Is Equality Desirable?

Is Equality Desirable? February 21, 2008

At first blush, it may seem obvious that equality ought to be a central goal of social policy, and that insofar as a society contains significant inequalities that society stands revealed as fundamentally unjust. In fact, even many of those who would oppose efforts to decrease inequality admit the desirability of equality as an ideal or goal, and merely contend that these efforts are ineffective or impracticable. Yet upon reflection it is not clear (to me, at any rate) why equality as such should be viewed as having such a central importance in evaluating a society.

To say that two things are equal is to say that they are the same. To say that two plus two equals four is to say that the sum of two and two is the same as four, and to say that two people are equally tall is to say that they have the same height. A completely equal society, therefore, would be a society in which everyone was completely the same. Far from being desirable, such a society can only aptly be described as monstrous – a world devoid of any diversity or individual distinctiveness, in which everyone looked the same, talked the same, thought the same, and acted the same. Even if it were possible to create and maintain such a world, it would hardly be desirable to do so. And if equality is not desirable as a goal, then it is not clear why incremental steps toward that goal should be regarded as on that account being desirable.

Now the advocate of equality, if presented with these thoughts, might I expect become somewhat annoyed. He would contend, no doubt, that he never wanted a society in which people were equal in all respects. What upsets him is not inequality with respect to appearance, or intelligence, or humor, or virtue, but inequality with respect to material condition, and when he says that everyone should be as equal as possible, what he means is not that they should all be equally funny or attractive, but that they should be equally wealthy. It is true that a society in which everyone was equally wealthy is not self-evidently undesirable in the way that a society with total equality would be (then again, there is nothing self-evidently undesirable about a society in which everyone is equally smart or equally virtuous either). Yet it is hard to see why, if equality as such is not desirable, equality of wealth or income should have such a prominent place in our vision of the good society. One could not, for example, simply point to the equal dignity of each human being or their equal worth in the eyes of God, since these facts are perfectly consistent with significant inequalities in manner important qualities.

One might, of course, argue that the amount of inequality of income is something within our power to control, whereas inequality regarding other things (such as intelligence, or appearance, or strength) is not. Even if true, one might wonder why a just God (for whom the distribution of such qualities was under His control) would distribute them unequally. But it is not even true that we have no control over such matters. While differences in things like intelligence, or attractiveness, or strength are no doubt partly due to genetic endowment, they are also partly due to human effort, and we could reduce such inequalities if we so chose. When a teacher helps a student achieve her above average potential, that teacher is increasing the overall inequality of intelligence. Yet we do not on that account consider that this teacher has done something shameful or wrong. Indeed, if a teacher tried to squelch a particularly bright student’s learning on the grounds that it reduced inequality, we would object vehemently. Likewise, only a fool would recommend discouraging virtue among the more virtuous members of society, on the grounds that this decreased the inequality of virtue in the society.

When it comes to virtue, what we want to reduce is not inequality of virtue but sin. When it comes to intelligence, what we want to reduce is not inequality of knowledge but ignorance and stupidity. Similarly, I think, when it comes to wealth what we should want to reduce is not inequality of income but poverty. Reductions in poverty may accompany reductions in income inequality, or they may not. Strange as it may seem reductions in poverty are accompanied by increases in income inequality as often as not.

Of course, in judging the prosperity, or intelligence, or virtue of a society, one cannot look simply at the richest, or smartest, or most virtuous members of that society. A society with a few saints surrounded by a hoard of moral monsters is not on account of those saints a very moral society.

At the same time, one cannot judge the wealth, or intelligence of a society by looking solely at its median income, or IQ either, and it may actually be beneficial to a society in some ways for it to have higher inequality. A group that has some geniuses and an average IQ of 90 will often be better off than a group where everyone has an IQ of 100. Likewise, as Pope Leo XIII noted in Rerum Novarum, there are advantages that come from a society in which not everyone is equal:

There naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition. Such unequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community. Social and public life can only be maintained by means of various kinds of capacity for business and the playing of many parts; and each man, as a rule, chooses the part which suits his own peculiar domestic condition.

Nor does the fact that inequality as such is not a matter of great concern mean that inequality might not have secondary effects that should concern us. Large amounts of inequality might, for example, incite envy or pride. Yet attempts to reduce inequality also may have negative secondary effects, which must be taken into account. Once we understand, however, the proper place that concerns about inequality should have in our vision of society, we will be in a better position to evaluate how best to achieve social progress.

