with the comment: “The promises of Brown are unfulfilled and the nation has to face up to this reality. Let us not evade the problems by making African Americans the scapegoats for the nation’s failure and giving them yet another cross to bear” (p. 371). His early work examined the ideological and institutional nature of schooling in the black South detailing the fact that “former slaves were the first among native southerners to depart from the planters’ ideology of education and society and to campaign for universal, state-supported public education” (Anderson, 1988: 4).

The dream of educational equality was incorporated into early prototypes of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” Bergström (2010) indicates the right to education is seen as a second-generation right developing when social rights became prominent in the second half of the 19th century … first in national normative instruments and later, in the second half of the 20th century, in international declarations and conventions.

The contemporary debate about equality goes back to Bernard Williams’ (1962) paper, which was taken up by Robert Nozick who criticized Williams and attacked equalitarian ideals. John Rawls’ (1971) “A Theory of Justice” as an egalitarian theory of justice is clearly the central work in political philosophy even if debate has focused more around the work of Ronald Dworkin (1981 a, b) and increasingly also Amartya Sen (1973; 1980; 1982; 1992). As Jonathan Wolff (2005) reminded us, much of the philosophical work over the last couple of decades has been done in response to Nozick, noting that responses have paid “too much attention to issues of individual responsibility, choice and fairness and neglecting the traditional egalitarian concerns of respect for individuality social division, oppression and domination and, indeed, how to bring about improvements to the world we actually live in.”

In “The Spirit Level,” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009), two epidemiologists, argued, “Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.”(7) It is a book that took the UK by storm and gained admirers from both sides of the House. The publication of their book followed on the heels of the worst financial crisis since the Second World War, after a ruinous spate of neoliberal policies that aggrandized the market as the main instrument for allocation of scarce public resources and embarked on wholesale privatization strategy. They have discovered that epidemiological research on the common roots of deprivation suggest that the problems are “all more common in more unequal countries”:

Among the rich market economies of the world, there are stark differences in income inequality. Among the more equal societies are the Nordic countries and Japan, where the incomes of the top 20% are 3-4 times as big as the incomes of the poorest 20%. Among the more unequal societies are countries like the US, Portugal and the UK, where the richest 20% are 8 or 9 times as rich as the poorest 20%. It looks then as if the problems associated with deprivation within a country all become more frequent as material differences increase (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010 a:5).

They showed “no fewer than five sets of data illustrating that, whether you classify people by education, social class or income, people in each category are healthier (or have higher literacy scores) if they are in a more equal society than people in the same category of income, education or class in a less equal society” (2010b). They go on to argue that “inequality damages social relationships. Measures of trust and social cohesion are higher and violence is lower in more equal societies. And similarly, studies show the reason that rates of imprisonment have increased in more unequal countries” (2010a:8). In the same article they posted the following data from David DeGraw:

  • The US has the highest inequality rate in the industrialized world.
  • The top 1% now owns over 70% of all financial assets.
  • From 1980 to 2006 the richest 1% of Americans tripled their after-tax income while the bottom 90% lost 20%.
  • CEOs in 1970 earned $25 to 1 for the average worker. Today it is $500 to 1. [cited, p. 8]

Their conclusion is that what matters is not absolute standards of living, but the differences between us. Paraphrasing them further: “Greater inequality increases the need for big government” and for expensive services that are only partially effective. “The assumption that greater equality can only be achieved through higher taxes and benefits…. is also a mistake.” “There are few things more corrosive of a properly functioning democracy and of the market than corruption and unbridled greed” (2000 b). For national welfare, the choice is clear: either a more unequal society based on the market society of the US with its growing social and health problems or the model of the Nordic countries where the incomes of the top 20 percent are only three to four times as big as the incomes of the poorest 20 percent, rather than eight to nine times higher as in the US. New Zealand and Australia in the last thirty years has tended to follow the example of Anglo-American neoliberal policies that have had the effect of increasing inequalities rather than diminishing them.(8)

One of the strongest implications is that, when it comes to rewriting policies, governments need to focus on the “ecology of equality,” on the network of relationships between poverty and deprivation and its generational consequences.


Dworkin Ronald (1981 a) “What is equality? Part 1: Equality of welfare,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 10: 228-240.

Dworkin, Ronald (1981 b) “What is equality? Part 2: Equality of resources,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1981, 10: 283-345.

Jonathan Wolff (2005) “Equality: The Recent History of An Idea,” Journal of Moral Philosophy 4: 125-136.

McClelland, A. and St John, S. (2005) “Social Policy Responses to Globalisation in Australia and New Zealand, 1980-2005,” Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 41, No. 2, June, pp. 177–191.

Nozick, Robert (1974) “Anarchy, State and Utopia” (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).

Peters, M.A. (2011) “Neoliberalism and After? Education, Social Policy and the Crisis of Capitalism,” New York, Peter Lang.

Rawls, John (1971) “A Theory of Justice” (Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Turei, Metiria (2010) “Inequality in Aotearoa: A brief history of inequality,” Economy, Work, & Welfare Archive.

Wilkinson, Richard and Pickett, Kate (2009) “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.”

Wilkinson, Richard and Pickett, Kate (2010 a) “Inequality: The Enemy Between Us? Why Inequality Matters,” Kosmos, IX, 1: 5-8.

Wilkinson, Richard and Pickett, Kate (2010 b) “Yes, we are all in this together,” New Statesman, 11 November, 2010. See here.

Sen, Amartya (1973) “On Economic Equality,” (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Sen, Amartya (1980) “Equality of What?’ in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values ed. S.M. McMurrin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 195-220.

Sen, Amartya (1982) “Choice, Welfare and Measurement,” (Oxford: Blackwell).

Sen, Amartya (1992) “Inequality Re-examined,” (Cambridge Ma.: Harvard University Press).

Williams, Bernard (1962) “The Idea of Equality” in Philosophy, Politics and Society 2nd series ed. P. Laslett and W.G. Runciman. (Oxford: Blackwell).


1. For the full text see here.

2. For the full text see here.

3. For the full text see here.

4. For the full text see here.

5. For the full text of the opinion see here.

6. See here.

7. See the web site with recent articles and blogs here.

8. See, for instance, McCelland and St John (2005), who examine the changing nature of social policy and social inequality in Australia and New Zealand from the 1980s to the mid-2000s, indicating that New Zealand has become more unequal than Australia. Metiria Turei’s (2010) blog “Inequality in Aotearoa: A brief history of inequality” graphs the growth of inequality since the 1990s using the Gini coefficient, which shows: “rapid increases in the gap between the rich and the poor from 1986 until 2001 coinciding with a period of massive deregulation, labour reforms and benefit cuts. Real incomes for lower and middle income families fell while rich households saw their incomes soar. Working for Families and an increase in the top tax rate to 39% reversed 15 years of rising inequality. The effect was short-lived, however and we now seem to be caught in a period of rising inequality once again.” On neoliberalism with special reference to New Zealand see Peters (2011).