The popular meaning of the term equality is that all men are equal and all should be entitled to identity of treatment and income.
Those who subscribe to this meaning of equality, assert that all men are born equal and nature has willed them to remain so.
This natural equality of man was practically recognized in the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) issued by the National Assembly of France. It said: “Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights.”
A similar statement is found in the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” But nature has not created all men equal. Inequality is an inescapable, natural fact and it has to be accepted by society.
Nature has endowed men with different capacities and so long as they differ in their wants, needs, and capacities in satisfying them, equality in its popular sense is inconceivable. Equality does not even imply identity of reward for effort. The statement, then, that all men are equal is as erroneous as that the surface of the earth is level.
Absolute equality is, in fact, an impossible ideal. Nature itself has created such vital differences between men that no power can make and keep them equal. No one with eyes in his head can or will deny the existence of these human differences.
There are, however, certain elements of equality which must be secured and this needs a certain levelling process in the existing order of things. The principle of equality was, originally, a common man’s protest against the gross inequalities created by the superior claims of the nobility in ancient societies. The idea of equality has, therefore, grown out of the idea of privileges.
These inequalities and privileges persist even in our own times. Inequality, as such, refers to the conditions created in society by a limited number of privileged people who have always dominated the government of a country and used its power for their own purpose and advantage. This class of vested interests makes the fulfillment of their private desires the criterion of public good.
Equality means, first of all, that special privileges of all kinds should be abolished. All barriers of birth, wealth, sex, caste, creed and colour should be removed so that no one suffers from any kind of social or political disability.
There should be, in short, no difference between man and man and whatever rights in here in another by virtue of his being a citizen must in here, and to the same extent, in me also.
It means that I am entitled to the enjoyment of all those social and political privileges to which others are entitled. My vote in the election of the representatives is as valuable and potential as that of any other.
I can also become the recipient of any office of the State for which I may be eligible. To refuse any man access to authority is a complete denial of his freedom, because, “unless I enjoy the same access to power as others, I live in an atmosphere of contingent frustration.”
One who lives in an atmosphere of frustration has neither any inspiration in life nor any incentive for it. He accepts his place in society, which accident of birth has given him, as a permanent condition of his life.
It is in this way that the faculty of creativeness is lost and men or a class of men becomes “animate tools”, which Aristotle described as the characteristic of the natural slave. There can be no equality in a society where a few are masters and the rest are slaves.
The principle of equality, accordingly, means that whatever conditions are guaranteed to me, in the form of rights, shall also, in the same measure, be guaranteed to others, and that whatever rights are given to others shall also be given to me. The chief characteristic of a right is its equalitarian basis.
Equality, like liberty, has a positive connotation as well. In this sense, it means provision of adequate opportunity. By adequate opportunities we do not mean equal opportunities. This is impossible. “In the modem world,” says Laski, “broadly speaking, opportunity is a matter of parental circumstances.”
All that is implied from the provision of adequate opportunities is that the State should provide suitable opportunities for all citizens without any discrimination for the full development of their intelligence.
No one should be debarred from the realization of the ambition of his life, if he possesses the requisite ability. The principle of equality is satisfied when the State extends due opportunities to all for developing their abilities to their full stature.
Equality thus involves, first of all, absence of legal discrimination against any one individual, group, class or race. Secondly, equal claims to adequate opportunities for all, recognition of the fact that there can be no difference inherent in nature between claims of men to happiness, and especially, that no one person or group may be sacrificed to another. Finally, claims to a minimum of education, housing, food, and guarantees against economic insecurity.