The term “equality” can be problematic as it is too often and too easily taken to imply lack of difference. It really needs to be qualified in some way – such as ‘equality of opportunity’ – in order to avoid an excessively literal interpretation. Ideally, we could use the word “equality” in a socioeconomic context confident that people would make the appropriate semantic adjustment. But, regrettably, this can never be a safe assumption.
Of course there can never be absolute and total equality across all of society. Variations in the capacities and abilities and attributes among individuals militates irresistibly against equality in the sense of homogeneity. One would think this a truth too glaringly, blindingly, eyeball-searingly obvious to require frquent restatement. And yet, there are those who feel the need to remind us of this eternal and immutable fact at every instance of the word “equality” being deployed. I cannot explain this urge.
Whatever meaning is implied by or inferred from the term “equality” when used in reference to social dynamics and/or economic processes, I would maintain that “fairness” is a markedly different thing. Where “equality” relates to the policies and actions of authority, “fairness” relates to the effect – actual or perceived – of those policies and actions on individuals or groups.
To put it rather crudely, “equality” is about the mechanics of minimising relative disadvantage while “fairness” is about the way people feel they’ve been treated by ‘the system’.
The impossibility of impeccable equality means that there will always be winners and losers. Fairness is achieved when even the losers feel they have been treated with justice and respect.
Due to the seeming inevitability of the concept of “equality” being poorly understood, even in a context that should be powerfully defining, my preference is to avoid it in favour of the concept of balance. Rather than talk in terms of inequality, I speak of social or economic imbalance,
Social imbalance exist wherever conditions depart from the tolerance range of fairness. We are evolved, as social animals, to tolerate a certain degree of social imbalance. We accept that some social imbalance is ‘natural’, But we have developed social and economic systems which generate ‘unnaturally’ excessive imbalance.
The objective of progressive politics – or socialism – is the elimination of artificial social imbalance and the restoration of fairness.
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