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  • TeutonicTim

    Blackadder – You continue to have great posts here. Vox Nova is a much better place since you became a contributor.

  • Morning’s Minion

    You are forgetting something instrinsic to Catholic social teaching: the universal destination of goods. And you are completely ignoring the key theme of Rerum Novarum, which the the right of labor (“the wealth of nations originates from no other source than from the labor of workers”) to share in the wealth creation– that is basically a indictness of the inequality inherent in laissez-faire capitalism. A just wage, claimed the pope, cannot be left to the “free consent of the parties”. This of course opens the door to the role of the state in the arena of “distributive justice” where chief consideration in the pursuit of the common good is given to the weak and the poor.

    Pius XI devoloped this thought even further, arguing that “riches that economic-social developments constantly increase ought to be so distributed among individual persons and classes that the common advantage of all…. one class is forbidden to exclude the other from sharing in the benefits.”

    He attacked the concentration of the wealth in the hands of a few in strident terms: “In the first place, it is obvious that not only is wealth concentrated in our times but an immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only the trustees and managing directors of invested funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure. This dictatorship is being most forcibly exercised by those who, since they hold the money and completely control it, control credit also and rule the lending of money. This concentration of power and might, the characteristic mark, as it were, of contemporary economic life, is the fruit that the unlimited freedom of struggle among competitors has of its own nature produced, and which lets only the strongest survive; and this is often the same as saying, those who fight the most violently, those who give least heed to their conscience.”

    And let us not forget the words of John XXIII: : “the economic prosperity of a nation is not so much its total assets in terms of wealth and property, as the equitable division and distribution of this wealth”.

    In other words, what is important is not “equality” in the sense of “sameness” but a just sharing in the fruits of economic growth. That was essential 100 years ago, and remains so today, especially since inequality levels are back where they were when Popes Leo and Pius were writing.

  • Donald R. McClarey

    I’ll take freedom over equality any day. We are all of equal worth in the eyes of God. We should all be equal before the law. Other than that, people should be left free to chart their own destinies. Governments that eschew freedom in order to enforce equality tend to have bad records in regard to both.

  • TeutonicTim

    MM – You totally missed the point. I don’t think there was an anti-just wage sentiment to this at all. Surprisingly, you’ll never hear me say that someone doesn’t deserve a just wage either for quality work.

  • Excellent post.

  • Good post. I wrote on the subject some time ago at What’s Wrong With the World here.

  • Tim

    Cute kids.

  • Katerina


    Your post is all over the place. You seem to use equality and inequality quite comfortably in different contexts, so I have no idea where you’re going with it. It’s really not that hard: it’s not about equality–it’s about justice. We shouldn’t even be talking about equality at all, because that is not the issue at hand. It’s about the common good, the universal destination of goods, as MM points above, which are pillars of Catholic social doctrine.

    Catholics should not be talking in terms of equality or inequality but rather about justice and what is due to everyone as made in the image of the Creator.

  • TeutonicTim

    I’ll play “Vox Nova” here and ask you to define what you mean by “justice”…

  • Blackadder


    I don’t think we disagree. The whole point of my post was that reducing or eliminating inequality shouldn’t be a central focus or goal of social policy.

  • Morning’s Minion

    In a sense, though, this is a straw man argument. I know of no Catholic arguing for the kinds of radical equality you set up in this post. But the Church does argue for equality in the sense of a more equal and just distribution of economic resources.

  • I think you make an important distinction between the moral demand to work against poverty not being the same thing as a moral demand to eliminate economic inequality. In the end, it’s none of our concern whether some other people are rich, so long as we are doing everything we can to prevent people from suffering from poverty.

    That’s what I don’t quite understand about the “inequality is as bad now as 100 year ago” line of argument. It may be (I haven’t looked into data) that there is as big a proportional gap between rich and poor today as 100 years ago, but it is at the same time unquestionably the case that the bottom 10% in the US of 2008 are doing far, far better than the bottom 10% in 1908.

    This does not mean that poverty has been eliminated and our work is done, but it does make one wonder if charity or envy is the movite behind the equality complaint.

