What’s So Good About Equality?

An interesting part of Honderich’s attack on Conservatism is the discussion he includes of ‘the left’, in particular of the idea of ‘equality’. He rehearses a series of conservative arguments against ‘equality’, and rejects them, but then finishes with an argument often urged which he thinks it quite correct, what he calls the ‘mere relativities’ argument.

The complaint is that any principle along the lines of ‘people should have lives which are, as far as possible, equal in the satisfaction of their basic desires and needs’ fetishises a certain relative standard, fetishises people’s incomes being similar to other people’s incomes, independently of them being high or low. This seems a bit strange – why should this relative standard be so important?

What’s worse, it seems to generate absurdities. Firstly, it means that if everyone is equally well-off, and we have the option of making some people a bit better off, we have a good reason not to do so (to preserve equality), which seems perverse. Moreover, it means that if some people are badly off and others well off, but that the only way to make them equal would be to make them all even worse off than the badly off, then we should do so – we should make everybody worse off for the sake of equality.

As Honderich presents it, this is a formulation of ‘equality’ that has sometimes been put forward by socialists and liberals, and very often attacked by conservatives, but which is actually very clearly alien to the practice of the socialist and liberal traditions. As he says, nobody has ever seriously suggested taking measures to lower the life expectancy of the wealthy in order to bring it into equality with that of the poorest.

I think he’s right in all this. But his next step is to offer a different formulation of ‘equality’, which is both more realistic and more defensible – which is, basically, that we should make sure nobody is really really poor. To a certain extent, it resembles Rawl’s “difference principle” – that all inequality should be such as to improve the situation of the worst off.

While both are worthwhile principles, I think there’s something lost in the move from the more general, though clearly flawed, idea of equality, to these more limited ones. Equality should be something that runs through all socialist thinking, hence something that can be meaningful to everyone – not just to those identified as ‘the poor’. So in this post I want to try talking about equality in a way that is both substantive and clear, without being stupid.

As is often the case, I think it’s necessary to avoid lapsing into a sort of individualism that focuses on people and how they are doing, rather than on their interactions. I think we can roughly classify interactions into a few categories.

So firstly, we can ask whether the expressed will of one participant guides the actions of the other (I say ‘expressed’ will because I’m assuming there are no telepaths among us). Let’s take the terms involved, such as ‘guides’ and ‘expressed will’ in quite broad and intuitive senses – if they need clearing up that can be done later.

If the answer is no, then there’s no much interaction to speak of – let’s call this ‘indifference’, and set it aside, despite the many further distinctions and nuances that might be drawn.

If the answer is yes, we can ask another question: is this guiding conditional upon the guider’s will being understood and endorsed by the person being guided? Do I, before doing as X says, first consider what X says, evaluate it, and satisfy myself that the action X recommends is as good an idea as X says? If so, we have what I will, again moving swiftly and carelessly, call ‘co-operation’.

If not, what is happening is a certain sort of control – X can control what I do, to a certain extent, without submitting themselves to the ‘rationality’ of what makes sense to and convinces both of us.

We can then define the term ‘domination’ as follows: a persistent arrangement such that one individual or group of individuals can reliably and systematically control another in this was, and not vice versa.

Having defined this in relational terms, we can set up and run the first argument for ‘equality’:

Argument 1

1) Freedom (defined, as before, broadly and intuitively) is of great value;

2) Domination is, by and large, deeply opposed to freedom;

3) Inequality of power enables, and makes very likely, domination;


4) Equality of power is of great value.

Premise 1. is here just assumed; premises 2. and 3. are not watertight, but are hardly bizarre or unexpected. Whatever occasional exceptions there may be, if I do what someone else tells me I am not to that extent exercising freedom, and if someone else is much more powerful than me, and can deploy that power to influence things that matter to me, I will find it difficult to defy their wishes.

Note that our language may perhaps come to confuse us here, though not very perniciously. That’s because it would, I think, be fairly natural to use the word ‘equality’ not only for the balance of powers that enables and encourages co-operative rather than dominating interactions, but also for those co-operative, non-dominating interactions themselves. This would be, I think, a sort of ‘metonymy’, the process by which we use the word ‘sweat’ to mean ‘hard work’, or ‘Number 10’ to mean ‘the Prime Minister’.

