Introduction to Political Theory

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1
would simply not occur to those in a higher stratum that they must justify their
advantaged position, or that those in a lower stratum should question their
subordinate position.

  • Equality before the law That laws apply equally to those who are subject to
    them is widely accepted as a foundational belief of many, if not most, societies.
    It could be argued that this applied even in Hitler’s Germany. After the 1935
    Nuremburg Laws were passed Jews (as defined by the state) were denied many
    rights, but consistent with ‘treating like cases alike’ it could be argued that legal
    equality was respected insofar as all members of the class defined by the state as
    Jews were treated alike: all were equally subject to the laws, despite the laws
    themselves being discriminatory. However, we argue in the section on Legal
    Equality that equality before the law is a stronger idea, which implies that there
    must be compelling reasons for unequal treatment.

  • Equal liberty A common assumption, especially on the right, is that equality and
    liberty (freedom) conflict. Certainly, if we were in Hobbes’s state of nature, and
    enjoyed ‘pure’ liberty, that is, we were under no duties to refrain from behaving
    as we choose, then the exercise of liberty would reflect natural inequalities,
    including any bad luck that might befall us. But under a state, while our liberty
    is restricted, the possibility exists for a degree of protection (through ‘rights’),
    such that a space is provided in which we are free to act without the danger
    of other people interfering in our actions. Once we move from pure liberty to
    protected liberty an issue of distribution – and, therefore, a trade-off between
    equality and liberty – arises. Although the state cannot distribute the exercise of
    choice, it can distribute rights to do certain things. Of course, even though
    liberty-protecting rights can be distributed this does not mean that equality and
    liberty never conflict (we discuss possible conflicts in the section on Equal

  • Material equality The most significant disputes in many societies are connected
    with the distribution of income, and other tangible material goods, such as
    education and health care. To understand this debate requires a discussion of
    class, because the capacity to acquire material goods is to some extent, and
    perhaps a very great extent, conditioned by structures that individuals do not
    control. From birth – and even before birth – a person is set on a course, at each
    stage of which she has some power to gain or lose material goods, but, arguably,
    the choices are restricted. Put simply, a person born into a wealthy family has
    more opportunities than someone with a poor background.

  • Equal access If a society places barriers in the way of certain groups acquiring
    material goods, such as jobs and services, as happened with regard to blacks in
    the Southern States of the United States until the 1960s, then equal access is
    denied. On the face of it, guaranteeing equal access may appear closely connected
    with material equality, but, in fact, it has more to do with equal civic and political
    rights, or liberty: the liberty to compete for jobs, and buy goods.

  • Equality of opportunityUnlike equal access this isa principle of material equal -
    ity, and, although it commands rhetorical support across the political spectrum,
    in any reasonably strong version it has significant implications for the role of
    the state in individual and family life. If a society attempts to guarantee the
    equal opportunity to acquire, for example, a particular job, then it is going much
    further than simply removing legal obstacles to getting the job. Realising equal

Chapter 3 Equality 57
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