The problem of equality

Ernst Roets on the difficulties that accrue from pursuing desirable but incompatible values

The problem of equality...

Few people will have rooted objections to the three values that provide the foundation of the South African Constitution. Section 1 of this document states that the Constitution is based on the principles of human dignity, equality and freedom. You must obviously be a special kind of tyrant to have a problem with any of these three values.

This is exactly where the problem starts. The reason why almost everyone agrees with these values is that everyone has their own definition of human dignity, equality and freedom. The words in itself do not mean much, as their meaning depends on your interpretation. In fact, those three words are no more than buzzwords.

And the biggest buzzword of these three is equality. Equality is basically the opposite of racism. Most people agree that racism is evil, but do not really know what it means. Most people agree that equality is good, but also do not know what it means.

A libertarian or a classical liberal (not to be confused with modern American liberalism) will probably say that he supports equality because all people should be allowed to make choices. Others will say that it means equal opportunities. A communist will say that he supports equality because everyone must work according to their ability and earn according to their needs. They will argue that the rich have stolen from the poor and that those stolen goods must be taken back and divided among the poor, as has happened in Cuba, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and North Korea.

If truth be told, these countries are very equal, because everyone has equally little. The absence of prosperity is the fastest way to create equality.

(And if you have noticed that I used “he” instead of “he or she”, it also tells something about your view of equality.)

The difference therefore depends largely on whether everyone should have an equal start or whether all should reach the finish line at the same time. And even if you assume that “an equal start” is the better measure, as I have said on numerous occasions, someone will point out that it’s not that simple because to “start equally” may imply that a form of discrimination (a form of taking-and-giving) is applied to ensure that those who have not yet arrived at the starting point are brought to the scene.

The question of equality is also not as easy as simply asking about your definition of equality, because your definition of equality also determines how you define freedom (and vice versa). The terms freedom and equality are part of the three core values of the Constitution; however, they are in many ways inconsistent with each other.

It is not for you or me to define equality or freedom, however; a court should do that – more specifically, the Constitutional Court. It is the perfect breeding ground for an ideologically-driven government to interpret the Constitution in a way that fits its own agenda. The ANC holds equality in a much higher regard than freedom. Therefore, they interpret the Constitution in such a way as to restrict everyone’s freedom to create greater equality. This, of course, is done by ensuring as far as possible that the judges who are appointed endorse the ANC’s broad ideological starting points.

Since the French Revolution, humanity has increasingly considered equality and freedom as universal values, even though these two values are contradictory.

The more people are free to do what they want, the more they become unequal. The more the state is used to promote equality, the more people’s freedom is restricted (think black empowerment). That is why the historian Yuval Harari points out, with reference to freedom and equality, that “the entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.”

Take American politics as an example. Americans are divided into two major parties: the Republicans, who hold freedom in high regard, and the Democrats, who attach greater value to equality. This small distinction underpins almost every major political battle in America for as long as we can remember.

One may argue that the political imbalance in South Africa is largely due to the fact that almost all major political institutions attach more value to equality than to freedom. The so-called renewal in the DA is merely a change of emphasis: Tony Leon’s DA was freedom-minded; Musi Maimane’s DA is equality-minded.

Does it mean the Democrats are opposed to freedom or the Republicans are anti-equality? No. Does it mean that Tony Leon is opposed to equality or that Maimane is anti-freedom? Also no. But this small difference in emphasis determines how you shape your life.

The question is not whether we should be pro- or anti-equality. The question rather is what kind of equality we should support.

We will have to change the discourse on equality. Equal prosperity is basically communism and is, like communism, a pipe dream. Equal opportunities are more realistic.

So, if someone asks if you support equality, realise that it is a trick question. The answer to the question depends on your definition of equality.

Perhaps we should start talking about equal freedom for all.

Ernst Roets is deputy CEO of AfriForum. Follow Ernst on Twitter at @ernstroets.