We might also add

Argument 1a

Co-operative interactions are intrinsically better than dominating ones. They are more human, more rational, more admirable. This might be expressed by saying that equality of power is useful for promoting co-operation, or saying that ‘equality’ is good in itself, using the above metonymy, but I fear such a statement would be liable to misunderstanding. Anyway, this argument will not convince those who don’t already accept it, so I won’t labour it.

Argument 2

This runs slightly differently, and starts from the idea that most goods, both individually and as a whole (as ‘wealth’) show a marked diminishing marginal utility. The advantage I gain from my first house is much more than what I gain from my second, the staying alive that comes from x units of food is more important than the better health from x+y units, which in turn is more important than the enjoyment from x+y+z units.

It follows (not from a neat 3-premises-and-a-conclusion argument but from more mathematical sorts of considerations) that in general the most efficient distribution of resources – efficient in turning resources into human happiness – will be one which people get the same share of resources.

(of course if people have different tastes and desires, we need to amend this to say that people get the same rights to shares of resources, and then choose for themselves what to actually consume)

Note that this has Honderich’s principle, and perhaps Rawls’, as a corollary (which Honderich recognises). If goods have a diminishing marginal utility, then their greatest utility will be to those who are most deprived of them. Thus the most efficient way to distribute resources would be to prioritise those in greatest need

Now, it will no doubt appear to people that these are two arguments with different premises and also different conclusions: one justifies equality of power, the other justifies equality of resource consumption (or of rights to resource consumption). Are they not in danger of appearing as two completely unrelated arguments? Fortunately, there is

Argument 3

1) People are in general the most acute and reliable guides to their own interests;


2) The ratio of power that people have in making a decision will tend to determine the ratio in which their interests are reflected in that decision;

3) Different people’s interests are in themselves of equal importance;


4) The most rational decision will tend to be produced when people have equal say in it.


5) Specifically, the distribution of resources will tend most towards equality when people have equal say in it.

How convenient: equality of power tends (only tends) to have equality of (rights to) resource consumption as an outcome.

Why I am Right and Others are Wrong

I feel that this collection of three (or four) arguments avoids the problems both of Honderich’s help-the-needy version of ‘equality’, and also of the abstract mathematical-equality-is-good-in-itself version.

The problem with the latter came from taking mathematical equality as a good in itself, in isolation from other goods – which, being a ‘mere relativity’, it’s clearly not suited for. The account I’ve tried to offer makes such things as freedom, efficiency, rational decisions, and co-operative interactions good in themselves, and then makes equality (of power or of consumption) valuable as a means to those ends.

So there’s no need to say that we should make some people worse off simply to make them ‘equal’ to the miserable. Rather, we should either a) strip them of some of the power they exert over the miserable, or b) conclude that given our overall productive possibilities, a more equal distribution of consumption is possible and desirable, at a higher average level than that of the currently miserable.

The principal problems with the help-the-needy version of equality are:

1) It only seems to be relevant to ‘the needy’, not to everyone else;

2) It risks presenting a merely negative ideal – nobody should be miserable;

My account lacks these problems – if anything it talks too much about power, and it can present to everybody (not just the ‘worst-off’) a positive ideal of expanded freedom, humanised communities, and rational efficiency. ‘Equality’ can serve as an emotive buzzword alongside those things, but doesn’t need to bear any disproportionate weight on itself.

4 Responses to “What’s So Good About Equality?”

  1. ddgrant Says:

    “every Leninist knows, if he is a real Leninist, that equalisation in the sphere of requirements and personal, everyday life is a reactionary petty-bourgeois absurdity worthy of some primitive sect of ascetics, but not of a socialist society organised on Marxist lines; for we cannot expect all people to have the same requirements and tastes, and all people to mould their personal, everyday life on the same model. And, finally, are not differences in requirements and in personal, everyday life still preserved among the workers? Does that mean that workers are more remote from socialism than members of agricultural communes?

