The issue of inequality seems to be forever with us. Eliminating income and wealth inequality is on the agenda of every democratic political platform, whether the inequality is based on gender, race, caste, or class. It has always been a concern, not only for India but for the whole world. The United Nations took a step to make the world a more equal place to live in the sustainable development goals of 2030. Let us first start by describing the term inequality.
Cambridge dictionary describes inequality as “the unfair situation in a society when some people have more opportunities than other people”. The United Nations further describes it as “the state of not being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities”. While the term itself is quite vast and has various interpretations, for simplicity, the two large umbrellas under which we can classify inequality would be economic inequality and social inequality. Both these categories are deeply intertwined and inequality in one often affects the inequality in another.
Perhaps the most quantified and calculated form of inequality is the economic variant. Even here, the most predominant forms of inequality measured are those of income and wealth. Income inequality is the disparity in the incomes commanded by the top percentile of the population in comparison to the bottom percentiles, while wealth inequality measures look to do the same but by calculating disparities in wealth instead of income.
Social inequality occurs when resources in a given society are distributed unevenly, typically through norms of allocation, that engender specific patterns along the lines of socially defined classes of persons. It is the differentiation in preference of access to social goods in society brought about by power, religion, kinship, prestige, race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and class.
The question is whether total equality is possible in the future?
According to me, total equality is neither possible nor desirable. This concept in itself is flawed and very utopian. This is something unrealistic and unachievable. It is not possible because people are born different, and there is nothing anyone can do about that, short of outlawing natural birth and starting to clone human beings. Even if one does, we would find that society grinds to a halt because different sorts of people are good at different jobs.
It is, however, desirable and possible to work to keep a reasonable balance in things. We can give everyone equal rights and equal obligations regarding the laws, and we can (and should) take a fraction of the benefits accruing to those who do best, and use it to rebalance things up to a certain point. For example, it is a good idea to provide access to education to everyone and not only the children whose parents can afford it.
Consequently, it is fair for people who do well to get some benefit from it, and it is also smart because this way self-interest will help motivate people to work harder.
If we don't do anything to compensate, then these privileges become inherited, and we get a class of hyper-privileged people who live a life of luxury for their entire lives on account of having inherited wealth. There is no fairness in that, it is not as if children who happen to have wealthy parents have done anything to deserve better odds in life. So, a middle-ground is the best. We must not try to make society entirely flat. Such an attempt would be doomed to fail, and would not be fair anyway.
However, do acknowledge that a partial rebalancing is needed to provide good opportunities to everyone, and a decent and respectable standard of living to those who, for whatever reason, do not have a stable income of their own.
Another thing that needs to be pointed out is that in the view of many economic analysts, equality comes at a cost. A high minimum wage reduces jobs. Generous government benefits discourage job searching. High taxes reduce incentives for saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. The result is low employment, stagnation, and mediocre living standards.
In my opinion, what we should be looking for is not equality but equity. Equity goes a step further and refers to offering varying levels of support depending upon the need to achieve greater fairness of outcomes. It is a type of positive discrimination that aims to counter the effects of traditional negative discrimination that a segment of the population tends to suffer. In my opinion, this would make our society a better place to live in.
The concept of equity would uplift the disadvantaged sections of the society and will try to make our society a better place for everyone. We will be able to focus on every section of society that has suffered in the past and uplift them to come on the same level as others. By unequal, I do not mean providing someone with less, but simply providing more to those who need it. If equality is the end goal, equity is the means to get there. It will ensure that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents.
On the other hand, equity is about giving people what they need, to make things fair. Until and unless the path is not fair, there is no point of equality. We need equity for making things fair and then only equality can be achieved. Without equity, equality would always be a distant dream. Hence, I believe we need to focus on equity rather than equality.