Human complexity and differences make absolute equality meaningless. But extreme inequality of wealth, social power, and status concentrate social power and reduce social capital, degrading creative energies and interactions needed for generating wisdom. So nurture basic equity as both a resource for and a feature of a society that works for all.
Related: 13 Constraints on Concentrated Power, 26 Full Cost Accounting, 34 Life-Enhancing Enoughness, 42 Partnership Culture, 52 Rich Feedback Dynamics, 55 Sortition, 64 Using Diversity and Disturbance Creatively
Going deeper …
This is an edited version of the video on this page.
The idea that people are equal seems to make less sense the closer you look at it. Fortunately, the issue of equality is more complex and interesting than many people realize.
For example, it is properly argued that people should be treated equally, in the sense that everyone should be considered “equal before the law”. It is further argued that there should be equality of opportunity, in the sense that everybody should be treated equally when it comes to taking advantage of certain opportunities in life, such as getting a job or getting an education.
It makes sense to try to equalize treatment and opportunity, and we can make a lot of useful progress on those ideals. But that doesn’t mean people are existentially equal or are being equal in the ways they show up in life. Lots of people do not make these distinctions and it can confuse matters unless we’re clear about this.
In order to create the quality of life and wise democracy that we are seeking, we need to regulate certain differences. Because to the extent we let all differences manifest fully in the society – which is what happens when we attempt to maximize freedom – people who have certain capacities will gain more social power, respect, money, and so on than other people – and while that’s ok in one sense, it has a very important dark side.
In general, the more freedom there is in a system, the more inequality we find – and the more equality we push for, the more freedom gets limited. This is one of those paradoxes or dilemmas, two things that dance with each other (see the Healthy Polarity Dynamics pattern). Neither one can be maximized totally, but we can help the dance play out in life-serving ways.
For this reason I didn’t name this pattern social equity. Checks on extreme inequality is the pattern because, while we recognize that full equity is impossible, we don’t want extreme differences in people’s wealth, social power and status. We don’t want certain people or groups to have an excessive ability to influence and impact other people, to shape public decisions, to undermine the quality of other people’s lives, and so on.
Extreme differences in social power undermine people’s fundamental capacity to manage their own individual and collective affairs, which is the essence of democracy. This happens when only a few powerful people and organizations control the media, a few rich people and organizations pay for political campaigns, a few rich families or organizations control big sectors of the economy. All these phenomena are natural consequences of certain people and organizations possessing tremendous concentrations of wealth – particularly when so many other people hardly own anything and can hardly have any impact at all.
Lord Acton is most famous for his insightful observation that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So we want to stay quite far away from absolute power.
So basic equity is both a resource for society – in that it helps people work together and think together clearly about what they want and how to get there – and it’s a feature of the society we want. It’s part of what we are doing all this for in the first place: to have a society that is fair and that is not messing with people. If concentrated social power is used in self-interested ways, it will harm a bunch of other people in the society and that is not “broad benefit”. So if we are trying to be collectively wise and if we are defining wisdom as broad benefit particularly over long periods of time, then the concentration of social power is a real problem.
So this is an essential aspect of a design principle for wise democracy. You need to have some kind of checks on extremes of inequality, particularly of wealth, social power and status.