On Equality And Inequality

Talk by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett co-authors of "The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger" recorded January 8, 2010 at Hogness Auditorium, University of Washington, Seattle.

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The Inequalities of Equality
All Things Being Equal, Not Everything Can Be Equal
By Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Ignatius Insight
Originally Published: October 12, 2005

"The idea of the equality of man is in substance simply the idea of the importance of man." — G. K. Chesterton, A Short History of England


Anyone who has ever thought about the subject of "equality" knows that, however noble sounding, it is an intellectual minefield. Equality is the idea that makes most normal people feel a sense of dizziness when reading a book like Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Of the French triad, "liberty, equality, and fraternity," equality is by far the most slippery and ambiguous. Much of modern political thought has been devoted to producing "equality," usually at the expense of liberty or fraternity, if not sanity. Modern thought has also had to sit by and realize not only that inequality won’t go away, but that the noble efforts to be rid of it often have totalitarian implications.

No reader of Plato can entirely forget these things, which is one of the reasons why we still read him. The most perfect human "equality" imaginable, after all, is contained in the contemporary proposals of massive cloning of human beings so that everyone would presumably have the identical genes and corpus. Equality equals identity. The system would also rid us of the necessity of "begetting," which is seen to be the root of inequality. This very proposal as something good is a form of madness.

All human beings have the same nature that sets them apart from other beings natural and transcendent. No human being is exactly the same in anything beginning with his cells, to the color of his eyes, to his willingness or unwillingness to practice virtue. Even though Hobbes postulated that human beings are approximately of equal strength, the differences among men in terms of talents, energy, vice, health, fingerprints, and endurance are enormous. Some of these differences are measurable; some are not.

Such differences, however, are themselves generally goods, things to be fostered. They represent a richness about our kind, not a defect They are intended to make possible, as Plato also said, a division of labor and a variety of specialized contribution that cause greater things to exist than would result if everyone had to do everything by himself. Everyone is better off because of the variety and difference of talents and capacities among us provided this exists within a spirit and reality of reciprocal exchange, including exchange of the highest things.

Moreover, a whole intellectual industry is devoted to what I call "gapism." Any "gap" in income or talent or material goods between rich and poor, this nation or that, or this person and that, is said to be a sign of injustice, imbalance, or evil. While this view practically ignores the whole history of how wealth came to be produced and distributed in the first place, the thesis is constantly repeated as if it were obvious, which it isn’t. As a result, we inaugurate agonizing crusades to right the imbalances. Massive efforts in unequal taxation and discriminatory policy initiatives are set in motion whereby these "gaps" are to be leveled down so that those who are said to suffer under them can feel more "equal."

Interestingly enough, studies in the history of envy show that often envy, the spiritual vice associated with equality and inequality, is more prevalent when people are more nearly equal than when they are not. This fact suggests that this "gap" analysis is missing something fundamental about human nature. Indeed, chances are that if we took a given population and somehow made them, on a given day, absolutely equal in terms of income and property, after a few years we would return to see that, in the meantime, by normal workings of exchange, talent, energy, and effort, some would have more, others less. The same inequality would return. Some people will be horrified by this result. Others will understand that inequalities are themselves a normal part of the human condition, something that explains why elements of aristocracy, the distinction between virtue and lack of it, have always existed in every society.

The further trouble is that not everyone wants or needs the same things. The philosopher in Greek thought, for instance, not to mention innumerable saints in Christian tradition, affirmed voluntary poverty. Many of the things that everyone else said he needed, the philosopher did not need or want. The philosopher could have been rich if he wanted to be. He knew how to create a monopoly. But he chose not to be rich so that he could be free, yes, imagine, free to do what he could not do if he were burdened with riches. Thus to make him "equal" in terms of material goods would prevent him from being "unequal" in terms of spiritual ones.


