Whatever became of equality? We see much talk of ‘fairness’ nowadays. Whether or not something does or does not advance that wonderfully nebulous concept continually exercises politicians and spin-doctors. It was a leading narrative played out by the Opposition following the (UK) Budget 2012. The budget was ‘unfair’, it was said; Ed Miliband lambasted it as a ‘millionaires’ budget’.
But fairness is a remarkably vague concept upon which to pin aspirations. Many would say that equality is not any more measurable than fairness. That is not true. One thing which should be relatively uncontroversial is that equality of opportunity is a commonly-accepted good. The idea demands that individuals start from an equal position, that they have equal agency to do what they wish with themselves. In mainstream political discourse the concept is not usually thought through to this logical end (here assuming that ‘formal equality-of-opportunity’ is something of a misnomer). On that understanding, while the strategies for reaching ‘equality’ might remain unclear, its end-point is obvious.
Equality, as an analytic lens, is also particularly effective for those who argue that poverty and disadvantage are bad things—development practitioners. There is no reason why equality should be limited to national borders. The first question to ask is what conceptual reason could there be to limit the frame of reference for an equality analysis to just ‘the national’. If there is not one, the next question is only whether you consider differences in treatment to be ‘justified’—in other words, why it is desirable or necessary that some people have less agency than others.
The utility of the idea is the simple fact that it requires comparison. Comparisons between rich and poor countries, between rich and poor groups within countries, and so on.
A trend of the five ‘development decades’ has been the gradual creation of a global middle class, existing in places such as Brazil, China and parts of Africa (see, too, this Guardian piece on the super-rich of Africa). But against that step forward must be set off the many steps back. Remember that poverty is on the rise and deepening in many parts of the world. Remember, too, that inequalities among OECD countries have been increasing steadily over the last 25 years. (See my previous post on the MDGs for a little more detail on this.)
Equality can lead to a more nuanced understanding of common development problems. In terms of brute numbers, seeking to raise millions out of poverty is probably a laudable goal (and, moreover, it is something that an equality goal would no doubt try to achieve). But what it does not do is express a commitment to developing countries that their populations will be able to live in the same way as the Western world (i.e., in whichever way they please). Dragging people out of poverty tends to treat those people as objects of development rather than as agents. Development should be a process that is chosen; equality of agency, opportunity, capability—whatever—allows it to be just that.
A further attraction of equality as an idea is that it focusses on the relative rather than the absolute. Recall here the necessary connection between development and sustainability. There are (almost certainly) limits to the capacity of the planet to absorb the waste materials of the human race. Assuming that is correct, when one individual has more capacity or agency than another, in a world where there is a finite amount of resources, that individual will be denying a similar amount of that agency to another person. My point is that we cannot all live like Kings. Rather than blind levelling-up—eradicating absolute poverty—a development goal of equality requires the analysis to take place at both ends, taking into account absolute poverty and extreme wealth.
This approach, more than anything else, seems best-placed to create a ‘developed’ world of broadly similar levels of wealth and well-being.
Olivier De Schutter, along with a number of his colleagues at the UN, has proposed the integration of human rights in development come Rio+20. This already seems to accept a key role for law in the process of sustainable development. Equality, though, is one of those legal and analytical concepts that can transcend some of the difficulties of the human-rights analysis.
The first thing is that it could more easily emplace obligations between nation-states as well as within them. Human rights, on the other hand, frequently skate over the ways in which inter-state and other transnational relations are a cause of disadvantage. Second, and significantly, an element of an equality analysis is that it recognises that harm and disadvantage are caused as much by private actors as by the state, and that the state, fundamentally, holds the burden of reshaping the private sector to fit the demands of equality. That is not something that human rights—traditionally understood as obligations only on the state and public authorities—could really hope to achieve.
My proposition, then, is that by the time of the next set of Development Goals, we make space for equality, either as part of a legally-binding redistributive mechanism or through (notwithstanding the potential criticisms) high-level political commitment. Inequality is a global phenomenon and it deserves more attention.