  • BA,

    Where is the notion of “equality” set forth in social policy as a goal? Is there any book, article, or position paper on any issue that you can reference? I’ve seen wide mention of alleviating “inequities”, but to my recollection I’ve never seen “equality” set forth as a desirable end.

  • Blackadder

    It’s true that there aren’t a whole lot of people advocating absolute equality as even fairly radical equalitarians would concede that this is not possible to achieve or sustain. What you do have are people who claim that inequality as such is a serious social problem, that to the extent possible we need to reduce inequality, make our society more equal, etc. But if equality is in itself not desirable, then it’s not clear why making society more equal (to the extent practicable) should be so important. A society totally without poverty, or racism, or injustice may not be achievable in this life, but it still makes sense to try and reduce such things as far as possible because, even though you never achieve your goal, you can still draw nearer to it. But if equality isn’t a desirable goal, then what’s the point of drawing nearer to it?

  • Tim F.

    “The Journey for Equality goes on and on and on!”

    Bono in the lead in to “Where the Streets Have No Name” on the U2 Vertigo DVD.

    Ok. It’s not much.

  • BA,

    Practically speaking, wouldn’t you agree that an attempt to reduce “inequities” is not the same as efforts to impose “equality”. It seems to me the designation “inequity” is more akin to “unjust difference” than to any notion of strict “inequality”. If so, a wide range of “inequalities” would be admissible in any effort to reduce “inequities”.

  • Policraticus

    I agree that Rerum Novarum certainly cannot be invoked here to support the main thrust of this post. Not that this fact challenges the points made here. But we must respect the contents of that encyclical and be sure not to contort its message to support our politico-economic sentiments.

    I’ll play “Vox Nova” here and ask you to define what you mean by “justice”

    Are you asking for a definition of the form of justice or a definition of the particular sort of justice Katerina refers to, that is, economic justice? If the latter, consult part two of Pope Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est.

  • Blackadder

    Talk about the value of equality and the pressing need to reduce and if possible eliminate inequalities is pretty common in today’s political discourse. Sometimes this is hidden (as, for example, when people talk about relative poverty). But often it is right out in the open. Here’s one example that I came across just yesterday:

    The view of the NHS is apparently something like “Yes, it’s sad that people like Ms. Hirst have to die, but equality must be maintained.”

    If someone wants to talk about “inequities” or “unjust differences” instead of inequalities that’s fine with me – so long as the change isn’t merely a semantic one and they can give some account of why a difference is unjust apart from the fact of the difference and/or why the fact of this difference should be unjust while differences as such are fine and dandy. Frankly the whole thing reminds me of something Elizabeth Anscombe once said (Anscombe, fwiw, is the inspiration for much of this post). She noted that a lot of people, when confronted with an inequality that they didn’t mind, tried to call it something else (e.g. “that’s not an inequality, it’s a difference”). But this was, in her view (and mine) simply a dodge. I’m prepared to be proven wrong, though.

    Morning’s Minion’s point about the universal destination of goods is a fair one. At some point, I plan on doing another post on why I think a free market best serves the universal destination of goods, but that is a subject for another day. For now, I can only respond to the criticism that my post didn’t touch on this or that subject by quoting Rousseau: “All my ideas are consistent, but I cannot express them all at once.”

  • Talk about the value of equality and the pressing need to reduce and if possible eliminate inequalities is pretty common in today’s political discourse.

    Nevertheless, I think your attempt to suggest that those who argue and fight for “equality” are talking about “sameness” is off.

  • RPFN

    There are many who advocate absolute equality in everything but income and even there they want some leveling. I just posted elsewhere in a discussion on whether the wealthy should be allowed to voluntarily pay for additional medical treatment in a universal health care system. There is actual debate over this! There is a local parents group whose agenda is to shut down my old high school because it has a highly competitive entrance exam. The “logic” is that if their children can’t get in, nobody should.

    “At the same time, one cannot judge the wealth, or intelligence of a society by looking solely at its median income, or IQ either, and it may actually be beneficial to a society in some ways for it to have higher inequality. A group that has some geniuses and an average IQ of 90 will often be better off than a group where everyone has an IQ of 100.”

    I was with you until that. Is a world where $1 billion of Bill Gates’ money is distributed to the poorest 1 million, a worse place? We can take from Bill until that point along the Laffer curve where a net loss occurs and society is still better off.

