Is it Equality or Equity?

By Merrill Ring

There is a recent word floating around political discourse: equity. The idea that it means something other than the good old fashioned American dream of equality is mistaken. It is inequality that harms us and the ideal is equality.

I have been perplexed for some time by the occurrence of the word ‘equity’ when the issue has been about equality. I thought perhaps that it was just a new way of talking about equality, indulged in by some people. My inability to see some point to the use of equity language was because the only understanding of equity that I had was in such matters as the equity one has one’s house (say) – the amount of the monetary stake you might have in something – and that has nothing to do with equality.

Then I happened to be sent a cartoon that contrasted equality and equity and that led which me to understand why the word ‘equity’ was occurring in political discussions. Understanding, of course, is not the same as agreeing. If the cartoon expresses what is intended by the introduction of equity talk into political argument, then I think it quite mistaken and in need of correction.

Given the possibility that other people have bumped into the recent language and have wondered what was going on, I have decided to write this. There are also people who have used the equity terminology thinking that it is something called for by the issue spotlighted by the cartoon – this is addressed to them also.

So one must start with the cartoon. It consists of two panels, one labeled equality, the other equity. In each three boys are trying to see a baseball game by looking over a fence. The boys all differ in height – one is tall, one is small and one is in between. They therefore have quite different prospects for seeing the game over the fence.

In the panel labeled ‘Equality’ each boy has been supplied with something to stand on, a box say, in order to see the game. The boxes are of exactly the same size, height. The tall boy, who could see over the fence anyway, now has his line of sight well above the top of the fence. The medium sized boy now is able to, more or less, see over the top of the fence as his eye level is right at the top. However, the smaller boy is not helped at all by the box he is standing on as it is not high enough to raise his eye level enough to see the game.

This panel is said to represent Equality. Each boy, in order to give them equal opportunity to see the game, is given exactly the same sized box – they are treated equally in the assets they are given to improve their opportunity. But clearly that equal treatment does not provide equal opportunity for them to watch the game. If equality is the aim, then this technique is a failure.

So we reach the second panel, the one representing Equity.
In it the boys are not given the same number of boxes to stand on. The tall boy receives one box, the middle-sized boy 2 and the really short one gets 3 boxes. Their eye levels are now at the same height and they have an equal opportunity to see what is happening on the other side of the fence. That, the cartoon, proclaims ,is Equity. Equity is thus an improvement on Equality.

The point is that we should seek equity in making political arrangements not equality. The old progressive favorite has to go.

Let me be clear at the start. I agree that if we are to provide equal opportunity in the cartoon case – and in other more important cases – we must do what the second panel requires: the assets provided must genuinely provide equal opportunity.

But what is amiss with the cartoon is that the first panel is a cartoonish way of representing Equality. It is simply a misunderstanding of what equality as a political value requires. What is required for equality is what the second panel exhibits. That is what equality in this case amounts to and the situation does not require the rejection of Equality as a value and the introduction of new terminology for the desired result.

Let me explain. Simply ask yourself ‘Does the first panel represent the achievement of equal opportunity?’ The answer is clearly no – equality has not been achieved by providing exactly the same, i.e. equal assets, to each boy. The idea that equality can be achieved by providing everyone with the same assets is a confusion between a description of what the problem to be solved is and a description of what is attempted by way of solution. Both involve the notion of equality but the purportedly equal solution does not solve the given problem.

Put another way, the idea of, the concept of, equality does not require that only certain solutions to problems of inequality count as being equal treatment.

Let me rehash (briefly) an issue of equality that I wrote about some time ago in this journal. The issue concerns the amount people should be fined for traffic violations. We have adopted the same confusion between problem and attempted solution in the matter of traffic fines. We fine every (say) violation of speeding precisely the same amount: perhaps $10 a mile over the speed limit. Thus, two people each going 50 mph in a 35 mph zone will be fined $150. (That is an application of the assumptions of the first panel in the cartoon: only here it is not giving assets but removing assets.) But suppose the one speeder has an income of $24k per year while the second speeder has an income of $500k per year. Is it fair, is it equal treatment, that they should pay the same amount once their financial situations are taken into account? (That is the equivalent issue to the matter of height in the cartoon.)

A fine is to cause suffering, pain, discomfort, affliction on the violator. Is that equal $10 per excessive mile causing the same amount of suffering on the two speeders? Of course not. The person making only $24k per year will suffer much more – and the person making $500k can continue speeding without feeling the pinch at all. As punishments are inflictions of suffering and if they are supposed to have deterrent value, then the two speeders, where the amount fined is the same (equal), will be treated unequally.

The solution, adopted in some other countries, is to match the amount of a fine to the income or wealth level of the person who broke the law. That is what the second panel in the cartoon recommends.

But the point is that that is what equal treatment amounts to. It does not require the denigration of the concept of equality and the introduction of new terminology (equity) to make the point. Equal treatment will do just fine.

There is one further point that I want to make. While it is a mistake to think that equality requires, say, the boys getting the same number of same sized boxes in order to treat them equally, nonetheless that kind of solution does play a special role in our talk of equality and inequality. Notice that in the speeding case the end of the story was that what we want to inflict upon speeders is equal amounts of suffering and/or equal amounts of deterrent. We would also regard fining the person making $24k a single dollar while we fine the person making $500k $499k for the same offense. The suffering caused is not the same, is not equal. So, the supposition that equality requires equal amounts of assistance or penalties is in fact a first approximation to the truth – but it is not the last word on the subject.

Equity is not a needed concept in these discussions. The good old fashioned talk of equality is all that we need. ‘All men are created equal.’