After considering what kind of social differences are unacceptable we need to ask ourselves what are the different dimensions of equality that we may pursue or seek to achieve in society. While identifying different kinds of inequalities that exist in society, various thinkers and ideologies have highlighted three main dimensions of equality namely, political, social and economic. It is only by addressing each of these three different dimensions of equality can we move towards a more just and equal society.
In democratic societies political equality would normally include granting equal citizenship to all the members of the state. Equal citizenship brings with it certain basic rights such as the right to vote, freedom of expression, movement and association and freedom of belief. These are rights which are considered necessary to enable citizens to develop themselves and participate in the affairs of the state. But they are legal rights, guaranteed by the constitution and laws. We know that considerable inequality can exist even in countries which grant equal rights to all citizens. These inequalities are often the result of differences in the resources and opportunities which are available to citizens in the social and economic spheres. For this reason a demand is often made for equal opportunities, or for ‘a level playing field’. But we should remember that although political and legal equality by itself may not be sufficient to build a just and egalitarian society, it is certainly an important component of it.
Political equality or equality before the law is an important first step in the pursuit of equality but it often needs to be supplemented by equality of opportunities. While the former is necessary to remove any legal hurdles which might exclude people from a voice in government and deny them access to available social goods, the pursuit of equality requires that people belonging to different groups and communities also have a fair and equal chance to compete for those goods and opportunities. For this, it is necessary to minimise the effects of social and economic inequalities and guarantee certain minimum conditions of life to all the members of the society — adequate health care, the opportunity for good education, adequate nourishment and a minimum wage, among other things. In the absence of such facilities it is exceedingly difficult for all the members of the society to compete on equal terms. Where equality of opportunity does not exist a huge pool of potential talent tends to be wasted in a society.
In India, a special problem regarding equal opportunities comes not just from lack of facilities but from some of the customs which may prevail in different parts of country, or among different groups. Women, for instance, may not enjoy equal rights of inheritance in some groups, or there may be social prohibitions regarding their taking part in certain kinds of activities, or they may even be discouraged from going in for higher education. In such cases the role of the state has been to offer equal legal rights to all, to make policies to prevent discrimination or harassment of women in public places or employment, to provide incentives to open up education or certain professions to women, and other such measures. But social groups and individuals also have a role to play in raising awareness and supporting those who want to exercise their rights.
At the simplest level, we would say that economic inequality exists in a society if there are significant differences in wealth, property or income between individuals or classes. One way of measuring the degree of economic inequality in a society would be to measure the relative difference between the richest and poorest groups. Another way could be to estimate the number of people who live below the poverty line. Of course absolute equality of wealth or income has probably never existed in a society. Most democracies today try to make equal opportunities available to people in the belief that this would at least give those who have talent and determination the chance to improve their condition. With equal opportunities inequalities may continue to exist between individuals but there is the possibility of improving one’s position in society with sufficient effort.
Inequalities which are entrenched, that is, which remain relatively untouched over generations, are more dangerous for a society. If in a society certain classes of people have enjoyed considerable wealth, and the power which goes with it, over generations, the society would become divided between those classes and others who have remained poor over generations. Over time such class differences can give rise to resentment and violence. Because of the power of the wealthy classes it might prove difficult to reform such a society to make it more open and egalitarian.
Marxism and Liberalism are two important political ideologies of our times. Marx was an important nineteenth century thinker who argued that the root cause of entrenched inequality was private ownership of important economic resources such as oil, or land, or forests, as well as other forms of property. He pointed out that such private ownership did not only make the class of owners wealthy, it also gave them political power. Such power enables them to influence state policies and laws and this could prove a threat to democratic government.
Marxists and socialists feel that economic inequality provides support to other forms of social inequality such as differences of rank or privilege. Therefore to tackle inequality in society we need to go beyond providing equal opportunities and try and ensure public control over essential resources and forms of property. Such views may be debatable but they have raised important issues which need to be addressed.
An opposing point of view can be found in liberal theories.
Liberals uphold the principle of competition as the most efficient and fair way of distributing resources and rewards in society. They believe that while states may have to intervene to try and ensure a minimum standard of living and equal opportunities for all, this cannot by itself bring equality and justice to society. Competition between people in free and fair conditions is the most just and efficient way of distributing rewards in a society. For them, as long as competition is open and free, inequalities are unlikely to become entrenched and people will get due reward for their talents and efforts.
For liberals the principle of competition is the most just and efficient way of selecting candidates for jobs or admission to educational institutions. For instance, in our country many students hope for admission to professional courses and entry is highly competitive. From time to time the government and the courts have stepped into regulate educational institutions and the entrance tests to ensure that everybody gets a fair and equal chance to compete. Some may still not get admission but it is considered to be a fair way of distributing limited seats.
Unlike socialists, liberals do not believe that political, economic and social inequalities are necessarily linked. They maintain that inequalities in each of these spheres should be tackled appropriately. Thus, democracy could help to provide political equality but it might be necessary to also devise different strategies to deal with social differences and economic inequalities. The problem for liberals is not inequality as such, but unjust and entrenched inequalities which prevent individuals from developing their capabilities.