In one of the more memorable scenes from the film Amazing Grace (one of my favourite movies), William Wilberforce, the famous anti-slavery campaigner, stands on the deck of a slave ship trying to convince a boatload of aristocrats of the evils of the slave-trade. “Remember,” he cries at the climax of his speech, “that God made men equal”. I’m not sure the real Wilberforce ever said that, but it is certainly written into the American Constitution as a truth considered “self-evident”, and it was quoted by Martin Luther King in his famous I have a dream speech.
It’s a nice idea, but also a strange one because it is actually “self-evident” that we’re not all equal. We’re not equal in height. We’re not equal in intelligence. We’re not equal in hair follicle density.
The most that it could mean is that we are all equally human, but this is still a strange idea. Humanness is not a measurable attribute, it’s a binary category—you’re either human or you’re not. So, ok, all humans are equally human. So what?
Well, though separated by a century or so, both William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King fought against policies which did not treat all humans the same. African people were denied many protections under law, that were granted to everyone else. Those racist laws were appalling. We needed brave advocates to oppose them, not really to argue that Africans were ‘equally’ human but that, being human, they had rights.
We called this grand idea ‘equality before the law’. But here is an interesting point: the law does not and should not treat everyone equally – it treats criminals differently to how it treats innocent people, it treats the owner of property differently to a person who doesn’t own it, it treats citizens differently to non-citizens, it treats the mentally impaired differently to a person of sound mind and it certainly treats animals differently to humans.
‘Equality before the law’ was not about creating equality, but about recognising equality where it already exists—recognising the prior fact that all humans are in a single important category, and their lives are all worthy of protection, regardless of their race, language, creed or any other attribute. There are universal morals that govern the way that humans ought to treat other humans, and these must be applied to all humans.
Granting this category such a high and unique respect is something that resonates with us partly due to our Christian heritage. Theologians call it the ‘imago dei’, or the ‘image of God’ in man, which makes us not valuable in the utilitarian sense (that is, humans are not valuable because they are useful), but due to an inherent specialness. We don’t speak of the value of life, but the sanctity of life.
Recognising this existing equality makes sense. But “Equity”, the second value of the DEI agenda, is a different concept. Equity is about creating equality where it doesn’t exist; it is about trying to achieve a condition where everyone has equally good outcomes in life—equal wages, wealth, quality of life, respect, etc.
This idea has been placed at the centre of all ideals. In recent years, even the word ‘justice’ has been completely redefined to be about equality, elevating it to the arbiter of morality itself. It is a pervasive modern obsession eliciting nods and applause from audiences at almost any political rally. Yet it really has more in common with Carl Marx than the grand ideals of Wilberforce and MLK that are such a treasured part of the West’s cultural legacy.
The development of equity
Over time, the idea of Equity has gradually evolved out of the idea of Equality in our public discourse.
- Equal opportunity
‘Equal opportunity’ was one entry point for this type of thinking. Equal opportunity is the rather nice objective that everyone should be granted the possibility of rising above the circumstances of their birth. In practice this really means providing access to education for everyone.
Equality of opportunity is something that we in the West have earnestly aimed for. It has some collective benefit—when people who have “a lot to offer” are given the chance to offer it, we maximise the use of everyone’s potential. With government money, we have provided access to education beyond what many people’s parents could have afforded. Consequently, we are a society with astonishingly good upwards-mobility.
Even so, I object to the idea that ‘equal opportunity’ is a moral obligation. No-one has a right, on entering this world, to demand the opportunity to aspire to just any role under the sun; there aren’t actually enough opportunities to go round—someone has to miss out. And the unflattering and boring tasks still have to be done—we can’t all have exciting, fashionable jobs.
Equality of opportunity also comes at a cost, that society may be unable to pay. For example, centuries ago, when the majority of people worked in food production, it was impossible to provide all children with a thirteen-year education, because it was impossible for enough people to work as teachers, rather than doing other necessary things. The distribution of opportunities was simply limited by availability of supply.
So ‘Equal opportunity’ is not a right, but a privilege of modern affluence. Even today within affluent Western countries, we only provide equal opportunity to our own citizens. Many children born in other countries may never aspire to the same heights of wealth that we can.
- Universal healthcare
Universal healthcare is another entry-level equity concept.
Healthcare is a sneaky issue because the sanctity of life is real. It is morally reprehensible for a society to neglect those who cannot look after themselves and leave them to starve or freeze on the sidewalk. If we show brotherly love to all our neighbours, then of course we want them to have healthcare.
But there are two subtle issues here. The first is identifying to whom this duty applies. The bible, for instance, repeatedly speaks about looking after the widower and the fatherless—because these cannot look after themselves. Regarding those capable of working, however, it says “if a man shall not work, neither shall he eat”. The duty of care is towards the helpless only.