    These people evidently think that socialism calls for equalisation, for levelling the requirements and personal, everyday life of the members of society. Needless to say, such an assumption has nothing in common with Marxism, with Leninism. By equality Marxism means, not equalisation of personal requirements and everyday life, but the abolition of classes, i.e., a) the equal emancipation of all working people from exploitation after the capitalists have been overthrown and expropriated; b) the equal abolition for all of private property in the means of production after they have been converted into the property of the whole of society; c) the equal duty of all to work according to their ability, and the equal right of all working people to receive in return for this according to the work performed (socialist society); d) the equal duty of all to work according to their ability, and the equal right of all working people to receive in return for this according to their needs (communist society). Moreover, Marxism proceeds from the assumption that people’s tastes and requirements are not, and cannot be, identical and equal in regard to quality or quantity, whether in the period of socialism or in the period of communism.

    To draw from this the conclusion that socialism calls for equalisation, for the levelling of the requirements of the members of society, for the levelling of their tastes and of their personal, everyday life—that according to the Marxist plan all should wear the same clothes and eat the same dishes in the same quantity—is to utter vulgarities and to slander Marxism.

    It is time it was understood that Marxism is an enemy of equalisation. Already in the Manifesto of the Communist Party Marx and Engels scourged primitive utopian socialism and termed it reactionary because it preached “universal asceticism and social levelling in its crudest form.” 11 In his Anti-Duhring Engels devoted a whole chapter to a withering criticism of the “radical equalitarian socialism” put forward by Duhring in opposition to Marxist socialism.

    “. . . The real content of the proletarian demand for equality,” said Engels, “is the demand for the abolition of classes. Any demand for equality which goes beyond that, of necessity passes into absurdity.” 12

    Lenin said the same thing:

    “Engels was a thousand times right when he wrote that to conceive equality as meaning anything beyond the abolition of classes is a very stupid and absurd prejudice. Bourgeois professors have tried to make use of the concept of equality to accuse us of wanting to make all men equal to one another. They have tried to accuse the Socialists of this absurdity, which they themselves invented. But in their ignorance they did not know that the Socialists—and precisely the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels—said: Equality is an empty phrase unless equality is understood to mean the abolition of classes. We want to abolish classes, and in this respect we stand for equality. But the claim that we want to make all men equal to one another is an empty phrase and a stupid invention of intellectuals” (Lenin’s speech “On Deceiving the People with Slogans About Liberty and Equality,” Works, Vol. XXIV, pp. 2 9 3 – 9 4 13).

    Clear, one would think.

    Bourgeois writers are fond of depicting Marxist socialism in the shape of the old tsarist barracks, where everything is subordinated to the “principle” of equalisation. But Marxists cannot be held responsible for the ignorance and stupidity of bourgeois writers.”

    J.V.Stalin ‘Report to the Seventeenth Party Congress’ (1934)

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    This is very interesting, but I’m not quite sure if this is meant as a rebuke to me or to the people I’m disagreeing with, nor whether it’s meant as a point about the history of socialism, or about what ideals socialists should endorse.

  3. ddgrant Says:

    Petty bourgeois opportunists of all shades would like to think that this question, posed and answered in this form, is merely “a point about the history of socialism.” The fact that it remains centre stage is witnessed by the loud clamour on “fairness” that can be currently seen for example in the Guardian. This clamour always grows in periods of crisis when the bourgeoisie must quicken the activity of social-democratic reformism in order to nip in the bud any revolutionary strivings among the masses, and to confuse the workers’ movement. It is never about anything else but sops for the working class.

    To reiterate: “Equality is an empty phrase unless equality is understood to mean the abolition of classes.” And this reference to the abolition of classes is not an appeal to the “ideals” of well-meaning middle class social reformers but to the need to overthrow the bourgeois state as a pre-requisite to this abolition of classes.

    Our modern “socialists” in their abyssmal ignorance of the history of the workers’ movement are prone to think of this as ‘old hat’ and ‘superceded’ by the peculiar history of the twentieth century. Such triumphant defeatism is to be found in every period of reaction, (for example, that following the Commune), and each time with the same belief in its own uniqueness. Bernstein comes to mind.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Ok, I’ll happily agree on the need for the abolition of classes. But I wouldn’t reduce the whole idea of equality to that, and I’m made even less inclined to do so by hearing that Lenin and Engels insisted upon it. Equality of power (‘democracy’) seems to me a major and important value, and I have no interest in emulating the strand of Marxism that disparages the holding of values and the debating of moral principles.

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