In a diverse society, equality trumps equity

Once, not long ago, pretty much everyone supported “equality.” Some might have been more sincere than others. Some might have had slightly different notions of it: equality before the law or equality of opportunity, for example, though these are not mutually exclusive.

Nowadays, there are a significant number of Americans who see “equality” as old hat. Instead, we must aim for “equity.” What is that? Then Senator, now Vice President, Harris explained with this short video:

What is striking is that, according to this video at least, “equity” runs directly contrary to many standard notions of “equality.”

Equality suggests, “Oh, everyone should get the same amount”

Does it? That is equality of outcome. But how can we guarantee that in a world where people have very different talents and interests? We can’t. That is why, a few years ago at any rate, the argument was for equality of opportunity, which we can try to do something about.

The problem with that, not everybody’s starting out from the same place

This is true. Some people will be born into vastly more economically fortuitous circumstances than others, for example. Finding ways for kids from poor backgrounds to access good educations has long been a key part of this. But, again, this is equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.

So if we’re all getting the same amount, but you started out back there and I started out over here we could get the same amount, but you’re still going to be that far back behind me

Again, this is an appeal to equality of outcome. And, again, in a world where people have very different talents and interests, people will end up with different amounts. Some who start out behind will end up in front and some who start out in front will end up behind.

It’s about giving people the resources and the support they need, so that everyone can be on an equal footing and then compete on equal footing

This is pretty much the standard definition of equality of opportunity: notice how we’ve slipped silently from one definition to the other?

Equitable treatment means we all end up at the same place

And notice how we’ve slipped silently back again.

The United States is wonderfully diverse country. And it is more diverse than the you’d know from just dividing its population into a dozen or so ethnic groups, say. There are 330 million individuals in this country, all unique, all with different talents and interests. It makes absolutely no sense to assume that, even if equality of opportunity were achieved, they would all end up “at the same place” economically.

In a diverse society like ours, the only way the state can try to impose a uniformity of economic outcome is to treat people differently. “Equitable treatment,” then, would seem to be completely opposed to the idea of equality before the law.

A current court case illustrates this. A group of farmers from Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Ohio, are suing the federal government because they are ineligible for a program in the Biden administration’s COVID-19 stimulus plan which allocates $4 billion to forgive loans: they are ineligible because they are white. In the name of “equity,” racial discrimination has been written into the law of the land.

You may view this as a good thing, or, at least, as a necessary one. We are some way from anything close to equality of opportunity. Many questions are raised about equality before the law, as implemented, at any rate. You may view such policies as necessary to correct for this.

But you can’t fight racism with the “good racism” of “equitable treatment” — and let us be crystal clear, when you are writing government policy which specifically privileges one ethnic group over another, that policy is racist. Neither can you fight “structural” or “institutional” racism with actual legal racism. All racism is bad, whoever it is directed against and whatever its intentions are. That this is, once again, a controversial statement tells you just how far through the looking glass we are.

And, if government is going to use such policies to ensure that “we all end up at the same place,” in a diverse society of 330 million unique individuals with as many different talents and interests, that will require an ever growing list of such interventions: a truly awful prospect.

Instead, we must recommit ourselves to equality. We must work to guarantee equality of opportunity so that your parent’s job doesn’t dictate your job. Where we find the law being applied unequally, we must act to stamp that out. Everyone should get a decent crack at life. In a diverse society, equity will not cut it: equality can.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.