By Niall Crowley.
Inequality is in vogue – from a recent editorial in Village calling for equality of outcome, to Thomas Piketty – extensively covered in this magazine – to academics such as Piketty and Wilkinson and Pickett, and – surprisingly – to conservative institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the Standards & Poor ratings agency.
Even Janet Yellen, US Federal Reserve Chair, professes concern about income inequality. “The past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority”, she said last month. She went on: “It is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history”. She set out no strategy for advancing equality and identified no goals for equality.
While recognising that inequality is a problem many of the commentators may not actually want equality. And if they do it may be equality of opportunity rather than anything more disruptive to their established comfort zones. Equality of opportunity is about fairness not equality. It seeks to ensure that everyone has access to some minimum standard – social-welfare safety nets for example. It aims to ensure that, after this, the competition for advantage is fair and without discrimination. The problem with equality of opportunity is that it sits easily with persistent inequality, as long as it is the product of fair competition. It takes no account of differing capacities to compete (to get the opportunity in the first place!) due to legacies of inequality and discrimination.
Village went with Janet Yellen in moving away from an economic case for equality to base the case on values. It usefully identified equality as an ‘ethical not an economic imperative’.
This is in contrast to all the commentators cited above whose concerns are for economic equality and who focus exclusively on the manner in which resources are distributed.
Historically, in times of economic crisis we focus on poverty and economic inequality. In boom times we tend to focus on identity and the inequalities constructed around it such as gender, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion and age. Why must it be one or the other? Both are equally important and you don’t get to solve one form of inequality without solving the other.
We could start with an acknowledgement of diversity as a predictor of economic inequality. The pay gap between women and men stands at a striking 13.9%, for example. Unemployment too is a function of diversity. Travellers experience an 84.3% unemployment rate. And wealth. People with disabilities experience a 17.6% rate of consistent poverty. Equality of outcome depends on breaking down generic figures to address the particular experience and situation of specific groups.
Beyond this we need to recognise the different interconnected FORMS of inequality. Village’s mission statement, dutifully framing the contents page of every edition refers to “resources, welfare, respect and opportunities”. Inequality of power and influence transects most of these. Women for example only make up 15% of Dail representatives, for example. Inequality of status and standing tends to stereotype and sideline young people, women, Black and minority ethnic people and older people. Inequality of respect drives high levels of homophobic bullying in schools.
Equality of outcome needs to embrace power and influence, status and standing and respect as well as resources.
Reflecting this, the former Equality Authority set out four interlinked objectives for equality in its strategic plan: “Redistribution, involving access to resources and economic activity; Representation, involving access to decision making and capacity to organize; Recognition, involving an acknowledgement and a valuing of different identities, experiences and situations of the groups experiencing inequality; Respect, involving an underpinning of the interdependence and mutual support aspects of human welfare”.
We need to go further and also establish a vision for a society that encompasses all these dimensions. In other words we need to define the scope of equality of outcome, and then promote it. Amartya Sen valuably promoted the vision of a “flourishing” society. This is a society where people and communities have the capabilities to achieve their full potential and to live lives they have reason to value. Equality of outcome is not about some mathematical sameness but about real choices between real options, for people. •