These initial remarks are occasioned by my brother having sent me an essay of David Brooks in the New York Times entitled, "An Elite Class Splits the Nation: Higher Education Is Now Causing Most of the Inequality in America." About the only thing worse than "gapism," I sometimes think, is such elite-class analysis, however popular. This rather frantic, but insightful, article informs us that we academics are causing "most of the inequality in America." If true, this is definitely a man-bites-dog sort of situation. Since the very purpose of higher education is, in a sense, to produce inequality, to find out who learns and who does not, who is willing to learn and who is not, it follows (so it is said) that institutions of higher learning are doing something subversive, setting the elite against the non-elite.

This essay on "neo-elitism" reminded me of the old statistics I used to read about the percentage of students who went to college in England, France, Germany, or Italy, in comparison to the much higher percentage who went to college in the United States. It turned out that a far higher percentage of students went to institutions of higher learning in the United States than in any of the European nations. Why? It turns out that the Europeans had a different idea about what higher education was for. They also recognized more frankly that not everyone was made for the academic or intellectual vocation. If we put people in institutions for which their talents did not fit them, what happened was either that we had to lower the standards or to give those students who could not hack the matter a huge inferiority complex.

In the meantime, the Americans did about the same thing that the Europeans did, only they called it something else. We established all sorts of institutions of "higher education" including junior colleges, city colleges, state colleges, technical schools, and huge multi-disciplined universities with a myriad of different kinds of degrees, as well as elite colleges and universities. When it comes to a really elite intellectual vocation, we did not really differ much from the Europeans who also have trade schools and programs for training those not in college, but they do not call these institutions, as we do, colleges.

Brooks argues that more people are coming out of high schools but are not going to college. Most studies I have seen of late indicate that our elite graduate schools–especially in the sciences–are more and more populated, not by Americans, but by foreign students. Our schools are becoming the training grounds for foreign elites. Moreover, our high school performance compared to other nations shows that the quality of secondary education is in constant decline no matter how much money we spend on it. Money is not really the answer to their problems. So perhaps something else is at issue besides the mere statistics about who does or does not go to college.

Brooks’ thesis is that those who are educated tend to pass on talents and wealth to their offspring so that we are creating a new class of those who enter and can survive in college. The universities, in being universities, are presumably at fault for not recruiting and training those who do not come from these well prepared familial backgrounds. Brooks also notes that those who are educated divorce less, vote more frequently, and even exercise more. I believe in earlier eras it was the upper crust who were said to divorce more, eat more, and exercise less, while the poorer classes stayed married, had a religious aversion to drink, and worked hard.

Behind this analysis, we must also consider the massive transfer of technology and service industries outside of the United States. This transfer is to be seen in the light of the radical decline of birth rates of Americans and Europeans. Immigration problems are, at bottom, a function of birth problems. Formerly, as Brooks argues, these industrial and service areas provided employment and opportunities to the non-college types to get ahead. Now, it is argued, the middle is evaporating so that what is left is only the very rich and the very poor, "gapism" run wild. The physical labor force in Europe and the States is becoming Muslim and Latino. It is because of this situation that critics like Pat Buchanan and others seek to restore American industry and jobs through governmental policy.

In one sense, this export of technological knowledge–we still are in the forefront of its invention–is what we have always wanted, namely, that the poorer nations learn more and more skills and acquire the capacity to care for themselves. Most of the current criticism is that our restrictive import laws (often because of union pressure to save high-cost jobs) have prevented industry in the poor countries from growing by normal market processes. Now that growth in the poorer world is happening, we think that it is a threat to our own well being. It may be, but not because of the transfer of technological know-how. More likely, it is because of the ideologies and religions that we see in China, the Islamic world, India, and other points of the globe that determine the use of such economic growth in terms of political power.

One of the ironies of this analysis, I think, is again its Platonic background. Though perhaps not seriously, Plato held in the fifth book of the Republic that inequalities were caused by families and property. The only way to get rid of such inequalities would be to prevent parents from bringing up their own children and thereby giving them unfair advantages. Communize families and property. Plato also suggested a kind of genetic engineering to produce only elites, along with governmental day-care centers and control of education to enforce them. Such things are not wholly unfamiliar to us. Our age is rather more Platonic in this sense than we want to admit.


