Economic Equality vs. Equality of Opportunity

Challenges of Democracy
Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia

One of the biggest hurdles democracy had to overcome in order to be genuine was the question of whether political equality should be granted to individuals who were economically unequal. In other words, should property qualifications for voting be abolished? When the United States Constitution was adopted, there were property qualifications for voting in the states. By the time Andrew Jackson left the White House in 1837, these limitations on voting rights, which applied to white males only, had generally been abolished. Women and slaves still could not vote, but the abolition of limitations on voting rights was a large step in making democracy true to its name.

During the 19th century, largely as a result of the French Revolution, the opposite question was posed by many political writers. Should those who are politically equal be made economically equal by the force of government power? Socialist and Communist writers, most notably Karl Marx, thought so. They proposed that society, whether peacefully or by revolution, be made over so that a genuine equality of economic conditions would prevail.

Attempts to achieve such societies were made in the 20th century. The best-known experiments involved revolutions -- Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Nicaraguan, Indochinese, and others. More peaceful means were used in England, Sweden, Norway, and other welfare states. The United States, though not as extensively a welfare state, has used peaceful means to achieve some measure of what is perceived to be economic justice. Where the structure of the welfare state was achieved peacefully, it was often preceded by decades of labor strife. But revolutions were avoided, and laws were passed that tried to redistribute wealth.

Whether by revolution or legislation, history seems to show that attempts to create economic democracy are destined for failure. Economic forces absolutely defy political legislation aimed at equality. The stronger the attempt to install economic equality, the greater the failure of the economy itself. The general result has been an equality of poverty.

If, however, economic democracy is defined as providing equality of opportunity for all -- rather than equal economic status for all -- then this type of democracy has been at least partially achieved by societies that do not demand the same level of prosperity for everyone. (The United States, Great Britain, and Japan serve as examples.)

Democracy cannot be guaranteed success or permanence. Many democracies have been overthrown. Those in ancient Greece succumbed to tyrants and, finally, to the kings of Macedon in the 4th century BC. Rome became an empire. The Weimar Republic in Germany disintegrated into dictatorship in 1933.

Democracy can collapse for a variety of reasons. Economic or political adversities can lead to popular demands for remedies. Politicians eager for power offer remedies, but, once they have seized power, the leaders become tyrants. This happened in Russia in 1917 and in Italy in the 1920s. In the United States during the Great Depression there were many populist leaders who sought unlimited power for themselves by offering solutions to the crisis.

Representative democracy can fail when representatives cease to represent those who elect them. Elected officials, in order to stay in office, frequently serve special interests or foreign governments instead of their constituents. This failure in representation, however, is mostly the fault of the citizenry. Through lack of education, lack of interest, and unwillingness to be informed on complex issues, the citizens abdicate their responsibilities and turn them over to officials and party leaders. Hence, a division between government and the citizens begins to emerge; and democracy is therefore diminished.

Money is not the root of evil. It is the love of its power that is evil.

Wealth is power, and it can corrupt leaders. It is a venal servant yet a tyrant master.

Grant someone great wealth, and you will test his integrity. Give him power, and you will discover his true character.

Corruption is an oligarchy of a dishonest leadership.