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Equality, Concept of


EQUALITY, CONCEPT OF. Ancient and medieval political philosophers assumed that human beings were not merely different, but unequal in terms of their moral, political, and social worth. Since these inequalities were deemed natural, it followed that some were born to rule, and others to be ruled. The ideal regime therefore conferred power on the best sort of men and good regimes at least prevented power from falling into the wrong hands. Democracy was condemned on this account, for it inverted the natural order by making rulers of those who should be subjects, and subjects of those who should be rulers.

A modern conception of political authority was advanced by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, two English thinkers of the seventeenth century who asserted the natural equality of human beings. Hobbes and Locke imagined human beings in a "state of nature" and explained why they would enter into a social contract with each other for their mutual benefit. Out of this contract came government, which was established for the protection of citizens and endowed with powers commensurate to that end. On this account, government derived its authority from the consent of the governed, not the natural superiority of a ruling class.

Neither Hobbes nor Locke concluded that people ought to rule themselves once government was established, however. Hobbes famously argued that people should submit to a sovereign with absolute powers, while Locke believed they would tacitly accept constitutional monarchy, reserving the right to rebel against unjust governments. Thus, each man insisted on natural equality but stopped short of recommending political equality in the sense that we understand it today.

Our understanding is summarized in the Declaration of Independence, which asserts that "all men are created equal," and that as such "they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," among them "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." These revolutionary claims were put forward as self-evident truths and embraced as such by many Americans in 1776. But there was also substantial opposition to radical notions of equality, and it resurfaced once the revolutionary ardor had cooled.

With only qualified support for the idea of equality, it proved remarkably difficult for the new nation to abolish slavery, extend the franchise, and ensure political rights and civil liberties for all. Yet it also proved impossible to resist movements aimed at combating discrimination based on class, race, and gender. Most of these movements invoked the Declaration in support of their cause and in that sense the history of the United States after 1776 may be seen as the continuing struggle to realize what Thomas Jefferson called the self-evident truth of equality.

Equal Liberty

The concept of liberty lends a particular cast to political thinking about equality in the United States. Americans understand liberty primarily in a negative sense, as freedom from unwarranted restraints on individuals' pursuit of happiness. Legal restraints are particularly suspect in this regard, reflecting the widespread assumption that government is at best a necessary evil. To be sure, some legal restraints on liberty are endorsed, and even welcomed. Few dispute the need to imprison persons who take the lives of other citizens, thereby depriving them of liberty or otherwise compromising their pursuit of happiness. Neither is there strong opposition to restrictions on the liberty of minors and adults who are mentally incompetent, since their well-being (and that of others) might be jeopardized by the exercise of too much freedom. What counts as "too much freedom" is of course a political question and reform movements regularly surface in American politics for the purpose of loosening restraints on those whose reason is suspect by conventional standards.

The aversion to arbitrary restrictions on individual freedom points in the direction of equal liberty. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted long ago (see Democracy in America), Americans do not recognize privileges of rank. They certainly do not think people from different social ranks should be treated differently and they may even be reluctant to admit that social ranks or classes exist in American society. More tellingly, Americans do not think legal privileges should be conferred on individuals with superior wisdom, judgment, talents, skills, or attributes that in previous ages commanded deference from the masses. Valuable though they may be, these qualities are constitutionally irrelevant in a democratic society. No person, whatever his or her personal qualities, is formally entitled to more liberty than anyone else. Nor is anyone inclined to settle for less freedom than others enjoy.

White Americans' passion for equal liberty has only recently been extended to people of other races. The institution of chattel slavery persisted for more than two hundred years, and enjoyed both legal and constitutional protection. When slavery was finally abolished after the Civil War, it was succeeded by an officially sanctioned regime of segregation that was not overturned until the 1960s. Even then there was resistance to the idea of racial equality and opposition to the use of federal power to confront discriminatory laws, policies, and practices in the South and throughout the nation. But the civil rights movement drew successfully on principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the evident contradiction between racism and equality was ultimately resolved in favor of equality—in public discourse, if not always in private deeds.

Gender discrimination is similarly at odds with the commitment to equal liberty, and like racism has deep roots in American life. Indeed, this is one area in which natural differences are still held to be politically relevant by people who think biology limits women's fitness for military action, public service, and some forms of employment. The failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s testifies to the strength of this view, just as the progress of women's liberation and feminism more generally shows the continuing power of appeals to equality. In the absence of compelling justifications, gender discrimination is politically vulnerable to challenges inspired by egalitarian sentiments. This cuts both ways, however: some remedies for discrimination, such as affirmative action, are seen by many people as inegalitarian.

Equality under the Law

A commitment to equal liberty implies an impartial rule of law. That is, the law should be the same for everyone in both criminal and civil matters. Thus, any person who is accused of criminal conduct is entitled to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. During the twentieth century, the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretations of the amendment's due process clause have substantially "nationalized" the Bill of Rights. As a result, the dispensation of justice is more uniform, which benefits all citizens, not just the victims of previous forms of discrimination. We all know our rights, and we insist on "taking our case all the way to the Supreme Court" when the need arises.

Broad interpretations of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment have generated a similar expansion of civil rights and liberties in the latter part of the twentieth century. So has the enactment of national legislation designed to combat discrimination in public schools, the workplace, and in many areas of private life. Some have called this a second American revolution, a revolution in rights for all, without regard to race, gender, or creed. The characterization is apt; there exists substantial equality under the law, and courts have become a major venue for the defense of every American's freedoms.

Equality in Making the Law

Freedom of speech, assembly, and press are valuable in their own right; the pursuit of happiness is unimaginable in the absence of these rights, and so is the enjoyment of liberty. These rights are important for another reason, too: they are the means by which people express their views on laws that govern them. The value of voting rights would be severely diminished by restrictions on political communication and the presentation of alternative views.

Voting rights are perhaps the ultimate test of a nation's commitment to political equality and it is instructive to note the halting expansion of the franchise in American history. Thus, in 1776, when Jefferson proclaimed equality a self-evident truth, the franchise was restricted to male property owners over the age of majority. Property qualifications were gradually removed from state constitutions in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. After the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment barred racial restrictions on the franchise for adult males, but other restrictions, such as white primaries and poll taxes, effectively excluded African Americans from the polls in the South for another hundred years. The Nineteenth Amendment banned gender restrictions on suffrage in 1920, and in 1971 the Twenty-sixth Amendment lowered the voting age to eighteen.

Suffrage is now almost universal in the United States. Only convicted felons, the mentally incompetent, minors, and of course resident aliens are "second-class citizens" without voting rights. Nevertheless, many people, especially those who are ill-educated and poor, do not exercise their right to vote, so it cannot be said that equality in the making of laws has actually been achieved in the United States. Moreover, we cannot ignore the role of campaign contributions in shaping our political choices or the effect of interest groups on political decision making between elections (see Campaign Financing and Resources). These avenues of influence are not universally representative, and while they can be justified in terms of liberty, they may undermine equality in social life and the political arena.

Equality through the Law

Democratic politics provides the means for advancing equality through the law. That is, the law may be used to "level the playing field," thereby achieving greater equality. Thus, social programs provide minimum incomes and health care to retired workers or their families as well as to the "deserving poor." This limits inequality at the bottom of its range, while progressive forms of taxation, such as the graduated income tax, achieve a similar result by lowering top incomes. There is abiding political support for Social Security, Medicare, and other spending programs in the United States, but progressive taxation is more controversial. It is seen by many as an intrusion on the success of individuals, that is, on their pursuit of happiness.

Put differently, Americans are quite prepared to accept and even defend unequal economic outcomes, so long as they result from a fair process, namely, one that is open to all. In a fair competition, there will be winners and losers, but the outcome will be decided on individual merit, or so the thinking goes. Hence it is sufficient to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to exercise liberty and pursue happiness as they understand it. What counts as an equal opportunity is disputed, however. Does equal opportunity merely require proscriptions against discrimination or does it demand positive measures, such as public education, to ensure that individuals can compete effectively?

The debate over equal opportunity is especially sharp where affirmative action policies are concerned. The argument in favor of affirmative action is that members of groups who have been unfairly treated in the past still suffer the lingering effects of discrimination. Hence a fair result should not be expected even though a legal framework of equal opportunities is now in place. Remedial measures are needed to overcome the legacy of discrimination and government ought to undertake these measures until such time as all are able to use their formal opportunities with equal advantage.

The argument against affirmative action is that government must go no further than combating discrimination. Preferential treatment is "reverse discrimination," and as such it unfairly expands the opportunities for some groups at the expense of others. More importantly, "group rights" come at the expense of individuals, abridging their liberties and undermining their pursuit of happiness. In this line of argument, then, a government committed to equality should, and indeed must, avoid affirmative action in favor of impartiality.

As this dispute shows, equality may be universally approved by Americans, but its meaning is not agreed upon, nor is there consensus on the role of government in promoting equality. The Declaration of Independence offers little guidance on this score; it is instead a challenge to explore the possibilities of equality in a democratic society.


Barry, Brian. Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Condit, Celeste M., and John L. Lucaites. Crafting Equality: America's Anglo-African Word. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Devins, Neal, and Davison M. Douglas, eds. Redefining Equality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Scholars from a variety of disciplines discuss past and present meanings in the context of conflicts over specific issues and problems in American politics.

Ingram, David. Group Rights: Reconciling Equality and Difference. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2000.

Karst, Kenneth L. Belonging to America: Equal Citizenship and the Constitution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. 2 vols. New York: Harper, 1944. Explores the tension between a political creed centered on equality and cultural practices of racial discrimination.

Nelson, William E. The Fourteenth Amendment: From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Pole, J. R. The Pursuit of Equality in American History. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Smith, Rogers M. Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Edited by J. P. Mayer. Translated by George Lawrence. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. The classic exposition of egalitarianism and its tendencies in the United States.

Russell L.Hanson

See alsoCivil Rights and Liberties ; Locke's Political Philosophy ; Race Relations ; Women's Rights Movement ; andvol. 9:The Equality of the Sexes .

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