Equality of outcome, equality of condition, or equality of results is a political concept which is central to some political ideologies and is used regularly in political discourse, often in contrast to the term equality of opportunity. It describes a state in which people have approximately the same material wealth and income, or in which the general economic conditions of their lives are alike. Achieving equal results generally entails reducing or eliminating material inequalities between individuals or households in a society and usually involves a transfer of income or wealth from wealthier to poorer individuals, or adopting other measures to promote equality of condition. A related way of defining equality of outcome is to think of it as "equality in the central and valuable things in life". One account in the Journal of Political Philosophy suggested that the term meant "equalising where people end up rather than where or how they begin", but described this sense of the term as "simplistic" since it failed to identify what was supposed to be made equal.
Equality of outcome is often compared to related concepts of equality, particularly with equality of opportunity. Generally, most senses of the concept of equality are controversial and are seen differently by people having different political perspectives, but of all of the terms relating to equality, equality of outcome is the most "controversial" or "contentious".
— Mark Cooray, 1996
In political philosophy, there are differing views whether equal outcomes are beneficial or not. One view is that there is a moral basis for equality of outcome, but that means to achieve such an outcome can be malevolent. Equality of outcome can be a good thing after it has been achieved since it reflects the natural "interdependence of citizens in a highly organized economy" and provides a "basis for social policies" which foster harmony and good will, including social cohesion and reduced jealousy. One writer suggested greater socioeconomic equality was "indispensable if we want to realise our shared commonsense values of societal fairness". In his 1987 book The Passion for Equality, analyst Kenneth Cauthen suggested that there were moral underpinnings for having equal outcomes because there is a common good—which people both contribute to and receive benefits from—and therefore should be enjoyed in common. Cauthen argued that this was a fundamental basis for both equality of opportunity as well as equality of outcome. Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, analyst George Packer argued that "inequality undermines democracy" in the United States partially because it "hardens society into a class system, imprisoning people in the circumstances of their birth". Packer elaborated that inequality "corrodes trust among fellow citizens" and compared it to an "odorless gas which pervades every corner" of the nation.
An opposing view is that equality of outcomes is not beneficial overall for society since it dampens motivation necessary for humans to achieve great things, such as new inventions, intellectual discoveries and artistic breakthroughs. According to this view, economic wealth and social status are rewards needed to spur such activity and with these rewards diminished, then achievements which will ultimately benefit everybody will not happen as frequently.
If equality of outcomes is seen as beneficial for society and if people have differing levels of material wealth and social prestige in the present, then methods to transform a society towards one with greater equality of outcomes is problematic. A mainstream view is that mechanisms to achieve equal outcomes—to take a society and with unequal socioeconomic levels and force it to equal outcomes—are fraught with moral as well as practical problems since they often involve political coercion to compel the transfer.
There is also general agreement that outcomes matter. In one report in Britain, unequal outcomes in terms of personal wealth had a strong impact on average life expectancy, such that wealthier people tended to live seven years longer than poorer people and that egalitarian nations tended to have fewer problems with societal issues such as mental illness, violence, teenage pregnancy and other social problems. Authors of the book The Spirit Level contended that "more equal societies almost always do better" on other measures and as a result striving for equal outcomes can have overall beneficial effects for everybody.
In his A Theory of Justice (1971), philosopher John Rawls developed a "second principle of justice" that economic and social inequalities can only be justified if they benefit the most disadvantaged members of society. Rawls further claims that all economically and socially privileged positions must be open to all people equally. Rawls argues that the inequality between a doctor's salary and a grocery clerk's is only acceptable if this is the only way to encourage the training of sufficient numbers of doctors, preventing an unacceptable decline in the availability of medical care (which would therefore disadvantage everyone). Writing in The New York Times, analyst Paul Krugman agreed with Rawls' position in which both equality of opportunity and equality of outcome were linked and suggested that "we should try to create the society each of us would want if we didn’t know in advance who we’d be". Krugman favored a society in which hard-working and talented people can get rewarded for their efforts, but in which there was a "social safety net" created by taxes to help the less fortunate.
