Thursday, August 16, 2007

On the Different Facets of Equality and the American Constitution

The American Declaration of Independence immortally stated thus, “All men are created equal.” This phrase has ultimately shaped much of contemporary world history, with revolutions waged in its name, as oppressed peasants and workers struggled forth against exploitative landlords and capitalists, and colonial subjects freed themselves from the might of world empires. In present terms, the proverbial phrase has even been expanded to cover the equality of sex and gender, the equality of creed and religion, the equality of races and many other derivatives of the basic assumption that no monolithic legal-formal or political hierarchy must exist between different people. Indeed, the discourse on equality has already evolved from this simple statement that the basic definition of equality has been significantly debated upon, without finality, by scholars, intellectuals, policymakers and even the people themselves in their sovereign capacity. This paper seeks to discuss three forms of equality recognized by contemporary society – equality of opportunity, equality of starting conditions and equality of results.

Equality of opportunity is the creation of a social, political, economic and cultural environment in which people, regardless of their race, creed, gender and other social differentiations are not excluded from access to basic services such as healthcare, education, housing, land reform (for Third World countries), employment opportunities, among other social benefits which the state provides to its citizens. This definition does not disdain hierarchy per se, but wrongful justifications of the existence of such a hierarchy. The historic example of this is the racial segregation of African-Americans, where they were prevented from enrolling in universities because they were considered an inferior class based on the color of their skin. Equality of opportunity simply means that access to social goods, especially marginal and minimal ones, must always be available to all people that would seek its benefit such that a cancer-stricken Jew in Nazi Germany must be afforded adequate healthcare regardless of the Nazi hatred for his race. This, however, does not preclude the state from creating valid classifications in the exercise of its police powers, such as preventing persons who failed state bar examinations from practicing the legal profession due to the state interest ensuring the integrity of the judicial system and the administration of justice, and assigning mentally-ill patients to asylums and away from the rest of the population, in the interest of public safety and order.

Equality of outcome, on the other hand, is the result of the seeming immeasurability of the equality of opportunity in terms of measuring equality as it can be computed through the net worth of persons or families, thereby allowing an empirical equality analysis on a societal scale. It is an egalitarian theory that seeks to reduce the concrete material differences between groups of people or households in a society. Attempts by governments to achieve such a form of equality has been through a progressive taxation system, in which people in the higher incomes brackets necessarily pay more taxes than those in the lower income brackets. This has been done through the institution of income taxation, although sometimes governments, such as the Republic of the Philippines, have removed the income taxes of minimum-wage earners altogether while imposing heavy luxury taxes on the usual products of the rich. Another example is providing heavy agricultural subsidies and support services to rural farmers in the Third World, taking into consideration the expected low prices of agricultural products and the influx of competing cheap foreign agricultural goods.

Equality of starting conditions can be said to be halfway between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, albeit in a more radical sense. It is similar to equal opportunity insofar as it seeks objective fairness in the access of people to social goods. It is comparable to equality of outcome insofar as it does not depend on the abstract and conceptual equality of gender, race, creed, ideology, among others, but on the equality of the material conditions among the society’s people, though in a more literal sense. It is based on the idea that equality operates only until the time that society has provided the basic social goods equally to all persons or households, after which it is then up to the persons or households to decide for themselves how best to maximize the benefits given them. For example, a land reform program provides ten Venezuelan campesinos five hectares of high-grade land to till, in which after land transfer, the obligation of equality of the government will now have ceased for as long as it provided the ten campesinos the same starting conditions (high-grade land) as all the others.

The definition of equality in the declaration of independence, in my opinion, is a combination of the concept of equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. Equality of opportunity provides a concept of equality that destroys all irrational prejudices created by long-held unempirical presumptions by people. It can readily be asserted by any person, at any time, in which patent violations of this formal-legal equality occur. It provides individual protection to marginalized groups such as ethnic minorities and was even the rallying cry of the African-American civil rights movement and women’s suffrage movement. Equal opportunity is a beacon of democratic rights and welfare from state and even non-state interventions on the fundamental rights of the people. On the other hand, equality of outcome is also subsumed by the immortal phrase in the Declaration of Independence because it is a message to the state and its government to proactively implement laws and rules which would ensure that the wealth of society is relatively distributed across all income levels and not only benefiting a privileged class of people. It directs the state to evolve a progressive system of taxation in which the rich are taxed more than the working people through higher taxes on income and luxury goods, with its proceeds directly channeled to basic social services such as healthcare, education and housing. Equality of outcome also imposes a restraint on government overspending on less important appropriations such as funding war chests and military aid on friendly states for as long as social services are not adequately funded by government.

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