    Because material poverty is relative, I think we should use a standard like median income. Absolute equality is not the goal and cannot be the goal. We need to be able to reward the hard-working.

  • “Talk about the value of equality and the pressing need to reduce and if possible eliminate inequalities is pretty common in today’s political discourse.”

    There is much talk and initiative in policy circles about reducing “inequities” but I know of no US social policy initiative that fights for equality as you’ve defined it.

    adj : implying justice dictated by reason, conscience, and a
    natural sense of what is fair to all; “equitable
    treatment of all citizens”;

    The distinction between working towards “equaity” or working towards an “equitable” distribution of goods and services is crucial. The latter informs US social policy, not the former.

  • Blackadder


    Is a world where $1 billion of Bill Gates’ money is distributed to the poorest 1 million, a worse place? It depends on what Gates would have otherwise done with the money. Probably the world would be better off if Gates gave the poorest 1 million a thousand dollars each. If, however, Gates instead spent the billion on research and developed, say, a cheap alternative energy source, or a cure for AIDS, or some other device that drastically increased productivity, then the world would be better off if he did that than if he just gave the money to the poor.

    Taxing people like Gates to the peak of the Laffer curve might maximize tax revenues, but it would necessarily make us better off. It’s a matter of what the government would do with the money versus what individuals would do with it if not for the tax.

  • TeutonicTim


    “Since the nineteenth century, an objection has been raised to the Church’s charitable activity, subsequently developed with particular insistence by Marxism: the poor, it is claimed, do not need charity but justice. Works of charity—almsgiving—are in effect a way for the rich to shirk their obligation to work for justice and a means of soothing their consciences, while preserving their own status and robbing the poor of their rights. Instead of contributing through individual works of charity to maintaining the status quo, we need to build a just social order in which all receive their share of the world’s goods and no longer have to depend on charity. There is admittedly some truth to this argument, but also much that is mistaken.”

    “28. In order to define more accurately the relationship between the necessary commitment to justice and the ministry of charity, two fundamental situations need to be considered:

    a) The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics. As Augustine once said, a State which is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves: “Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia?”.[18] Fundamental to Christianity is the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God (cf. Mt 22:21), in other words, the distinction between Church and State, or, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, the autonomy of the temporal sphere.

    “Here politics and faith meet. Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly. This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.”

    The Church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. It recognizes that it is not the Church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew. As a political task, this cannot be the Church’s immediate responsibility. ”

    And the Big one:

    “There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.[20] The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.”

    “The mission of the lay faithful is therefore to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens according to their respective competences and fulfilling their own responsibility.[22] Even if the specific expressions of ecclesial charity can never be confused with the activity of the State, it still remains true that charity must animate the entire lives of the lay faithful and therefore also their political activity, lived as “social charity”

    “The modern age, particularly from the nineteenth century on, has been dominated by various versions of a philosophy of progress whose most radical form is Marxism. Part of Marxist strategy is the theory of impoverishment: in a situation of unjust power, it is claimed, anyone who engages in charitable initiatives is actually serving that unjust system, making it appear at least to some extent tolerable. This in turn slows down a potential revolution and thus blocks the struggle for a better world. Seen in this way, charity is rejected and attacked as a means of preserving the status quo.

  • Policraticus


    I thank you for consulting the encyclical. I respect those who seek to verify in matters disputed.

    One objection: I fail to see how Leo XIII’s critique of 1) Marxism and 2) State collectivism is an argument against all forms–local and State–of wealth distribution. Perhaps I’m not following Blackadder well, but it seems to me that a more equitable distribution of wealth is a chief tenet of Catholic social teaching (and largely the result of Leo XIII’s thought).

  • Blackadder

    I am certainly not opposed to all forms of local and State redistribution of wealth. To give but one example, I favor using tax dollars to give poor kids school vouchers. My reason for supporting this, though, is not that it will reduce inequality, but rather than it will increase opportunity and (hopefully) help reduce things like poverty and human misery.

  • Henry,

    One objection: I fail to see how Leo XIII’s critique of 1) Marxism and 2) State collectivism is an argument against all forms–local and State–of wealth distribution. Perhaps I’m not following Blackadder well, but it seems to me that a more equitable distribution of wealth is a chief tenet of Catholic social teaching (and largely the result of Leo XIII’s thought).

