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Study notes

Equality (Socialism)

  • Levels: AS, A Level, IB
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, IB

Equality is undoubtedly the defining goal of socialism. Socialists favour a more equal distribution of wealth and income within society. 

The rallying cry of equality has been heard from many a socialist throughout the ages. However, we must be clear on the meaning of equality. Socialists favour a more equal distribution of wealth and income within society. This is in sharp contrast to liberals and to some extent conservatives who favour equality of opportunity (albeit for slightly different reasons).

With regards to equality, it is once again important to identify the distinctions between the various strands of socialism. 

Social democrats such as Anthony Crosland assert that all of us have an equal worth regardless of social background. A more even distribution of wealth via progressive taxation, a welfare state based upon universal benefits and a system of comprehensive education all help to achieve a more equal society. This moderate form of socialism seeks to empower the individual from the shackles of the capitalist system. 

Those further to the left believe that the state should play a more prominent role within the management of the economy. Only by a significant level of state involvement can we truly achieve an egalitarian society. Democratic socialists reject the social democratic argument that the forces of capitalism can be tamed and therefore humanised. Capitalism is simply incompatible with the socialist goal of equality. The only shared ground between social democrats and democratic socialists concerns their support for the parliamentary path.

As a consequence of their particular world-view, Marxists take a fundamentalist position. Each stage of history has been characterised by class conflict, and it is only via the creation of a communist society that this conflict can end. We must take a great leap forward to create a classless society based upon communism. Crucially, the path towards socialism is unavailable under a parliamentary system dominated by the vested interests of the ruling class.

As one would expect, there is a robust critique of the socialist position on equality from both liberals and conservatives. 

Perhaps the most powerful argument at their disposal is that society can never truly be equal. Whereas equality of opportunity may be achievable in some form, any attempt to create an even distribution of wealth within society is contrary to our basic nature. The socialist shibboleth of equality means a levelling down whilst most of us want to get ahead in life. Ultimately, capitalism offers much greater opportunities for people to improve their living standards than socialism ever could. Measures that seek to impose equality are both illiberal and will undermine the incentive to work hard and improve our station in life.

Those arguments made in favour of a more equal society have enjoyed something of an intellectual revival in response to the credit crunch. 

In a collaborative work, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson (2010) put forward a persuasive case in favour of greater levels of equality. Their theme is a simple one; equality benefits all members of society in terms of higher life expectancy, greater levels of happiness, lower levels of poverty and lower crime rates. Backed up by an extensive range of statistical data, they demonstrate that highly unequal societies suffer a lower standard of living than countries with a more even spread of wealth and income (most notably the social democratic approach of Scandinavian countries). 

More recently, the economist Thomas Piketty (2013) argues that wealth inequality will continue to increase because the rate of return on capital in developed countries is much greater than the rate of economic growth. Crucially, the market will not self-correct the situation as classical liberals believe. As such, the solution is a redistribution of wealth via progressive taxation on global wealth. 

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