It seems that a new fad has taken over the world of social justice. The word "Equality" is being replaced by the word "Equity". A subtle but intentional change.
Intentional because even when some have used the long-standing language and allowed the word "equality" to slip, they have immediately pulled it back and corrected themselves. At a superficial glance, the words appear to convey much the same idea. The deeper meaning is significant, though. Equality, it will be explained, is the condition whereby all are treated the same. In other words, each person's rights are protected in the same way. Each person is afforded the same opportunities. Each person bears the same responsibilities. Each person is subject to the same justice. Under such an arrangement, the outcome achieved by each person is subject to their effort, their ingenuity, their individual talents.
The perceived problem is that not all individuals are able to be successful. The perceived root cause of this problem is that the starting points are not the same. This is a source of frustration for those who hold a certain viewpoint. They believe that since the starting points are not the same, the levels of achievement cannot be the same regardless of equality. Equity, therefore, is the concept that the starting point of each person is adjusted according to their shortcomings such that all starting points are essentially the same. This, in turn, is meant to create outcomes that are essentially the same. There is an image that has been created to describe this concept. You can find many variations of the image by doing a google search for "equity boxes". The image depicts three spectators trying to view a sporting event over a fence. The image is split between two panels. In the first panel three spectators, each a different height, stands on a box as they attempt to see over the fence. The tallest stands well over the fence. The one in the middle, standing on his box, is just tall enough to see over the fence. The shortest, even with the help of the box, still cannot see over the fence. The second panel is the same except the tallest stands on the ground and is still able to see over the fence. The shortest stands upon two boxes and can also now see over the fence. The point made by the illustration is that if we distribute the resources in a more thoughtful manner, then everybody can see the game. If we distribute resources in a more thoughtful manner, then each person can reach a minimum acceptable level of achievement.
And sure. If you frame the entirety of humanity in such simplistic, reductive terms, the line of reasoning appeals to a certain lazy intellect. There is more to unpack here, however, than simply making sure everybody gets to watch baseball. This image is meant to be used as an instructional tool to inform a world view based on the idea of equity being superior to equality. The metaphor is intended to extend to the larger universe of human endeavor.
There are several problems here that really need to be examined.
The Problem with the Boxes
The first thing to consider is where did the boxes come from? If they were discarded by some previous owner and were simply pre-existing resources, and if all of the spectators arrived at the same time, then taking the decision to let the shortest person use two boxes makes perfect sense. This is only one possibility, though. Perhaps each person brought their own box. If that is the case, then why did the tall person give up their box? Was it voluntary? If so, then this is called "charity" and is already a thing. This term that this image is used to describe is being used in the context of government policy. That leads to the conclusion that the "redistribution" was not voluntary. So how was the tall person made whole for his "contribution"? This needs to be reconciled with the notion of property rights.
Perhaps each person depicted had wood and each made a box of their own. If this is the case, then again, one must ask how the tallest was made whole. One must also ask why the shortest didn't build a structure more suited to the task and why another person was made to pay for their failure to do so. It is also worth noting here that the owner of the sporting facility chose to use their wood to protect their business interest. They constructed a fence to keep people from watching the game who had not paid for a ticket. That, however, would be the subject of an whole other blog.
Perhaps none of these are true. Perhaps someone was building boxes for their own purposes and the boxes were redirected to this use. Is the box builder obligated to keep making additional boxes for anyone who wishes to watch the game without paying? How is the box builder made whole?
The problem with the boxes is the premise that anything which can be considered a resource is automatically available for redistribution.
The Problem with the Metaphor
The second problem with this depiction is a fundamental flaw in the entire line of reasoning. Once you remove the simplistic ballpark context and attempt to apply the metaphor to the grander scheme, you reveal an ugliness at the foundation of the ideology. In the context of actual human endeavor, the point is being made that there are some people who are unable to achieve a minimum degree of success. Not by disability or foul play. Simply because of who they are, where they were born, how much money their family had, whether or not they were able to afford to go to college, etc. Perfectly normal individuals are said to not have the requisite human capacity for success without an injection of resources at someone else's expense.
Imagine the impact on a young mind of saying, in effect, "I'm giving you this boost since there's no way you could be a success on your own". What does that tell someone about their own potential? What does it tell them about the world they live in? This is a very ugly thing to think about your fellow man. It reveals a sense of superiority that cannot be justified. It reveals a lack of confidence and optimism. It shows that the thinker holds his fellow man in very low regard and that he does not believe in the credo that "All men are created equal". It also reveals either a willing or ignorant blindness to the history of America.
The Problem with the Conclusion
This leads us to the most unfortunate part of the equity discussion. The conclusion is drawn that if all starting points are not equal, then it is not possible for certain individuals to achieve. In order to hold this belief, one must reject all of the evidence to the contrary. Our history is absolutely loaded with examples of people who achieved amazing heights from origins of little or no means. People have reached the top echelons of industry, politics, healthcare, sports, technology, entertainment and more starting from nothing. Men, women, blacks, whites, hispanics, strong and able bodied, disabled, attractive, unattractive, thin, fat, young, old. Ours is a society in which people left to their own devices are able to apply their skills and talents - be they innate or trained - to whatever level of achievement their passion and dedication dictates. This is not wishful thinking. There are more examples than can be recited here. A simple google search for "self-made people list" will give the lie to the notion that an injection of resources is required in order for success to be achieved.
The Problem with the Underlying Premise
One last note worth a few lines...
In order to determine if the premise is successful, one must first identify success. The premise of the equity conversation is that without an equal starting position, certain individuals cannot be able to reach a successful end state. But all end states are not equal in and of themselves. What are the goals of the individuals? In many cases, this cannot be known in advance. The child who actually knows what he wants to be when he grows up is a rare thing indeed. So take a random sample of adults. Some may be teachers. Some may be policemen. Some may be computer professionals. Some may be proprietors of shops. How many of these would you consider successful? Perhaps the policeman chose law enforcement as a career and is pleased to be working his way up the ranks and considers himself to be a success. Perhaps the policeman always dreamed he would be a wealthy technology entrepreneur who took up law enforcement as a fall back and considers himself to be a failure. Policeman, airline pilot, politician, housewife, tech billionaire. Who can say which of these is a success and which is not? More to the point, who can say, for each of them that is a success what starting point is required to achieve it? For each that is not a success, what starting point would have been required?
The proposition that outcomes can be "equitable" - that success can be evenly distributed - cannot be realized by raising starting positions for some because the trajectories cannot be predicted. The only way it can be realized is by lowering the maximum achievable success until nobody can achieve more than the least well performing among us.