    I totally agree with Blackadder. I don’t see “redistribution of wealth” to be a tenet of Catholicism, that is code for “robbing from the rich to give to the poor”. Stealing legitimately earned wealth is immoral except in the graves of necessity to save life. On the other hand, ensuring that every person has a reasonable opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty is a specific aim of the type of program that Blackadder mentions that does not have “redistribution of wealth” to be an end in itself, the taxation is for a just purpose.

    It’s interesting, can we all on this blog agree that it would be a good use of taxpayers money to give vouchers to lower and middle income parents so that they could see to their children’s education in the way they see fit? That seems to be perfectly in line with the Church’s teaching on the rights and duties of the parent.

    God Bless,


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  • Policraticus

    I totally agree with Blackadder. I don’t see “redistribution of wealth” to be a tenet of Catholicism, that is code for “robbing from the rich to give to the poor”.

    Redistribution of wealth = Stealing

    Yeah, that’s an informed opinion.

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  • Zz

    Damn you Blackadder

  • sky

    Equality is desirable for poor people but not the rich

  • Bob

    The wealth of Nations according to Adam Smith is not the measure of how much stuff or money the people of a nation possess, but the wealth of nations is measure by the increase in the value of a product through manufacturing, even through distributive labor manufacturing methods. Free market and free trade leads to the substantial improvement in the quality of life and standard of living for the citizens and lead to the start of the industrial revolution in the United States of America. People improved their standard of living at a rate greater than had previously been seen.

    John Maynard Keynes thinks that the people ought to spend 100 percent of their paycheck so that it will create new jobs whereby those workers will spend 100 percent of their paycheck creating this elaborate however unrealistic and unachievable pyramid. Keynes policies penalize thrift and savings and trigger measures where the government should engage in spending, to include deficit spending if the people don’t spend enough money. Keynes policies fail to recognize and address the hidden dangers of this unrealistic model and the naturally occurring 6 percent unemployment rate that happens to be unavoidable. It also fails to recognize the implications of year over year deficit spending and the eventual debasement of the currency under a central bank scenario where the bank creates paper wealth out of thin air, essentially destroying the purchasing power and eventual hyperinflation the currency which occurs from monetizing the debt. Mainly one is not entitled to keep the fruits of his labor and the value of their money is stolen for the use of the government. Mostly everyone gets screwed in this system.

    Karl Marx, where do I begin? Look at his life and the lives of his children. Here is a guy who never worked a day in his life, telling everyone else how the business model should work. Here is a guy who relied upon the benevolence of his friends and relatives who gave him charity and in some cases willed their estates and fortunes to him. Marx lived off of the labor, blood, sweat and tears of others, meanwhile he allowed several of his children to starve to death, and later a few committed suicide. Here is a system adopted by the Soviet Union under Stalin where 6 or 7 generations of people in the Soviet Union died waiting for the euphoria promised by redistribution of income and forced labor for the good of the merciless state. Man has no right to own property as it all belongs to the state, has no right to the fruits of his labor and all aspects of business and society are owned and controlled by the state.

    The founding fathers of the United States of America were extremely learned men who understood the principles of liberty, equal justice, freedom, property rights and the means to protect those rights and incorporated those rights in a document which restated what they already knew, but put it into writing as a contract for the future generations who would not understand those rights, the document was called the United States Constitution and later added the bill of rights and subsequent essential amendments. The founders lived under tyranny, understood persecution, injustice, mob rule, the loss of property rights, to have free speech stifled and to have a state mandated religion as well as the dangers of a entirely religion controlled state. The founders understood that the rights of man are given to them by their creator, and are not created by man, government or any other institution. The founders understood that all men were created equal at least spiritually, as in each man possess a soul and the free will to choose to serve God or not. The founders understood the dangers of mob rule upon society and created a form of government called a Democratic Republic, which recognized and protected the rights of the minority, even if that minority were just one person. This form of government recognized the rights of man as given to them by God and recorded in the Bible as being natural rights which are derived from natures God. This form of government recognized that when people join a group that they yield the use of certain rights to that group to use, but that no group can exercise rights that it does not have, as those rights were not embodied in the people, and the same understanding of the use of those right is carried over into every institution. Coincidentally this form of government and Adam Smiths’ Free Market capitalism go hand in hand.