The concept of equality, so central to the discussion of justice lies at the root of the democratic idea. While the concept of equality has an ancient history, it is in modern times that equality assumes a significant role in the theory and practice of politics. Far back in history, Aristotle in his work – The Politics identified inequality as a cause of strife. Engels in his work – Anti – Duhring, considered the modern demand for equality something entirely different from the ancient idea that ‘all men, as men have something in common and to the extent are also equal….. the modern idea’ consists rather in deducing from that equality of men as men a claim to equal political and social status for all human beings or at least for all citizens of a State or all members of a society.

In discussing equality and the need to achieve it, it is important to correctly identify the real causes of inequality. To Laski, ‘no idea is more difficult in the whole realm of political science as the concept of equality. He emphasizes that equality does not mean identity of treatment. This is because there can be no identity of treatment as long as men are different in want and capacity and need. According to Laski equality means, first of all, the absence of priviledge and in the second place that adequate opportunities are laid open to all. He saw inequalities of wealth as a source of inequality. The attainment of freedom is impossible and political equality is never real unless accompanied by virtual economic equality. It is Marx and Engels who highlighted inequalities more than any other. According to them, inequality is the result of class divisions which are unjust but historically necessary. They are finally alterable in a classless society.

For Marxists, social equality implies abolition of private property, placing of all in equal relation to the means of production, equal opportunities for all to work according to their abilities and receive equal pay for equal work and equal opportunities for everyone to take part in decision making in state and public affairs. Marxists also stand for the elimination of the gap between rights and duties. Engles suggested that the phrase “for equal rights for all” be replaced by “for equal rights and equal duties of all”. Rawls saw two essential requirements in the notion of equality: (a). Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties to all. (b). Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions. First, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity and second, they must be to the great benefit of the least advantaged members of society. For, economic equality has not been a popular slogan even among those whose hearts bleed for equality. Many who would stoutly defend with their dying breath the rights of liberty and equality: …shrink back with horror from the notion of economic egalitarianism. Inequalities of wealth make equality of opportunity an empty slogan. Laski emphasized the provision of adequate opportunity to be one of the basic conditions of equality.

All the great revolutions aimed at shaking off arbitrary rule of one form or another, have stressed this concept of equality. Liberty, fraternity and equality were the watchwords of the French revolution. Many modern constitutions have enshrined this concept of equality; and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims, in Article 1, that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, echoing Article 1 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man 1789 that men are born and remain free and equal in rights. The right to equality extends to political power as well. As Engels emphasized: The equality of nations is just as essential as the equality of individuals. It is also impossible to consider human equality without assuring equality among languages and communities.

Social realities have demonstrated, however that the equality which the philosophers visualized is not always attainable in practice, however sweeping be the pronouncement on equality in the statute book.

Many of the discriminations that exist in society cannot be counted by law alone but need a deep change in social attitudes. No two people are equal in all respects. The inequalities of talent and other attributes resulting from nature are reinforced by social and economic circumstances, which place some at an advantage over others. Within these limitations, however, the attainment of equality is considered to be one of the time- honoured objectives of the law. Equality before the law is indeed one of the cardinal assumptions underlying the concept of the Rule of Law.

Tension between Equality and Liberty

The question arises however whether increased equality can only be achieved at the expense of liberty, or conversely, whether expanding liberty must diminish equality. Are the values of equality and liberty opposed or are they complementary? Learned opinion is divided on the matter and it is important to be aware of the contentions on either side.

On the one hand it is clear that the ideal of equality cannot be promoted without a certain degree of liberty. Unless, for example, there is a measure of liberty, there is little change of economic equality in a society. If political power is in the hands of a tyrant or of a privileged class, that privileged class will perpetuate its privileges, and inequality will continue to be the order of the day. This was indeed the position in England after the Industrial Revolution, when inequality and economic exploitation reigned supreme. It was only after some degree of diffusion of power was attained with the Reform Bill of 1832 that a systematic attempt was made to end such inequality. The French Revolution is another classic example, for it needed the liberty achieved by the revolution to achieve equality.

Just as liberty generates equality, so equality generates liberty, for once the citizens of a state achieve a greater measure of economic equality they do not readily accept an inferior political position and kick against such restraints as are left. Rousseau made this point in The Social Contract, when he emphasized the dependence of liberty upon equality.

While these considerations are valid, there is another dimension to the problem. Lord Acton, one of the outstanding thinkers on the concept of freedom, emphasized that equality unrestrained could destroy freedom. We have examples of this in many revolutions, including the French, Russian and Chinese. Power is snatched from its traditional holders and then in the name of equality taken over by individuals or groups who claim to be the people’s representatives. Equality gradually achieved tends more often to be regulated and controlled than equality achieved in one burst as in a revolution.

Economic Liberty and Economic Equality

There is a second and even more important qualification, especially in the sphere of economic liberty, which has great relevance to modern conditions. Not infrequently there is a marked degree of tension between economic liberty and economic equality. For example, if one desires greater freedom of contract, there is correspondingly a restriction on equality, for such freedom facilitates vast concentrations of wealth and power.

Those possessing such wealth and power would then be so superior in bargaining power to others that there would be semblance of equality between them and the vast mass of citizens with whom they would do business. Conversely, if there is a restriction upon the freedom to contract freely, that restriction would be interpreted as a limitation of freedom.

Laissez- faire, the prevalent philosophy in the nineteenth century, led to enormous accumulations of wealth. In an age of expanding resources, undiscovered frontiers, and vast colonial territories awaiting annexation, such philosophies were not considered inappropriate. With earth resources shrinking, the last frontiers reached, colonialism dead, there is just not enough land or earth resources to permit of a continuing applicability of laissez-faire. There must be therefore restrictions and controls of various sorts. The individual’s freedom to act as he pleases must be restricted in many ways. Freedom in the traditional sense is clipped but equality is strengthened.

There are arguments for and against unrestricted liberty. On a balance of all considerations the need is clear for limitations of some sort upon the restricted appropriation by a few of the earth’s resources which rightly belong to all. This cannot be achieved without controls. Equality necessarily spells out a restriction of freedom.

There are many aspects to this discussion. There is, for each nation, both a national and an international dimension to the problem. Nationally, the measures of control will need to be determined upon a fine balance of the principle of equality against the principle of freedom, to be worked out in the manner most appropriate to that society’s needs and background. The particular mix that suits one country will not necessarily suit others. Each country will need to determine this for itself.


There are 2 Comments

What that mean. It is an expression with no mathematical meaning or interpretation in everyday life. If it means justice peace trust kindness that is fine

Customs traditions society it's behaviours numbers proportions education culture trust cooperation all determine where we stand in our society. Even in single famil no equality. It is a docial expression we will be nice to you but don't expect too much. You may not deserve it.


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