This essay presents an analysis of the highly contested concept of equality. While it will touch on the issues surrounded basic equalities, the main focus will be on the concept and achievement of political equality and the problems associated with it.
Equality as a general concept includes several separate equalities. Liberal thought was the first to challenge the medieval conception of humans as naturally hierarchical (Adams, 1993, p.13). Instead they recognised that while individuals differ from one another, they are basically equally human. Conservatives, although realising this biological equality, consider it to be unimportant and traditionally argue that humans are naturally hierarchical, hence they dismiss equality as an abstract and unachievable goal (Heywood, 2003, p.113). They maintain that inequality is deep-rooted and an inevitable feature of an organic society, thus any attempt to create a society based on any other assumption would be absurd (Baradat, 2009, p. 24). Finally, for socialists equality constitutes simply a fundamental value, while the radically positioned ideologies have a radical outlook. Hence the fascists and national socialists disapprove any form of equality while according to anarchists all individuals should be equal in most ways (Sargent, 2009, p.302).
It should be also noted that not only is there a fundamental disagreement regarding the application of equality but the concept of equality itself has evolved over time. Although liberals were the first advocates of moral equality, many early liberals, such as J. Locke, endorsed the idea ‘all men are created equal’ while at the same time expelling the whole female category from ‘human beings’ (Heywood, 2004, p.286). By the end of the 18th century liberals proposed that natural rights should entail equal civic as well as political rights (Eccleshall, 1984, p. 58). Nowadays formal equality, if limited to eradicating special privileges on grounds of gender, colour, creed or religion, is nearly universally approved by conservatives as well as liberals and no less by socialists (Heywood, 2004, p.287).
Political equality, constituting a part of the formal equality, generally refers to the equality of people’s voice in politics. Presuming some form of a representative government, this would include equality to vote, equality to run for office, and equality of political influence (Sargent, 2009, p.74-6).
Today the equal right to participate in politics is seen as self-evident, however, in practice many inequalities still exist. With regards to the voting rights there are, apart from age limits and the possession of a citizenship, several further limitations. Despite the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in the UK nearly all prisoners lose their right to vote when convicted and in many countries people convicted of certain crimes lose their voting rights permanently (Bloom/BBC, 2010).
Additionally, some organisational aspects can have an impact on securing political equality. According to Dahl (1956, cited by McGann, 2004, p.53), the values of political equality request the use of majority rule. However, supermajoritarian rule, such as checks and balances and power separation is widespread in many countries, thus reducing political equality in the name of minority interests (McGann, 2004, 53-54).
Further, there are also informal sources of inequality, such as racial, gender or age discrimination. As Kam et al. (2008, p.208) points out, despite the legal limitations on voting being removed, voting rates of woman and minorities are still lower than that of the males of the racial majority. Also some elder or disabled people are sometimes treated unequally due to the physical obstacles they incur when participating in voting.
Similarly social constraints may have a negative effect on the equality of the ability to run for office (Sargent, 2009, p.76). Traditionally it has affected women but even more minorities. Nevertheless, the election of Barack Obama as well as the high profile positions filled recently by Hilary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice perhaps indicates that a change is taking place.
Furthermore, as Verba (2003, p.676) points out, another major cause of growing political inequality is the increased role of money in politics. Not only running for public office has become very expensive but also influencing the choice of candidates. As Sargent (2009, p.75.) indicates, there are two ways to influence this: money and active political participation, with the latter also often requiring substantial finance, which makes money, in fact, the main obstacle. Finally, due to the differing sizes of voting areas, some votes may become diluted and have thus unequal strengths in determining the outcome (King and Smith, 2008, p. 689-90).
It has been argued that formal equality is hence a very limited conception; one which may be incapable of ensuring a genuine equality (Heywood, 2004, p.287). For instance, prohibiting racial discrimination does not necessarily remove culturally ingrained or ‘institutionalised’ racism. It also may not address the socioeconomic disadvantages, which racial minorities suffer.
Verba (2003, p.665-75) has suggested that resources and opportunities to participate in politics make political equality dependent on equality in other areas, such as education, income and so forth. Citizens who are advantaged in these areas are more politically active than the disadvantaged. He argues that this produces inequality in political voice, which in turn results in policies that favour the more advantaged and consequently these policies yet again reinforce the socioeconomic inequality making it a vicious and mutually reinforcing cycle. And as Tilly (1998, cited by Verba, 2003, p.675) indicates, the socioeconomic basis of the political inequality ensures that this is a "durable inequality", which is carried forward from generation to generation.
