Equality as a distinct Development Goal

What will happen at Rio+20?

by Joseph Markus

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.

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13 comments
  1. Do you aim for formal or substantive equality of opportunity?

    If formal, then you are essentially playing into the libertarian trap…have no rules and let the best man win.

    If substantive, then obviously this is a much more ‘acceptable’ goal. There are still huge difficulties: how on earth could you possibly achieve such substantive equality without significant levelling down? What of people who fail to make the most of their opportunities, and so on?

    But perhaps there is a distinction between the goal and a requirement to achieve the goal. If every policy were required to pass the litmus test of ‘does this aim to advance substantive equality of opportunity’ then that would be a good thing. There would however have to be the recognition, and this is important, that other values are also at stake and that it will never be possible to realise absolute substantive equality of opportunity.

    For example, you always need to leave room for aspiration and ambition, which are drivers of innovation and of positive social upheaval.

    • josephmarkus said:

      I tend to assume that when people talk about ‘formal’ equality of opportunity, they’re actually creating a contradiction. It probably depends on how you define ‘opportunity’, but it’s probably fair to say that my approach is ‘substantive’ according to the usual taxonomy.

      I accept that are massive difficulties of implementation. I tend to think that levelling down is probably the only way we will achieve any real form of worldwide justice. We can’t all live like we do here in the UK; but what is there to suggest that if we do continue to live this way, that others shouldn’t as well? The argument is one of equality as well as consistency.

      But it’s worth pointing out that I do make an assumption (that may or may not be right) that resources and the earth’s capacity to absorb the fallout of the use of those resources is limited. I also assume that whatever technological change we do create will probably not be sufficient to support a huge world population (+10 billion) all living like the UK middle class. If you don’t accept the assumption, then you won’t accept the conclusions.

      I didn’t really talk about the practicalities of how any law might be drafted. To be sure, it would be a long term thing—there would be no requirement to immediately transfer all wealth to a central fund, and thereafter distribute it equally. In the short and medium term, measures which value other priorities—so long as the central goal of equality remains in sight—would probably be permissible. In the long term I don’t see how you can justify other priorities when the ‘grundnorm’ of what I’m proposing is that everyone have an equal capability to choose a life they value. What values could surpass that (again, I’m assuming this is actually possible—it’s definitely a bit utopian)?

  2. Antoine said:

    Good article Joseph! I agree inequality should be included in MDGs and be more at the forefront of international negotiations. There are other, more quantitative arguments you could have used. For example, it’s proven that crime rates are highly affected by inequality, actually more than poverty. This is why the US and South Africa have much higher crime rates than other poorer states. Also, as opposed to what neoliberals would predict, most egalitarian societies (Scandinavia mainly) are wealthy and the most unequal countries are usually the poorest – with the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK as exceptions. In fact, Britain has become one of the most unequal countries in Europe in the last 30 years, with a Gini coefficient of over 0.36 (it was 0.25 before Thatcher).

    • josephmarkus said:

      Thanks Antoine!

      You’re right on the quantitative analysis (in an earlier article I mentioned in passing the Spirit Level thesis).

      The same is true of many of the OECD countries (again, I think I put some stats in an earlier article). This one stuck in my head: since 1985 the average OECD Gini coefficient has worsened.

      What I wanted to do was somehow to extend the debate beyond national boundaries. It just struck me as rather strange that few people have discussed the idea of inter-national inequalities; they’re some of the largest and, arguably, some of the most unjustifiable. Probably the main equality analysis we see in international development is in relation to gender equality, which is fine, but at the same time a very limited perspective on a much bigger issue.

      Perhaps you could create some sort of follow-up with a more quantitative angle (admittedly not my strong point!)…

    • josephmarkus said:

      (The previous article is linked in above – I forgot to do it before..)

  3. To me the bigger issue and the real problem is that there is too much government period. Not that government is favoring the wrong people or wrong lifestyle or wrong economic group it is simply doing too much period. Rather than ask why does government support this side or that, we should ask why the hell are they involved in the first place. We can never forget that government is just power and force, it can only take from some and give to others, it can only advantage some at the disadvantage of others, it is wholly incapable of adding to the pot thus government intervention will always have the effect of making the pot smaller for everyone. Those who value equal outcomes more than freedom will have neither, those who value freedom above all things will have a great measure of freedom and equality.

