Equal or Fair?

03/14/2012 11:32 am ET | Updated May 14, 2012
  • Amitai Etzioni Professor of international relations, George Washington University

Occupy Wall Street is reported to be regrouping and searching for new ways to rekindle the hope on the left that, finally, the masses are awakening and people are lining up to fight against inequality. The slogan "We are the 99%" is held to show that a major leftist progressive theme has caught on. True, many agree OWS has not yet fleshed out its agenda or strategy; however, the energy is there, the commitment is visible, and the rest will come. Well not so fast.

As I see it, the American people, including those who took to the streets and parks, are distressed by the unfairness of it all -- but are not necessarily hooked on ending inequality or even taking it on as their main concern. Thus, one can be outraged about the fact that the Obama administration bailed out the banks but let millions of homeowners be kicked out of their homes -- without giving a thought to inequality. And one can fume about the fact that those who inherit money or make a living by speculating or gambling on Wall Street pay half as much in taxes as the rest of us who must work to make ends meet and still not see this as a matter of equality. The same is true for the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poorer -- poorer, and that those who cannot find jobs end up dying in Afghanistan much more often than those who have work.

Many that see these and other outrages in our public life seek fairness -- but not necessarily equality. Thus, they want all income to be taxed at the same rate, but not to eliminate differences in income or even to greatly reduce these differences. They do not mind that the rich get richer; they would like for those who are poor to have more of a chance to grow rich too. They are not troubled by the fact that many can afford to buy additional health insurance privately, above and beyond what Medicare or their employer provides; they only consider it unfair that some people cannot get any health insurance.

One may ask: what is the big difference? If the left wants to work for equality and many people seek fairness, cannot they meet promoting the same judicious policies? There are two major reasons to heed the difference. The language of equality will leave many who merely seek fairness unmoved and uninvolved. And some policies that go beyond promoting fairness and seek to advance equality will not be supported by many of the newly awakened masses. Thus, many Americans may well support a flat tax, but not one that is truly rather than nominally progressive; they may favor an estate tax -- but only on large estates; and they may support taxing money earned from capital gains and that earned from work at the same rate, but not raising the taxes on the rich to a point that equality can be attained.

In determining how the left -- and its new hoped-for expression in OWS -- will frame the issues and policies that are to advance social justice, it had best take into account that inequality is a difficult concept. People often differ on whether they favor equality of opportunity or of results. Many agree that a high level of equality is not compatible with a free society. Some argue that we should make up for inequalities that are generated by nature, while others oppose it. In contrast, ask any six-year-old (as I did) what is fair, and they will have rather clear answers. As OWS is looking for new directions, promoting fairness should top the list.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and the author of The Moral Dimension (Free Press, 1990).