The second issue is identifying the magnitude of the duty. We have no duty to provide equal outcomes, but rather necessary outcomes. Those who are helpless should be given what they need. So depending on wealth, people may eat different qualities and types of food, but we try to keep anyone from starving. We can’t all afford cosmetic surgery, but we are all afforded life-saving surgery. We can’t all live in palaces, but we can all have shelter. We can’t all wear Gucci, but we can all have clothes.
Expressing our duty to help those in need in terms of ‘equality’ takes an unjustified logical step, and this is where the idea of equity evolves. It’s a small leap from the ‘right to life’ to the ‘right to quality of life’ to the right to ‘the same quality of life that everyone else has’.
3. Equal pay for equal work
The next frontline battleground for equity is ‘equal pay for equal work’. This one certainly sounds fair—paying two people differently for the same work, or the same for different work, sounds unjust.
In Australia, this is already a legal obligation. We have a ‘fair work commission’, which has the authority to issue ‘equal remuneration orders’ that can force an employer to increase the wages of a group that is being paid less for ‘equivalent work’ as another group.
(Hilariously, in the most recent case, the Independent Education Union of Australia tried to argue that early childcare teaching in long day-care centres is “equivalent” to professional engineering, a group that was selected only because the former is a female-dominated industry and the latter is male-dominated. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and that claim was rejected.)
The main practical problem is how to measure ‘equal work’—two people can have the same job title, but quite different output. However, even if we could measure such a thing, there are many valid reasons why two people might not have equal pay even if they do do equal work. They may have different employers, who have different profit margins. One may have been hired during more desperate times than the other. One may have been generously offered a higher pay due to personal needs (a single parent, a carer, etc. may need more money). One may have recently had a pay review while the other is still due for one.
Christian moral principles would say that if you get paid what you agreed to for your work, and someone else gets paid what they agreed to for their work, neither of you has a right to complain even if the two are unequal. In fact, Jesus told a parable about that exact thing happening in Matthew 20.
Equity is not harmless
These three examples (equal opportunity, healthcare, and equal pay) are breeding-grounds for Equity thinking, but they are not actually equity.
‘Equal pay for equal work’, for instance, is not true equity. For starters, Equity doesn’t care about the last half of the sentence. “Who cares if they do equal work?” says equity, “is someone who empties garbage cans worthy of any less than someone who runs a company?”
Equity doesn’t care about the first part of the sentence either. “Is it truly equal pay that people need?” says equity, “does not a disabled person need more pay than an able-bodied person? Doesn’t a poor person need more wages than a wealthy person who already has what they need? Doesn’t a person with children need more than a person without dependents?”
I wish equity was similar to ‘equal opportunity’—that it was just a nice idea that we could aim for, that would do some good but never be truly achieved. Unfortunately, equity is not benign but malignant. Equity is actual harmful.
First, equity is harmful psychologically.
I heard many politicians hedge around this point when retracting ‘job seeker’ and ‘job keeper’ payments and other welfare systems during the pandemic. “It’s not that citizens are lazy, its just that…” they would end that sentence in a range of creative ways. But I’m not a politician, so I can talk straight. Many people are lazy. If I could get paid for not doing work, rather than for doing work, then I would. If not lazy, then I’d be selfish, using my free time to work on things that benefit me, rather than things that benefit society.
What’s the point in working harder or working better if it doesn’t result in more reward? If someone does work hard, and then they look around them at other people earning the same amount despite not working or not trying (which is what equity would try to achieve), then they will feel resentful and probably back off their own work. This is not the best feature of human nature, but it is reliable.
Sometimes, however, equity is even more directly harmful than that. In an effort to equalise two different people, it will actively penalise good work and reward bad work. For example, when I went to school, students were sorted into math classes with people of similar skill level to them. Those students who were very good at math were put together in a class where they were challenged and moved ahead of the curriculum; those who were already advanced became even more advanced. This was actually good because it helped them maximise their potential. Yet some equity advocates don’t like to have graded classes at school; they would rather slow the smart kids down so that they all cross the finish line together. What does that do for motivation?
Because it disconnects outcome from effort, equity destroys the natural incentives that exist for work. Yet even though we may enjoy being indolent and lazy, it isn’t good for us. Unemployment destroys self-worth and provides opportunity for self-destructive behaviour. It increases marriage breakdowns, domestic violence, and that creates negative outcomes for society in general. People are healthier when they work and enjoy the fruits of their labour. Equity jeopardises that.
Equity is also harmful economically. The law of supply and demand says that when a product is needed and there is insufficient supply, the price goes up—the high prices then mean there is more money available to do what is needed to produce more. The same is true in the labour market. If too many people study plumbing, for instance, so that we have too many plumbers, then the profit margin for plumbing decreases. So some plumbers choose to become carpenters because it pays better. But it only pays better because it’s in higher demand. By this means, the economy automatically allocates resources and personnel throughout society, and automatically rewards the most efficient (lowest-cost) method of producing goods and services.
