equality is…

The ultimate goal of egalitarianism—and the western experiment in general—is to create a more just and tolerant society where humans of all backgrounds can thrive together in harmony.  This is all fine and dandy until one reflects upon what the word “equality” actually means, because without a clear definition, how are we ever to measure our progress; and for that matter, how can we even know what an ideal situation would look like to begin with?  Unfortunately, this lack of a clear definition often times results in confusion, frustration and mutual resentment between groups.  Here I’d like to explore the practical limitations to achieving equality by using thought experiments to help illustrate my point.  In a follow up post, I’ll consider ways we might be able to manage these obstacles to equality without necessarily giving up and throwing in the towel on the egalitarian dream.

Beyond “fairness”, equality in practice has multiple definitions depending on whom you ask, including but not limited to:  equality of outcome, equality of opportunity, equality of resources and moral equality (to learn more, I would recommend dusting up on the various conceptions of equality here).  Many reasonable people disagree on just what kind of equality is best for society.  And when they do agree, the next challenge is actually figuring out how to make that equality happen in a world full of difference, when difference itself is the ultimate enemy of equality.

Let’s pretend that we are public policy experts who are using a supercomputer to simulate a statistical model of two cities in order to better understand how inequality materializes.  Let’s call our two simulated cities Heatopolis and Coldas (because that’s what I’m naming them).  These two cities are essentially the same with the obvious exception that one is hot and the other is cold.  Since this is a simulation we can run it multiple times to get a better idea of the range of outcomes that might be expected as a result of just one single variable being different at the start.  

As the cities have built in “equality of opportunity”, in the sense that all the starting point variables are exactly the same—all the way down to their populations consisting of exact clones of one another—one might expect the outcomes to be relatively close, such that each city would end up with, as an example:  about the same crime statistics, about the same literacy rates, and about the same mortality rates.  However, in actuality we’d probably see anything but equality on these metrics over the average course of, say, 1000 runnings of the simulation.  In fact, we could reasonably anticipate that “equality of outcome” would be the exception rather than the rule (at least without significant “tweaks” to the system).  But why is this so?  Let’s explore some of the ways a single variable, in a dynamic system, might generate vast inequality between two cities that are otherwise exactly the same.

One area we may expect to see inequality between the two populations would be crime.  As has been well documented, heat is correlated with violence.   In a meta-analysis performed by the New York Times, they found that “higher temperatures and extreme rainfall led to increases in conflict”.  In other words, the two cities could technically be doing everything right, in terms of what needs to be done to reduce violent crime, yet still end up with large amounts of inequality between their populations in that area.  If the citizenry of Heatopolis failed to understand the effects of temperature on human behavior, they may think that something else may be at play—such as a lax police force, for example.

Another area we way may expect to see inequality materialize is on the key metric of educational attainment.  It’s important to note that this is a thought experiment only, and thus I’m not trying to prove whether temperature matters, only that it’s fairly reasonable to suspect that it does.  How might temperature matter when it comes to education?  For one, we could expect that people in colder climates, where they spend more time indoors, may also spend more time reading—and thus, studying.  There may also be physiological reasons why temperature may result in varied outcomes on learning (see here for an interesting study on this done by high schoolers).  In fact, there may be many theoretical ways temperature might impact student performance, but all it takes is for one of said theories to actually generate an inequality between the two populations to make my point.  In a real life scenario, if policy makers failed to make the connection that may theoretically exist between temperature and educational attainment, they may end up placing blame in the wrong places, such as teacher quality.

Finally, one other way we may expect inequality as a result of temperature differences alone would be mortality rates, which is a pretty decent indicator for the overall health and wellbeing of a population.  As with violence, there seems to be more evidence that temperature matters in this area.  There may be disagreement on why this is so, but for this thought experiment we are not concerned with causal mechanisms, only that there is a strong enough correlation in this area for us to reasonably conclude that inequality will result.

Above are just three possible scenarios in which we might anticipate inequality to manifest itself between the populations of Heatopolis and Coldas, but it’s theoretically possible that there may be an infinite number of variables exerting themselves on whatever is being measured.  It’s also worth noting that in these simulations, we could mimic an environment in which the cities have the exact same climate, and so long as the model is non-deterministic (as is possibly the real world, at least at the quantum level), the randomness alone would be sufficient to generate inequality.  In other words, policy makers would have to account for “random noise” if they were trying to control for the effects of policy on various outcomes.

The point of the above thought experiment is simply to demonstrate how and why the egalitarian target is always moving, and oftentimes achieving equilibrium is nearly impossible absent near authoritarian regulations.  We may see the result of this moving target already as it pertains to gender differences in educational attainment:  as girls have been given more opportunity in society, they are actually beginning to surpass boys on various important measures of group performance.  Is this bad?  No, not necessarily.  But neither is it necessarily desirable either, and while there may be a multitude of theories out there for why this is so, the fact of the matter is that it’s probably the case that the reasons are nearly unlimited, and it may be practically impossible to control for all of them.  Thus, it may just be that more equality of opportunity will necessarily result in a gender imbalance that favors girls, and society should just become comfortable with that being the new normal.  I personally do not see this as being a great injustice, so long as each gender is more or less treated equally during the educational process.

Some might argue that the goal of equality is not “outcomes”, but opportunity, or principle.  But that’s the point of this whole post, our society can barely agree upon just what the target is much less acknowledge the genuine obstacles in the way of getting there.  While in this case I’m primarily focused on equality of outcomes, creating a real life scenario whereby “equality of opportunity”—such as that which exists between Heatopolis and Coldas—actually transpires runs up against the same kind of roadblocks in the opposite direction.  Furthermore, a society that places undue emphasis on equality without recognizing these obstacles is not guaranteed to ever achieve anything more than the same old between group resentment we already have enough of in the first place.

As I mentioned above, would it benefit the population of Heatopolis if their otherwise decent teachers were all fired because policy makers failed to make the connection between temperature and student performance?  Of course not.  There is nothing “fair” or moral about such an outcome.  On the other hand, if policy makers did make the connection between temperature and student performance, they could either adjust their expectations for Heatopolis, or come up with perhaps more effective ways of educating the students to account for the heat.  However, in real world environments, where countless variables might be at play, it’s unreasonable to expect policy makers, teachers or students to control for every single one of them.  To some degree, inequality is an expected result of the unequal, ever changing universe we live in.  That’s not to say we should be satisfied with poor outcomes, but a more humble approach would certainly help.  And that, my friends, is what this blog is all about:  advocating for a dose of humility in a complex world.