Reflections on the Idea of Equality

II. Inequality as a Fact of Life

One of the most emotive and divisive issues of our times is the matter of inequality. It is an issue that is widely discussed and that influences public policy in industrially developed and underdeveloped countries alike. And yet it is surprisingly poorly understood. For this reason, I explained, in the first of this series of articles the several meanings of equality. In that article, I concluded that certain kinds of equality can and should be assured through public policy: equal liberty, equality before the law, and equal opportunity. This article is a reminder that there are types of inequality about which the government and its agencies can do nothing. I highlight them in the hope that we can learn to avoid bitterness in dealing with them. In face of the reality of inequalities, we should take constructive steps to understand and develop our own potentials and endeavor to assist other people to develop theirs.

People are not equally well-built; some are good-looking, others are not; some are short, some are tall; some are physically weak and handicapped; others are strong. Intellectual endowments also differ; there are geniuses and there are imbeciles. Among the geniuses, some have aptitudes in mathematics, some in language and literature; others distinguish themselves in music, etc. People differ in their emotional reactions, interests, volition, and the values they hold dear. And, of course, they differ remarkably in the material resources at their disposal: from billionaires to paupers, beggars, and the down-and-out. Just as there are inequalities among individuals, so there are inequalities among groups within the same nation and across nations.

Attitudes to Inequalities

Some people feel morally outraged by the gap between the rich and the poor in society, and would want the gap closed completely or at least reduced considerably. This is especially true in societies characterized by abject poverty and much avoidable suffering. People are understandably outraged by differences in material wealth in countries where too many people become wealthy through embezzlement, corruption, and various immoral ways. With respect to ill-gotten wealth, our outrage should really be against the failure to punish criminal behavior, the failure to ensure that everybody is equal before the law. And we should clamor for a system that appropriately punishes corrupt and immoral acquisition of wealth.

There are people who argue for equality of material wealth because they consider it unfair that some children should have a great advantage over their contemporaries for no other reason than that they have wealthy parents. They would want all children to have equal chances in life. But one must consider the fact that children take advantage of not only the wealth of their parents, but also their genetic make-up that may confer on them talents, such as intellectual capacity, good physical looks, etc. Is there any sense in complaining about such genetic advantage, even though it could translate into future inequality in wealth? If not, why should people feel justified to complain about the advantages children enjoy on account of their parents' wealth? In my book on reincarnation (see The Christian and Reincarnation), I explain that the circumstances into which we are born are precisely determined by the incorruptible Laws of Creation and they take into account, among other factors, deeds and relationships in our former earth-lives. Therefore, the circumstances of our birth are not arbitrary.

Among those who complain about inequality are well-meaning persons who wish to see standards of living of the poorer segments of society raised, but do not necessarily wish to pull down the wealthy in the process. Others have a wrong, if not an evil volition; they are envious of the rich and would delight in seeing the rich “cut to size”, even if the conditions of the poor do not thereby improve. To form an objective and open attitude to the matter of inequality, it may be useful to point out some examples of inequality that may not be well-known outside academic circles.

Cases of Inequality

Many surveys have been conducted on the use of library books. Without exception, these surveys show that the books in any particular library are not used to the same extent. While some books are borrowed frequently, many books never leave the library shelves; nobody seems sufficiently interested to want to borrow them. In general, about 20 percent of the books in a library account for around 80 percent of all the book﷓borrowing transactions of the library. This means that, if a cash award were to be given to a book each time it is borrowed, a few books would be extremely wealthy, while many would be quite poor, because they are never borrowed or are borrowed only a few times. The income distribution for the books would be similar to that among individuals in many societies where a relatively small proportion of the population has much of the wealth.

While some surveys study which library books are borrowed, other surveys are interested in the borrowers. They count the number of books loaned to each registered borrower over a specified period. These surveys show a general pattern of a relatively few borrowers accounting for most of the books borrowed. For example, in a survey in one agricultural research library where staff members were free to borrow as many books as they pleased, one single person was found to have borrowed 154 books, whereas many borrowed only one or two during the same period. The heaviest user of the library borrowed as many books as were borrowed by 93 of his colleagues during the period of the survey. One may draw an analogy between the case in this agricultural library and a situation in which one single person in a society has as much wealth as the total possessed by nearly half of the whole society. This great difference in the number of books borrowed by the registered users is typical of what happens in most libraries. Voluntary book borrowing is not an egalitarian affair. Reading habits and the extent to which researchers depend on books for professional information differ considerably.

In the academic professions, performance is often assessed on the basis of the number and quality of publications. It is again found that, regardless of academic discipline, a small proportion of academics produces most of the publications, and an even smaller proportion accounts for most of the high-impact, top quality publications. For example, on average, future Nobel Prize winners in science produce many more publications, than other scientists in the same disciplines, and their publications have much greater impact than those of other scientists. In other words, inequality is the norm in academic productivity as measured by publications. In the above examples, there are no reasonable grounds to blame anybody or “the system” for the highly skewed distributions or gross inequalities. It is simply the way things turn out. One can easily supply many more examples. The fact is that equality is hard to find in human activities, where force and compulsion are not employed.

In the academic professions, those who have already won awards or who have received honors or major research grants are more likely to get additional ones than those who have never had any. In the process the gap in productivity, fame, and eminence between successful and famous academic scholars and their less productive and less well-known colleagues keeps increasing or is at least maintained. This phenomenon has become known among sociologists of science as ‘the Matthew Effect’. The Matthew Effect is a reference to the Parable of the Talents recorded in the Bible Gospel according to Matthew, which contains the statement: “For unto every one that hath shall be given and he shall have abundance, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” (Matthew 25, verse 29).

Let us return to the library example. In theory, a library can ensure that the differences in the number of times different books are borrowed are reduced considerably. It could do so by compelling library users to borrow books that have never been borrowed before and preventing people from borrowing any book that has already been borrowed many times in the past. In other words, library patrons would be asked to borrow books they don’t really need and prevented from borrowing the particular books they actually want. Such an outrageous policy would surely cause disaffection among most library users, and might eventually make the library useless to everybody.

Unfortunately, many attempts to achieve equality in human societies are similar to the outrageous hypothetical library policy indicated above. Certain inequalities can be substantially reduced only by adopting policies as outrageous as the library example given above; policies that can only destroy society ultimately. We simply must recognize that, in human societies, one cannot do anything about certain types of inequality. We cannot make people equally noble or honorable or equally God-fearing. We can offer equal opportunity but we cannot ensure that everybody makes equal use of the opportunities offered. We cannot equalize people’s expenditures on clothing or food, or make everybody equally rich. On the emotive matter of income distribution, we have to accept that we cannot make everybody equally rich. But those who acquire their wealth by unlawful means should be punished and made to give up the ill-gotten wealth.

On deep reflection, we come to the conclusion that in many areas of human affairs, equality is impossible. However, there is absolutely no reason why we cannot have equal liberty, offer equal opportunities for all, and ensure equality before the law. A Head of State and the lowliest citizen should have the same rights under the law. This is what obtains in nature. God’s laws are the same for all His creatures, and the laws are enforced impartially. Any inequality before the law is wrong and goes against the Will of God. Moreover, even though we cannot do anything about most forms of inequality, we can and should always strive to achieve equity, in the dictionary sense of “justice according to natural law or right, and freedom from bias or favoritism.”

Stephen Lampe