Equality: A Hypothetical Progression

A wide range of today’s social movements are motivated by a call to ensure social, political, racial, or gender equality. In the current national discourse on equality, partisan affiliation erodes substantive debate founded on principle. It is increasingly easy and convenient to dismiss a policy simply because it is associated with the opposing party. Take the minimum wage discussion as an example. I have heard fellow Republicans blithely write off the possibility of a higher minimum wage singularly because it is “too liberal.” I find this concerning; in order to have intelligent views, one must understand the main underpinnings, not blindly follow Paul Ryan. As such, I would like briefly to depoliticize inequality debates with a simple example in hopes of offering an intellectual framework for the discussion of equality.

Let us consider apples and oranges. For illustrative purposes, we will assume that in the fruit market there exist only apple farmers and orange farmers, and that there is an equal demand for both fruits. Let us also assume that we want equality between apple and orange eating.

Equality of outcome—the typical aim of today's social movements—would dictate that people eat the same number of apples and oranges annually. This is an unreasonable expectation for both apple and orange consumers. Putting aside objections of feasibility, such as production capability, there is no regulatory apparatus that can force fruit eaters to consume in amounts different from their natural preferences. On what grounds does a government tell a woman—we will call her Peggy—who loves oranges that she ought to be eating apples?

Equality of opportunity, the only fair type of equality, would mandate simply that all fruit consumers have the same right to buy both apples and oranges. As such, the role of the state is limited to prohibiting apple farmers from restricting Peggy’s consumption of oranges.

Initially, if an equality-of-outcome law coerces Peggy and other orange-eaters into apple-eating, apple growers will benefit. But eventually, many of these violated consumers will form a loose interest network, founded on their shared experience in the fruit market. As apple farmers, via government, increasingly block people from eating oranges, this interest group will gain support and consolidate into an economic force aiming to liberate the orange market.

How long this takes will vary greatly, depending on the extent to which the orange network is organized and communicates efficiently. Technology plays a crucial role here: the more people the network reaches, the more support it can gain quickly. Similarly, if the orange lovers lack access to mass communications, they will take much longer to coalesce and will function less efficiently.

At whatever rate the orange network grows, it continues to expand and influence the mood of the fruit market. There will come a point where no new orange eaters remain to be enlisted, and the network seeks friendly apple eaters in order to keep expanding.  The orange network will appeal to their sense of justice, asking for support in order to create an equitable fruit market. As reasonable people, the apple consumers see that apple producers are blocking orange consumers, and therefore wish to fix this unjust aspect of society. With a large-enough support base, the orange consumers are likely to improve the availability of oranges because apple producers will give in. Equality of opportunity—in this case, to eat one's preferred fruit—will be achieved.

The upshot of this example is that equality for the people must be championed by the people. In order to enact positive and tangible change, citizens must form coalitions to represent their collective interests; however, the success of such coalitions rests upon the intended goal. A coalition demanding equality of outcome could never hope to succeed, as the necessary redistributive policies would harm certain members of that coalition. For instance, a member of the coalition could lose out on a job opportunity because his employer wants to hire a more diverse candidate in the name of equality. Enough of these instances could limit support for the coalition and ultimately cause it to fail.

In contrast, coalitions championing equality of opportunity allow a broader base because they ensure equality for all members.  In the future, I would urge Republicans and Democrats to put aside shallow party affiliations and instead work on policies intended to produce the greatest possible equality of opportunity.