The German economist and philosopher Karl Marx is sometimes mistakenly characterized as an egalitarian and a proponent of equality of outcome and the economic systems of socialism and communism are sometimes misconstrued as being based on equality of outcome. In reality, Marx eschewed the entire concept of equality as abstract and bourgeois in nature, focusing his analysis on more concrete issues such as opposition to exploitation based on economic and materialist logic. Marx renounced theorizing on moral concepts and refrained from advocating principles of justice. Marx's views on equality were informed by his analysis of the development of the productive forces in society.
Socialism is based on a principle of distribution whereby individuals receive compensation proportional to the amount of energy and labor they contribute to production ("To each according to his contribution"), which by definition precludes equal outcomes in income distribution.
In Marxist theory, communism is based on a principle whereby access to goods and services is based on free and open access (often referred to as distribution based on one's needs in the literature); Marx stressed free access to the articles of consummation. The "equality" in a communist society is thus not about total equality or equality of outcome, but about equal and free access to the articles of consummation. Marx argued that free access to consumption would enable individuals to overcome alienation.
Despite this, socialists, communists and Marxists believe that by eliminating exploitation their respective principle of compensation will lead to emancipation and greater equality than that found in capitalism because there would be no inequality arising from private ownership of productive property.
Perhaps the most insistent proponent of equality of outcome in modern political discourse was Fabian socialist, political thinker and dramatist Bernard Shaw (1856–1950). As opposed to Marxists, Shaw would have socialists place more emphasis on distribution rather than production. He developed his ideas on economic equality (and its implications for social, democratic, legal, military and gender concerns) in lectures and articles in the ten years following the writing of his 1905 play on poverty and power, Major Barbara, at the same time as his Fabian colleague Beatrice Webb as primary author of the 1909 Minority Report on the Poor Law, along with her husband Sidney Webb, was proposing to abolish poverty in industrial societies by introducing what we now call the welfare state. In the 1907 preface to Major Barbara, Shaw was probably the first to argue for what he called "Universal Pensions for Life", now known as universal incomes. Following major lectures on equality in 1910 and 1913, he gave his fullest exposition of economic equality in a series of six highly publicized Fabian public lectures at the end of 1914, “On Redistribution of Income”—a phrase, as he put it at the time, that he wanted to get into circulation. Although largely unacknowledged, most of the terms of the equality debate since (such as, for example, John Rawls and many recent writers on inequality) are as outlined in some detail in Shaw’s 1914 series of lectures, where he argued for a gradual incremental process towards equal incomes, mostly by levelling-up from the bottom though union activity and labor laws, minimum and basic incomes as well as by using such mechanisms as income and wealth (inheritance) taxes to prevent incomes rising at the top. In the end, the goal would have been achieved not at absolute equality, but when any remaining income differences would not yield any significant social difference. Like the later Fabian, W. H. Tawney, who further developed the equality debate, Shaw considered equality of opportunity as virtually meaningless without economic equality. Shaw later expanded his pre-World War One work on equality into his 1928 political magnum opus, Socialism and Capitalism">The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.
Both equality of outcome and equality of opportunity have been contrasted to a great extent. When evaluated in a simple context, the more preferred term in contemporary political discourse is equality of opportunity (or, meaning the same thing, the common variant "equal opportunities"), which the public as well as individual commentators see as the nicer or more "well-mannered" of the two terms. The term equality of outcome is seen as more controversial and is viewed skeptically. A mainstream political view is that the comparison of the two terms is valid, but that they are somewhat mutually exclusive in the sense that striving for either type of equality would require sacrificing the other to an extent and that achieving equality of opportunity necessarily brings about "certain inequalities of outcome". For example, striving for equal outcomes might require discriminating between groups to achieve these outcomes; or striving for equal opportunities in some types of treatment might lead to unequal results. Policies that seek an equality of outcome often require a deviation from the strict application of concepts such as meritocracy and legal notions of equality before the law for all citizens. Equality seeking policies may also have a redistributive focus.