For conservatives socioeconomic inequalities purely reflect the unequal distribution of merit and abilities amongst human beings, thus they reject social equality as undesirable and unachievable (Heywood, 2003, p.113). Traditionally, liberals have agreed with material inequality, as they argued that individuals should be rewarded according to their talents and willingness to work. Nevertheless, liberals as well as the New Right demonstrate a strong belief in equality of opportunity, although the latter also emphasised the economic benefits of material inequality (Heywood, 2007, p.23).
Modern liberalism, however, has a more egalitarian view (Baradat, 2009, p.25). For instance, Rawls argues that equality of opportunity implies an equal distribution of power and wealth, unless some unequal distribution benefits every body but particularly the worst off. He further maintains that talents and endowments are gifts of either nature or upbringing and since they are not earned, they do not justify extra reward. Thus in society characterised by inequalities of wealth genuine equality of opportunity is not possible (Bellamy, 2001, p.43).
Similarly, socialists, communists and some anarchists consider high level of social equality fundamental. They argue that this is the most important equality, since without it other forms of equality are a sham. The leftist critique on liberalism has been that their commitment to formal equality disregards wider social and historical developments and thus hiding the reality of unequal class power and exploitation (Eatwell, 2001, p. 283). Furthermore, the quality of opportunity is considered simply as a means to justify the material inequalities by creating the myth of natural inequalities. They argue that differences among human beings are more often due to unequal treatment from society than unequal natural abilities (Heywood, 2003, p.291-3). However, it could be agued that substantive social equality would necessitate increased government intervention and thus lead to reduced political equality.
Further McLellan (1995, p.78) argues that the economic inequality is a result of the capitalist order, which implies unequal recognition as capitalism is inevitably based on some form of exploitation and domination. Baradat (2009, p.89) also adds that capitalism actually depends on the existence of a small and very wealthy class with great political power. This raises the question as to whether any equality is possible at all. According to Hayek (1984, p.80) the only equality conducive to freedom is equality before the law, since any other equalities are bound to produce inequalities in some other aspects. According to DiZerega (1988, p. 447-60), substantive political equality within a democracy is, in fact, not possible. He argues that inequalities in political resources as well as material inequalities are necessary to perform vital functions in the democratic process, such as political debate or leadership.
Another related concern is the quality of the citizen’s participation in politics: some are more competent than others. Verba (2003, 668-72) concludes that it is better for democracy if the educated are more active in participating in politics as they are higher quality citizens; however that means less equal voice. This argument has been central to many political thinkers. J.S. Mills therefore insisted that politicians should speak for themselves rather than according to the views of their electorate. He also advocated a system of weighted voting where the educated would possess more votes. However, he also considered political participation an educative force as it would stimulate moral and intellectual improvements among the masses (Eccleshall, 1984, p.60). And, although he had rejected political equality, he was one of the first to propose voting rights for women (Heywood, 2007, p.42-43).
Even more radically, the conservative E. Burke denied the basic equality of people arguing that the wealthier were simply more deserving and should be hence more influential with regards to the representation in government (Baradat, 2009, p.93). On the contrary, according to the liberal Rousseau’s theory, people should only be bound by laws they did make themselves (Gamble, 1981, p.75). Arguably his idea of a direct democracy is not possible in modern states, although Adams (1993, p.52) interestingly points out that in today’s world it would be actually technically possible to ‘cable up’ all households to allow an instant voting.
In addition, the processes of globalization have influenced political equality. With the reduction of the importance of the nation state, political influence has been reduced and often people are affected by decisions made by others. While Agné (2006, p. 441) argues that this is not necessarily a negative phenomenon, Bohman (1999, p. 509 -513) calls for a cosmopolitan democracy in the form of such decentralized mechanisms as cosmopolitan publicity and ‘regimes’ that would horizontally distribute influence amongst the people globally.
Finally, it can be concluded that perhaps an absolute equality in any terms is impossible. Different forms of equality influence each other; hence achieving one form of equality may prohibit achieving another. Many inequalities still exist today in any democratic country, not to mention those inequalities of people living under non-democratic regimes. However, change is happening, as shown by the evolution of the concept of equality. And although, the achievement of political equality in practice is undermined by the socioeconomic inequalities still existing in all societies, political equality is nevertheless, an important goal, which we have to strive for.
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- Linda Vuskane (Author), 2011, Political Equality. Problems and Achivements of a Contested Concept, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/511997