A part of any understanding of education, especially higher education, has been the recognition that the function of education is to increase the inequalities for the good of the whole. This latter side involves the moral and religious notions of gift, charity, generosity, and sacrifice whereby those who have received education consciously recognize their responsibility to others, especially, in Brooks’ terms, of teaching others. The Christian notion that those in authority are to be there not for their own self-interest but for service to others is, more than we will admit, itself a part of the American tradition.

It is of some interest that when there is any sort of crisis throughout the world, it is our wealth and initiative that are looked to deal with it, be it floods, wars, earthquakes, or terrorism. We take this expectation for granted and seldom wonder where it came from. But it is something rather unique in the world. And a part of this effort is the simple idea that any nation can learn to take care of itself, provided that it recognize the meaning of free enterprise, justice, property, control of corruption, initiative, selection and control of leaders, profits, allowing one’s work to benefit also oneself and families, with a consciousness of generosity to others. And this latter is not solely or primarily a governmental thing, though is it government that can most easily foster or hinder it.

Brooks’ analysis is presented almost exclusively in terms of education and not of virtue or goodness. Aristotle was always the first to point out the limits of knowledge of moral things as opposed to the habits needed to put it to good usage. The real lesson Brooks seems to point to is that if families stay together, if they successfully teach children responsibility, honor, and the value of knowledge, if they learn and understand the consequence of vice of whatever sort, they will prosper.

It is often said, for instance, that if a woman wants to guarantee that she will be poor later in life, the easiest way to do so is to be divorced, not that there isn’t usually an irresponsible man involved. Yet, divorce is considered a "right," as if it has no consequences. The point is that what we need is not just educational institutions, but virtue-making institutions. This is the real danger, I might add, of religion, the classic virtue-encouraging source in our society, preaching "rights" and not virtue.

Let me say, in conclusion, a final word about universities. Universities, as we know them, were originally founded by the Church. They grew within a philosophic environment that understood justice and mercy, but also one that understood intelligence. Aquinas is famous for concerning himself with the problem of how to teach "beginners."

Universities did stand for the principle that everyone ought to be allowed to and encouraged to learn to the limit of his ability or desire (they are not the same). But this is a two-way street. It recognizes that inequalities will come forth since human beings do not have identical talents or desires to bring them forth. The answers that we are looking for must include virtue enhancing ideas and institutions, the understanding that the principal reason for many human problems is not lack of wealth or education, but lack of virtue.

But if we cannot admit that there is such a thing as virtue, then we will seek to solve an essentially spiritual problem with an intellectual problem, namely, more education. And this brings us up against the fact that criminals are also very shrewd and intelligent. The history of dope and its usage, of its relation to crime and the corruption of governments in the contemporary world, is surely not merely a question of the poor and uneducated. But the essential point I want to make is that education is, and should be, an inequality-making institution. How the resultant inequalities, which are as such to be praised, return to the common good of all is not itself primarily a question of education but of virtue.

When Chesterton remarked that "the idea of equality" is simply the "idea of the importance of man," he intended to include, I think, both the things in which men are equal and the things in which they are unequal. Both are necessary, both are, in principle, good; neither will go away. But they are intended to exist in harmony, something that depends on virtue, knowledge, generosity, and yes, sacrifice and probably faith.

The "inequalities of equality" are, paradoxically, what brings us closest to a proper notion of equality. This is one that sees the proportionate and objective differences in talent and education to be arrayed not against the less talented and less educated, but as means to bring all talent, properly developed, into a relation to a larger common good.

Men are equal; it is not birth but virtue that makes the difference." - Voltaire

"Democracy does not guarantee equality of conditions - it only guarantees equality of opportunity." -Irving Kristol