However, the two concepts are not always cleanly contrasted since the notion of equality is complex. Some analysts see the two concepts not as polar opposites but as highly related such that they can not be understood without considering the other term. One writer suggested it was unrealistic to think about equality of opportunity in isolation without considering inequalities of income and wealth. Another agreed that it is impossible to understand equality without some assessment of outcomes. A third writer suggested that trying to pretend that the two concepts were "fundamentally different" was an error along the lines of a conceit.
In contemporary political discourse, of the two concepts equality of outcome has sometimes been criticized as the "politics of envy" and is often seen as more "controversial" than equality of opportunity. One wrote that "equality of opportunity is then set up as the mild-mannered alternative to the craziness of outcome equality". One theorist suggested that an over-emphasis on either type of equality can "come into conflict with individual freedom and merit".
Critics of equality of opportunity note that while it is relatively easier to deal with unfairness for people with different races or genders, it is much harder to deal with social class since "one can never entirely extract people from their ancestry and upbringing". As a result, critics contend that efforts to bring fairness by equal opportunity are stymied by the difficulty of people having differing starting points at the beginning of the socio-economic competition. A person born into an upper-middle-class family will have greater advantages by the mere fact of birth than a person born into poverty.
One newspaper account criticized discussion by politicians on the subject of equality as "weasely" and thought that the term was politically correct and vague. Furthermore, when comparing equality of opportunity with equality of outcome, the sense was that the latter type was "worse" for society. Equality of outcome may be incorporated into a philosophy that ultimately seeks equality of opportunity. Moving towards a higher equality of outcome (albeit not perfectly equal) can lead to an environment more adept at providing equality of opportunity by eliminating conditions that restrict the possibility for members of society to fulfill their potential. For example, a child born in a poor, dangerous neighborhood with poor schools and little access to healthcare may be significantly disadvantaged in his attempts to maximize use of talents, no matter how fine his work ethic. Thus even proponents of meritocracy may promote some level of equality of outcome in order to create a society capable of truly providing equality of opportunity.
While outcomes can usually be measured with a great degree of precision, it is much more difficult to measure the intangible nature of opportunities. That is one reason why many proponents of equal opportunity use measures of equality of outcome to judge success. Analyst Anne Phillips argued that the proper way to assess the effectiveness of the hard-to-measure concept of equality of opportunity is by the extent of the equality of outcome. Nevertheless, she described a single criterion of equality of outcome as problematic—the measure of "preference satisfaction" was "ideologically loaded" while other measures such as income or wealth were inadequate and she advocated an approach which combined data about resources, occupations and roles.
To the extent that inequalities can be passed from one generation to another through tangible gifts and wealth inheritance, some claim that equality of opportunity for children cannot be achieved without equality of outcome for parents. Moreover, access to social institutions is affected by equality of outcome and it is further claimed that rigging equality of outcome can be a way to prevent co-option of non-economic institutions important to social control and policy formation, such as the legal system, media or the electoral process, by powerful individuals or coalitions of wealthy people.
Purportedly, greater equality of outcome is likely to reduce relative poverty, leading to a more cohesive society. However, if taken to an extreme it may lead to greater absolute poverty, if it negatively affects a country's GDP by damaging workers' sense of work ethic by destroying incentives to work harder. Critics of equality of outcome believe that it is more important to raise the standard of living of the poorest in absolute terms. Some critics additionally disagree with the concept of equality of outcome on philosophical grounds. Still others note that poor people of low social status often have a drive, hunger and ambition which ultimately lets them achieve better economic and social outcomes than their initially more advantaged rivals.
A related argument that is often encountered in education, especially in the debates on the grammar school in the United Kingdom and in the debates on gifted education in various countries, says that people by nature have differing levels of ability and initiative which result in some achieving better outcomes than others and it is therefore impossible to ensure equality of outcome without imposing inequality of opportunity.