    • Antoine said:

      Typical libertarian doctrine. The thing is however, only the rich will be favoured with no government intervention: as opposed to the working or middle classes, they can send their kids to expensive private schools and go to private hospitals. But that is only a small fraction of the population – some people will be more “free” than others. As for the other libertarian cliché (“making the pot smaller for everyone”): how do you explain then that countries with big welfare states (Sweden, Denmark…) are much richer than others (e.g. the poorest African states) with failed governments and virtually no state provision of health & education?

      • Libertarians do not believe in no government they belive in a strong government that provides a level playing field for everyone. Sweden has much lower marginal taxes than the US and there “welfare” state does not extend much past healthcare. These countries are very friendly to businesses and there is very little regulation as far as I can tell in Denmark or Sweden. There is usually on a couple of levels of bureaucracy as I can tell. In the US one problem with big government is that you often have so many levels of government regulations, for instance, city, county, distric, state, and federal and often these regulation contradict each other and the penalties can be stiff. Also consider the rapidity at which regulations change in the US, Obama care on and off again who knows, this kind of government dysfuction spells death for the economy of industrial nations. I have a builder freind in Sweden and have talked to pharmaceutical executives who operate companies in Denmark to formulate my impressions of these countries. So countries like those in southern Africa have no government which will not work either because this anarchy and reduces all human struggles to force. We Libertarians believe that government should be strong, it should be able to protect us from threats abroad and from each other, the points you have made seem to argue that larger more complex government does make everyone poorer, and smaller efficient government like Denmark and Sweden promotes economic investment and tends to make the pot larger for everyone.

    • Denmark and Sweden are examples of small states now? Whatever next!

      In Denmark, government spending accounts for 58% of GDP. For some perspective, the USA is at 44%, and China (the home of so-called ‘state capitalism’) is at 23%. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/02/09/we_re_all_state_capitalists_now?page=0,1

      Arguing that Denmark and Sweden work well because they have small states is going to lead you into a bundle of trouble…

      The evidence suggests that the state isn’t so bad after all. It is mere, unfalsifiable ideology that suggests otherwise.

      • Antoine said:

        Thanks for your reaction Bobby, wouldn’t have said it better. Denmark and Sweden have indeed big governments with (shocking!) higher income taxes than all other European states. And “promoting economic investment” is also a form of government intervention.

      • I do appreiate the socialist perspective, it is a grand idea and I wish that it worked and to some small degree it can. The industrial base of a modern country can support huge socialist programs but there is a limit, and those socialist programs do come at a cost. Every tax dollar taken from the industrial base is a dollar that will loose about 40% of its purchasing power as it makes it way thru government bureaucracy, that same dollar if left in the private sector will go on to create about a 1.60 to the GDP depending on money supply, velocity of money, consumer demand, durable goods ect. But this 1.60 figure appears to be true for the last 3-4 years. This correlates fairly closely with the changes in GDP growth rate for most countries. Look at Denmark, as their economy slowed from 2007 until present the percentage of GDP taken from the industrial base and given to non workers increased due simply to a decrease in money supply, demand, ect. This correlates fairly well with the decline in GDP. Similar forces appear to have extended the Great Depression in the US though government intervention was much greater in the US at that time than in modern day Denmark. I am not an expert and I appreciate your comments. I blog in an attempt to learn not pretend to be an authority on anything.

      • I am basically a Libertarian and I believe that government should be limited to protecting us from each other, that means fair trade honesty in advertising, no rape, stealing, intimidation ect allowed, and protecting us from foreign invaders. When governmernt does more than that it will lead to poorer less free people. You argue that government only represents 44% of GDP in the US and that is close to the GAO numbers. But the cost of bureaucracy is not considered in those numbers that is simply direct spending by the central government. My point in the US is that those numbers do not represent the bureaucratic burden born by businesses in the form of permits, paperwork, regulations, healthcare requirements, government oversight from city, county, state, and federal organizations. Also recall that the GDP growth rate in Denmark has been negative from 2007 until early 2010 and debt has risen from 25% of GDP in about 2007 to over 45% in early 2010 this is a recipe for disaster. Denmark as a country is doomed just like Spain, Portugal, Italy ect, but from a business point of view the regulatory environment is fairly good, there are not that many government agencies harassing businesses that operate in that country. Most corporate interests only subcontract there, they are not based there, and therefore are not subject to the higher taxes. Only workers pay the 49%-63% taxes. Also most of the stuff done in Denmark is service oriented, I don’t really think they produce much to sell to other countries in the form of durable goods and industrial products. Consider the huge cash, gold, commodity surpluses of China and the 10+ percent growth rate and the fact that they are very economically free as an underpinning to unlimited growth potential. Again the liberal argument only reinforces the fact that bigger more complex government makes thinks much, much worse for common people.

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