This economic ‘calculation’ cannot be simulated. Whenever any country has tried to centralise control of the economy instead of allowing the market to work, it has resulted in a wrong allocation of resources. You end up with an abundance of some items, and scarcity of other items. This would happen in the labour market. If a plumber’s wages were set for ‘equity’ reasons, regardless of whether plumbers are actually needed, then what is to stop us having too many plumbers and running out of carpenters? Equity would destroy our economy.
This has already happened in our tertiary education sector. Because the government pays for people’s education up front, there is no pressure to make sure that their education will lead them to a job that can pay for it. Consequently, in some fields of study, there are far more graduates than there are jobs. Simple market forces would prevent this, if only the market were allowed to function. Instead, ‘equal opportunity’ policies have created this problem.
Equity is harmful politically. Some things cannot be distributed equally. One of these is power. People like Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos, have a lot of power. They are able to direct the energies of thousands of people who work for them because they have money to pay them. If that money were instead distributed equitably, then they would lose all that power.
You may think that is a good thing, but that is only because you haven’t asked a very important question yet. That power they lost – where did it go? Who will now be telling all the workers who they would have employed what to do? The answer is simple: who had the power to take away money from the rich and give it to the poor? Who is now paying everyone? The government. Power is not distributed when money is distributed, instead it is transferred to the entity that does the redistribution.
How much power does the government wield when it sets an award rate or a penalty rate, or issues an ‘equal remuneration order’, or rules on an unfair dismissal claim? It is basically impossible, these days, to fire someone for underperforming. In all these cases, the government can literally tell an employer how to spend their money. So… is it really the employer’s money, or is it the government’s money? This is already a problem we have in Australia—our government has enormous power across the private sector, which it uses to stifle and impair good decision making; that’s not the aim, but it is the outcome.
True Equity will never be achieved unless it is enforced; it will never occur naturally. Yet enforcing equity results in an enormous transfer of power to the government. That is extremely dangerous; we have only to look at the Soviet Union for a case study of this.
Equity is not harmless. Taken all the way, it is communism. That’s the simple truth.
Conclusion – equity is not desirable
Communism and socialism have had many advocates over the years. Though no-one has ever succeeded in creating a communist utopia, and though attempts to do so have caused tens of millions of deaths last century, they still insist that it is possible.
They would do psychological harm, grappling against human nature and feeding its penchant for selfishness and laziness. They would do economic harm, struggling against economic reality and the fact that only free markets have ever succeeded in allocating resources across society. They would do political harm, delivering unparalleled power into the hands of government and stripping away some of the checks and balances that keep our society free and peaceful.
They would do all this in order to try to wrestle people into being equal who simply aren’t. Even if they could win all those struggles, they would at best provide only a small extent of equality, because there will still be some that is simply not controllable. Someone who gets cancer in their teens is still going to have a very unequal life to someone who dies of old age in their nineties. No application of the DEI agenda will ever fix that.
However, we can get bogged down in the question of whether Equity is possible, and unintentionally concede that equity is desirable. But is it? Why do you want equity? Why is it good for everyone to have equal outcomes? Why?
Do you realise that if you lived in an equity utopia, you would be obliged to check your equity and correct it continuously. Every time your tree grows too much fruit, you have to give some of it away. Every time someone gives you a gift, you have to see whether it is ‘fair’ for you to receive that gift at the moment. Is it within your weekly quota? Have you received more than everyone else? There is a place where everyone lives very equal lives in every respect like that; it’s called prison. And yet, this idea is already getting around with social acceptance; they call it “checking your privilege”.
Equity is actually a misguided moral; it confuses fairness for justice. Valuing equity appears moral when it is looking downward—“look at all these people who have less than me, I want them to have what I have.” Yet equity is shown as immoral when it looks upwards—“look at all those people who have more than me, surely I deserve it as much as they do?”
Traditional Christian morals do not support equity, otherwise there would not be a command that says ‘you shall not steal’ and another saying ‘you shall not covet’. If you check your privilege and you discover that you are privileged, then you should respond by feeling thankful—not guilty, thankful.
Do we want to live in an immature, infantile society characterised by whining about unfairness, sneering at contentment, and envying and hating those who are fortunate? If not, we need to stop talking about equity and instead fight actively against it.
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Nick Kastelein is a South Australian writer. He writes about politics, philosophy and current events, with an emphasis on applying a Christian worldview, and finding the simplest, truest perspective. You can find more of his past writing at NPKastelein.com.
Nick is also a professional mechanical engineer with extensive experience in the energy sector, and especially in design of natural gas pipelines. He is a contributor to Australian Standard AS/NZS 2885.1, and lead author of Fracture Control – A code of practice for the Australian pipeline industry.