The concept of equality of outcome is an important one in battling between differing political positions since the concept of equality was overall seen as positive and an important foundation which is "deeply embedded in the fabric of modern politics". There is much political jousting over what exactly equality means. It is not a new phenomenon; battling between so-called haves and have-nots has happened throughout human civilization and was a focus of philosophers such as Aristotle in his treatise Politics (Aristotle)">Politics. In The Guardian, analyst Julian Gloverrote wrote that equality challenged both left-leaning and right-leaning positions and suggested that the task of left-leaning advocates is to "understand the impossibility and undesirability of equality" while the task for right-leaning advocates was to "realise that a divided and hierarchical society cannot – in the best sense of that word – be fair".
Equality of autonomy – that is, equality in the degree of empowerment people have to make decisions affecting their lives, how much choice and control they have given their circumstances....
the offering of employment, pay, or promotion equally to all, without discrimination as to sex, race, colour, disability, etc.
(thesaurus) equal opportunity - the right to equivalent opportunities for employment regardless of race or color or sex or national origin
nondiscrimination in employment esp. as offered by an equal opportunity employer – a context in which there is no discrimination esp. with regard to sex, race, or social standing <alcoholism has become an equal opportunity disease — Carol Kitman>
Absence of discrimination, as in the workplace, based on race, color, age, gender, national origin, religion, or mental or physical disability
... "equality of outcome" which, as every Telegraph journalist knows, is a Bad Thing and, anyway, "impossible". ...
his standard has been used to define fairness in lending, housing, hiring, wage and salary levels, job promotion, voting rights ...
(see page 47)...
(page 36) ... A second meaning of equality is equality of opportunity, giving each person the right to develop to his or her potential....
... more equal life chances. Amartya Sen calls this equality of autonomy: that the ability and means to choose our life course should be spread as equally as possible across society. ...
(equality of autonomy) Amartya Sen ... aims that intervention at the fostering of people's self-creation rather than their living conditions. ...
... Equality of process – dealing with inequalities in treatment through discrimination by other individuals and groups, or by institutions and systems, including not being treated with dignity and respect.
There are three forms of equality: equality of outcome, of opportunity, and of perception. Equality of perception is the most basic: it dictates that for people to be equal, each person should be perceived as being of equal worth. ...
(page 136) There is a common good to which we contribute and from which we receive as members of a common system....
Volume 90, Number 6 (see pages 29 and 31)
...“more equal societies almost always do better”. ...
My vision of economic morality is more or less Rawlsian: we should try to create the society each of us would want if we didn’t know in advance who we’d be....
In his 1871 Critique of the Gotha Program, Karl Marx enunciated the ideal goal of pure communism as being ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’ This does not imply complete equality of income, as people have different needs, for example, different family sizes or health problems. Marx contrasted this goal with that of socialism, which would be ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his work.'
Communism would mean free distribution of goods and services. The communist slogan, 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs' (as opposed to 'work') would then rule
Marx distinguishes between two phases of marketless communism: an initial phase, with labor vouchers, and a higher phase, with free access.
The point here is only that Americans do not seem to mind about the widening inequality of income and wealth as much as you might expect them to in current circumstances. ...
(page 292+) Conflict 3: Equal Opportunity versus Equality of Outcome ... By emphasizing on principle, the other conflicting one may have to be sacrificed.
...Society and government can refuse race or gender prejudice simply by not being prejudicial. But class is not so easy: one can never entirely extract people from their ancestry and upbringing....
'Equality', you see, is a weaselly, politically correct word that means either nothing or, worse, 'equality of outcome'. Imagine. From now on, we are going to have 'fairness' and equality of opportunity. ...
In the early days of New Labour it is said a media adviser whispered into an ambitious minister's ear after an interview: "We don't say equality, we say fairness." The former reeked of socialism – all taxes, empowerment schemes and regulation. The latter was as inoffensive as a scented candle. Everyone can agree to be fair – which is the problem.
Conservatives believe in inequality of opportunity and inequality of outcome. Liberals believe in equality of opportunity and inequality of outcome. Socialists believe in inequality of opportunity and equality of outcome.
... Now it was time to address the economic injustice that kept almost half the black population below the poverty line, to turn equality of opportunity into equality of outcome.
The fundamental principle of centrism in the 1990s was that people would neither be left to fend for themselves nor guaranteed equality of outcome – they would be given the tools they needed to achieve the American dream if they worked hard.