Should everyone be treated equally all the time?

Author: Huang Junwei
School: HCI
Year Written: 2020
Grade: 37/50

In 1949, soon after the the Communists’ victory in the Chinese Civil War, the People’s Republic of China was formed. Its leaders intended it to be a ‘classless’ country, for the people, by the people. Although initially meant to ensure a more even distribution of wealth, returning it back to the people from the hands of the corrupt Kuomintang government, the concept of ‘classlessness’ and equality was soon exploited for political purposes, culminating in the Cultural Revolution where millions of scholars and professionals were sent to the countryside to work as labourers to let them experience the lives of ‘an average Chinese citizen’. As a result of dispatching the well-educated to jobs for which they were not suited for, Chinese economic growth stagnated and living standards deteriorated. As the Chinese example shows, egalitarian treatment of all people, while a benevolent goal, should not be taken to the extreme, as equality in its most absolute form, regardless of circumstance, only leads to poorer social outcomes for everyone involved.

It is incontrovertible that greater equality is desperately needed in today’s world. Income inequality is very much on the rise, especially in rapidly developing countries such as China and India. The well-educated Chinses and Indians are much better able to fill high-paying jobs in emerging sectors such as tech while the rest languish in jobs from yesterday’s economy, ones that require more menial work, their income growth rate dismal compared to those at the top. As such, it is not uncommon to find anti-elite sentiments, where the bottom 95 percent feel that the top 5 percent are siphoning away all the fruits of their labour, such that even if the economy is booming, they can hardly sense it. This has caused deleterious impacts in terms of social cohesion, resulting in the rise of unscrupulous politicians seeking to tap on this frustration, using rhetoric that only magnifies the divide, most notably ex-U.S. President Donald Trump. Hence, measures to reduce these inequalities ought to be put in place. However, it should definitely be noted that while greater parity in terms of income and wealth is certainly desired, absolute parity is not necessarily desired or desirable. In fact, the evidence is clear that absolute income inequality is harmful for society, both at the individual and macroscopic levels. If absolute income inequality were to be enforced, like in the case of the Soviet Union, people would be equally well-off, regardless of how much work they did, thanks to the egalitarian distribution of resources. This effectively takes away the incentive to work at all, as the same outcome is guaranteed regardless of effort. Increasingly, more and more people will lose their motivation to work, simply because they can leach off the labours of others. On a macroscopic level, the economy will be less productive than before, leading to lower living standards for all. Clearly we should aim to reduce inequality to restore a sense of fairness in income distribution, but not eliminate it altogether, to preserve the motivation to work hard in the hopes of one day becoming rich, ensuring a productive yet more fair economy.

Another reason against absolute equality is that instead of blindly distributing resources equally to everyone, they should be distributed according to each person’s needs instead. In American schools, there has been a constant debate on whether affirmative action is appropriate. One of the key arguments against it is that it puts minority students in academically rigorous classes that are beyond their ability, while denying the opportunity to attend these same classes to talented White students. In this case, both parties become worse-off. Minority students feel that they cannot keep up and become discouraged from trying, while White students feel they are wasting their time in classes too easy for them. Equal allocation of resources regardless of individuals’ needs therefore runs the risk of those not needing so much getting much more than they asked for, while those who actually require more of the resource not getting enough. Here, we see that a perfectly egalitarian system does not lead to the best outcome for everyone, and in fact continues to perpetuate the same inequalities that they sought to address. The shift of many societies towards equity must bear this in mind as it recognises that to truly level the playing field, we need to account for everyone’s different starting positions and allocate any additional resources accordingly. Mindlessly promoting people from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher position simply to meet quotas to have a display of racial or gender equality is counter-productive, which is why equality for the sake of equality defeats its purpose for both the organisation and the individual and should not be pursued.

But where areas of undue bias and abuse are concerned, equal treatment at all times is a must. It is unacceptable for public figures to be discriminated against simply because of their race, religion or nationality. When Naomi Osaka crashed out in the round of 16 of the Olympics, she received vitriolic abuse online, much of it targeted at her skin colour and ‘how come a Black person could represent Japan’. In comparison, when male (and White) tennis player Novak Djokovic lost just as spectacularly in the quarter-finals, the hateful online speech against him, was in comparison, relatively mild. The disparities in the treatment of Osaka and Djokovic shows hat race, a factor predetermined at birth and beyond our control, can be critical in how we are viewed in society and can take precedence over our actual merits and accomplishments. If these attitudes were to proliferate, it will only send a signal to minorities that their prospects in life are limited by pre-determined factors such as race and religion and that they will be forever marginalised because of that. For fairness and for social harmony, such an outcome is clearly undesirable and must be eradicated. A society that treats the members of its minority the same way as it treats members of the majority is the only one that truly fulfills the principles of equality laid out in many Constitutions, achieved not by subjecting everyone to the same abuse but by eliminating all bigoted abuse.

It is striking how certain countries who were founded on the basis of equality and egalitarianism have come full circle, such as China. Initially seeking to promote more equality by allocating everyone the same amount of resources, it eventually abandoned this principle after a period of great political instability in favour of economic growth – the fruits of which were not evenly spread out, creating new geographical and class inequalities that the PRC was originally built to erase. But for the Chinese government, the trade-off has been arguably worth it. Millions have been lifted from poverty as China recorded double-digit economic growth rates in the 1990s and continues to record high single-digit growth rates today. Yet, dissent and unhappiness continues to stir and simmer in light of rising inequalities. It will be interesting to see if China will make the same mistake of pursuing absolute equality again or learn from the mistakes of 60 years ago.