Freer than others

Bernard Williams

  • Inequality Examined by Amartya Sen
    Oxford, 207 pp, £19.95, September 1992, ISBN 0 19 828334 2

Every modern state and every modern political philosophy believes in equality of something. As Amartya Sen points out in this book, even libertarians, who think that there should be no politically imposed limits on what people may retain of what they gain without force or fraud, believe in the equal right to exert oneself in the market and not to be taxed. Those who think that more effortful or productive or responsible work deserves higher rewards think that this principle should be applied equally to all citizens. The important issue, then, as Sen has helpfully insisted over many years, is not whether we are in favour of equality, but rather: equality of what?

Even if all modern outlooks accept some kind of equality, many of them do not list it among their political ideals. There is a question, then, about what it is that makes some conceptions of equality rather than others into the focus of political programmes that aim to increase equality; programmes, for instance, which stand in the tradition of linking equality with liberty and fraternity. There is a question, too, of why it is that all modern states do profess some conception of equality. It is not enough to reply that they have to do so, because equality is (even now) a leading catchword of modern politics: this merely raises the question again, in a more cynical tone of voice. The answer seems to be that in the modern world, which has largely rejected mythical or merely traditional sources of authority, only some conception of equal consideration for each citizen can form the basis of uncoerced and informed allegiance to a government.

Not so many governments at the present time can be said without any hesitation or qualification to live up to the promise offered by that formula, and that fact itself leads back to the problem of defining equality as a political ideal, rather than as a mere assumption. The point of articulating and pursuing a political ideal of equality is not to indulge resentment or a managerial passion for uniformity, even though both have no doubt played some part in the history of egalitarianism. The basic aim, now more important than ever, is to find a practical conception of equality that can give people a genuine sense that they receive equal consideration from society and so have a stake in it. Only this has any hope of giving people a reason why they should obey and co-operate. Without such a reason, there are only coercion, mystification, habit, and the hope that people will be content with making the best of where they find themselves. The sort of equality that contains no aspiration and can be comfortably announced as being already here, such as an equal legal right to become a millionaire, is quite obviously not enough. It is extraordinary that anyone can have thought, as some followers of Lady Thatcher have thought and perhaps in a few cases still do think, that mere equality in the face of the market could realise enough of an idea of equal citizenship to make anything work, including the market itself.

Sen’s theory of equality does yield an aspiration that can speak to the problems of the modern state, although he does not himself discuss the most basic and general reasons for which a modern society might be interested in ideals of equality. He concentrates rather on what such an ideal should be. He properly reminds us that if we are going to develop ideas of equality, we had better have some notion of their purpose, and that for different purposes we may want to use different ideas of equality. For some purposes of economic understanding, inequality of income may be the relevant measure, but for broader political and social aims we need richer ideas. Sen is extremely aware of political issues, such as poverty, deprivation and injustice to women, but this book is not a work of political theory, and it does not start from the political questions that themselves create the demand for an understanding of equality. Sen is both an economist and a moral philosopher, but he approaches the problems of equality by a route that runs from economic theory.

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