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Equality and Entitlement


Explanations > Politics > Equality and Entitlement

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A fundamental choice that governments have is the question of what 'equality' means and to what extent people are entitled to its aspects. We are wholly entitled only to that which is enshrined in law such that those who have less can invoke the law in order to achieve parity. We are socially entitled to that which others in our social groups cede to us by convention and shared values (such as helping us when we are in need).

Equality of opportunity includes the principle that all people are able to access career opportunities. This may be constrained by entitlement, for example whether employers must consider all applicants equally (regardless of gender, ethnicity, etc) or whether employers are entitled to use whatever selection criteria they want to use.

Equality of possession leads to all people being entitled to all things. This implies I cannot have more than you, but am I allowed to just take things from you? If this were true, then we would revert to a society of the strongest, in which inequality by might would assert itself. To make this work may need a pure communist society where nobody owns anything and equal distribution is enacted by a non-corrupt, completely fair government.

Social equality is a basic principle in redistributing wealth, and is a central concern of governments in deciding what taxes to charge and what welfare to provide. 


A right-wing political party adopts the belief of equality of opportunity but not possession (of resource such as money and influence). In other words, you can keep what you have and have what you want, but only if you (or your family) can pay for it. You are entitled to protection from others who may want to take what is yours.

A left-wing political party adopts a broader belief about equality, including social equality and equality of possession. This leads to them imposing higher taxes and establishing greater entitlement to welfare for those in need.


In a world that is far more liberal than it once was, a common concern is about equality, that everyone is basically the same. Indeed, social norms about entitlement often run ahead of the law. One person, according to this principle, is not born superior to another.

The question gets trickier when we consider the detail of what equality really means. Equality of opportunity means equal access to education and employment, something that is still an issue on several dimensions, such as gender and ethnicity. Equality of justice means we are all subject to the same laws. Equality of means suggests we should all be paid equally and perhaps even have equal wealth.

Questions of equality tend to trigger fierce argument about the entitlement of the individual to keep what they have earned versus the duty of all to help those in need. Paradoxically, both are based in beliefs about what is fair.

Equality is often challenged on grounds of effort, with the assumption that those who work harder deserve more. Another, more tenuous challenge is about birthright and inheritance. In this, those who gain from their family position are usually rather unwilling to give away any gifts or inheritance, while others apply the effort argument, that those who gain from their family's position or influence, or who inherit wealth, are not entitled to all of this.

Many of the world's revolutions have been driven by questions of equality, particularly where an elite possesses much of the resource and an under-privileged underclass rises up to demand and take more. This principle often appears in politics where politicians promise to 'take back control' and give the underclass more (or at least enough to gain votes and stave off revolution).

In decisions about welfare, the only real question is to where to draw the red line. Move the line one way, and you get more false positives and less false negatives. Move the other way for the reverse. A false positive happens where a person gets welfare where they do not deserve it. A false negative happens where a person is denied welfare where they really do deserve it.

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