Global Inequality: Should freedom be valued above equity?
The revised wording for the 2014-2015 NCFCA Lincoln-Douglas topic is:
Resolved: In the realm of economics, freedom ought to be valued above equity.
The topics’ original wording was: Resolved: Economic freedom ought to be valued above economic equality. I mention the original wording to give readers a sense of the clash of ideas and values that the resolution’s framers originally wanted. The original resolution is timely as the debate over income inequality continues among today’s scholars, politicians, and media commentators. As an economist and economic historian, I like the original wording better. After all, it has the word “economic” in it twice rather than just once.
However, like a number of past LD resolutions, the original wording would have unduly burdened the negative: “Hi, I’m Sara and I’m a socialist, and today I’ll argue that you should be a socialist too.”
Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but for most, promoting “economic equality” sounds more like promoting equality of income or more equality of wealth, both of which usually mean more taxes and regulations. Though this is a valuable topic and hotly debated across the United States, experienced debaters know they would be condemned to spend each negative round facing steely-eyed community judges eager to set them straight on the harms of economic equality.
So, students have a revised resolution with the intriguing principle of “equity” as a value to clash with freedom, all set in the “realm of economics.”
However, in the realm of economics, “equity” refers to stocks as opposed to bonds. Equity capital is the way firms raise money to launch their enterprise with IPOs (initial public offerings) and those who buy stock are taking equity positions, that is, they own a share, or shares, in the company. They have equity. Those who loan money to a company, say by purchasing bonds offered by Apple, Oracle, GE, or Ford do not have equity positions. That is, their ownership of company bonds doesn’t give them an ownership share. Instead, the company has borrowed from them and promised to pay interest on the loan, and to pay them back in full at a set time.
Outside the realm of economics, my Mac Dictionary offers this first definition “The quality of being fair and impartial: equity of treatment.”
So with this definition the resolution would read: In the realm of economics, freedom ought to be valued above [the quality of being fair and impartial].
When I Google “equity versus equality” I get mostly posts on gender equity, like this SGBA e-Learning Resource page titled: “Distinguish between Equity and Equality.” The article says, “Equity, as we have seen, …” so I click back to see what we have seen about equity:
Equity is defined as the quality of being fair, unbiased, and just. In other words, equity involves ensuring that everyone has access to the resources, opportunities, power and responsibility they need to reach their full, healthy potential as well as making changes so that unfair differences may be understood and addressed.
After reading this my first thought was, who are these people? After many clicks in turns out we are in the realm of “sex- and gender-based analysis (SGBA),” brought to us by the Canadian government.
The key phrase in the definition above is, I think, “In other words” because the long sentence that follows takes a huge leap from the “quality of being fair, unbiased, and just” definition of the first sentence.
Things get much more complicated on the “Distinguish between Equity and Equality” page which notes “Equity, as we have seen, involves trying to understand and give people what they need to enjoy full, healthy lives.”
Would religion and faith be something people “need” to enjoy full, healthy lives? If so, how would the Canadian government propose to give religion and faith to people? In any case, readers are offered a mystifying illustration of the claimed difference between equity and equality:
The concept of equality would have us treat the runners in exactly the same way, ensuring that they all start at the same place on the track. On the surface, this seems fair.
But we know that runners in the inside lanes have a distinct advantage over runners in the outer lanes because the distance they have to travel is shorter. As a result, equality – starting at the same place – doesn’t result in fairness.
The concept of equity, in contrast, would lead us to stagger the starting positions of the runners in order to offset the disadvantages facing those in the outer lanes. In this case, different or tailored treatment is a surer path to fairness and justice than the same treatment.
Well, this seems instead an example of staggering illogic. Would anyone else
really claim that starting runnings at the same place on an oval track is an example of equality? Perhaps someone who hadn’t looked ahead to see the track was oval, or who wasn’t familiar with geometry or track and field.
For a gender-equity website, there are I think better examples. Equality would be having all runners race the same distance (necessitating staggered starts on oval tracks). Equity could be staggering starting positions further on the basis of how fast the runners are. This could be called a race on the basis of “need,” as in how much of a head-start do slower runners need to have a chance of winning. A gender-equity race would tend to place men quite a bit further back from women. Would such staggered races be fair? Well, one problem is that some people practice sports like track, and through practice they get faster.
This comes down to deciding if equality of opportunity matters more, or instead that equality of results should be a goal. And it is not just practice that gives some competitors an advantage. My shirts, in order to fit my arms, require a 36″ sleeve length. That’s longer than most arms, and it makes it harder to find shirts that fit. But having long arms gives me a significant advantage in basketball. I shoot baskets over shorter and shorter-armed players, block more shots, and grab more rebounds with less effort. So is it unfair that I have a harder time finding shirts that fit, or unfair that long arms provide an “unearned” advantage on the basketball court (or both)?
I remember reading about an Olympic swimmer whose measured lung capacity turned out to be fifty percent higher than average. That gave her a significant advantage in swimming competition. She practiced hard for years, but no amount of practice would likely make average people competitive in the Olympics.
But that’s okay. Each of us has special skills and potentials, and we are called upon to try hard and over time learn to exploit and accommodate our strengths and weaknesses.
Googling equity and equality also brings up this Darrow Miller and Friend page, titled Is Social Justice About Equality or Equity?Miller writes from a Christian perspective:
Equity assumes the diverse, unique individuality of each person. While people are different, they are to be treated equally before the law; they are treated fairly. The uniqueness or diversity of people is a cause for celebration, not discrimination. Equity means equal rights and responsibilities and equality before the law, for all citizens. This is a product of freedom. The goal is equity among diverse peoples.
Equality, in contrast, assumes sameness, uniformity, interchangeability. Some advocate for an equal starting place – a level playing field for every citizen; others argue for equal outcomes – everyone has the same in the end. The uniqueness of individuals is often despised. The goal of equality is to make diverse people all the same.
The larger debate over the claim of growing income-equality in the United States and around the world argues that significant income and wealth differences create an inherent unfairness that makes life harder for those with lower incomes. French economist Thomas Piketty has pushed this topic to the front page of blogs, magazines, websites, and newspapers with his new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Tyler Cowen discusses Capital in this Foreign Affairs article. There have been about a bazillion articles and posts both supporting and attacking Piketty’s book and his research claims on inequality. The Marginal Revolution website has many posts linking to and discussing Piketty’s research here. This timeless and dateless post by Phillip Magness “Piketty Tricketty & Historical US Wealth Data” notes various problems with the data Piketty inequality claims rest on.
This page and short LearnLiberty.org video, Is Fixing Inequality A Matter of Justice?, features a debate over whether the state should step in to help those in need.
Central to the ongoing debate over the value of equity or equality as a goal is the opportunity cost of efforts to achieve these goals. Any policy that raises taxes or tries via regulations or subsidies to move societies toward a “more equal” or “more equitable” state of affairs generally does so by reducing economic freedom. Yet the increase in economic freedom in recent decades, especially in China, India, and Africa, has had astonishing benefit in bringing previously unimaginable income gains to hundreds of millions in the developing world. Income and wealth inequality has increased in China and India at the same time gains by those with low and middle income have been astonishing and unmatched in the history of the world.
Here is a video on this subject by Michael Cox and The Fund for American Studies: