Egalitarianism and the Generation of Inequality

Egalitarianism and the Generation of Inequality

Egalitarianism and the Generation of Inequality

Egalitarianism and the Generation of Inequality


This book presents a historical and comparative statistical assessment of egalitarianism, tracing its rise from the Renaissance and Reformation to the present day. Brown draws on a wide survey of actual distributions of income and wealth throughout history--what is known of them in the past, what form they currently take, and the economic processes that generate them--to analyze the authority of equality as a principle of social philosophy and the practicability of egalitarian policy.


The aspiration to greater equality has become widespread in contemporary societies. That governments should act 'to secure a fairer distribution of income and wealth in the community' (Royal Commission 1975 : v) is not maintained by socialists alone, but is believed throughout the political spectrum from the centre leftwards. In the United Kingdom, the two most influential restatements of socialist or social democratic principles in the present century have both found their central and animating purpose in the pursuit of equality. Tawney's Equality (1931) was a humanist manifesto that found in material equality the necessary condition for a society of freely and fully developed individuals living in relations with one another unvitiated by the class divisions, the snobbery and the servility engendered by contrasts of wealth. 'The reason for equalizing, as means and opportunity allow, the externals of life is . . . to free the spirit of all' (pp. 289, 291). In his work on The Future of Socialism, Crosland (1956), found in 'the search for equality' the aim that, of all the basic socialist aspirations, emerged as foremost once the welfare state had been achieved:

'The socialist seeks a distribution of rewards, status and privileges egalitarian enough to minimise social resentment, to secure justice between individuals, and to equalise opportunities; and he seeks to weaken the existing deep-seated class stratification, with its concomitant feelings of envy and inferiority, and its barriers to uninhibited mingling between the classes. This belief in social equality, which has been the strongest ethical inspiration of virtually every socialist doctrine, still remains the most characteristic feature of socialist thought today. (Crosland 1956 : 103, 113)
Crosland was following the leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, who had written early in the 1930s that

a Socialist party is different from other parties not because it offers a different mechanism for the same object, but because the object itself is different. Even economic planning, the institutional machinery of the Socialist State, is not a monopoly of Socialism and can exist without Socialism . . . But in the goal of equality, the determination to uproot the conditions of economic injustice, lies the true characteristic of a Socialist. (Durbin 1985 : 128)

But the appeal of equality is not confined to socialists, or to the countries in which political parties are committed to explicitly egalitarian policies: a sense that existing inequalities are incompatible with humanitarian, democratic or religious principles is diffused more widely. A highly professional as well as judicious American economist, at one time chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, Arthur Okun (1975 : 68, 118), after noting that the top 1 per cent of families in the United States 'have as much after-tax income as nearly all the families in the bottom 20

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