Do You Believe in Democracy or in Equality -- or Both?

02/23/2015 12:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

Barack Obama has called "growing inequality and lack of upward mobility... the defining challenge of our time." That was in Dec. 2013, before Thomas Piketty's book on this topic (Capital in the 21st Century) became a bestseller. Inequality is now a major concern of many people around the world. The World Values Survey reveals that the percentage of respondents considering that they endorse the statement "incomes should be made more equal" more than the statement "we need larger income differences as incentives for individual effort" rose from 37 percent to 48 percent in the USA between the 2005-2009 wave and the 2010-2014 wave of the survey, from 34 percent to 62 percent in China, from 36 percent to 59 percent in Sweden, and from 65 percent to 75 percent in Germany.

Is equality back to the center stage among peoples' values, is it the new compass in their search for better conditions of life and better institutions? Perhaps. But there is another value which has a much greater and steadier support: democracy. The World Values Survey also asks how important it is to live in a country that is governed democratically. The percentage of people leaning more on the side of "it is absolutely important" than on the side of "it is not at all important" are: 84 percent in the United States, 85 percent in China, 96 percent in Sweden, and 92 percent in Germany. These figures are those of the last wave (2010-2014), and variations are small. A staggering 97 percent is observed in Egypt while Russia, in the lowest tier, is nevertheless at 72 percent. In almost all surveyed countries (Russia is an exception, with support for equality having risen from 39 percent to 74 percent), democracy has greater support than equality, as measured by these figures.

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Is equality making a big comeback or is democracy quietly but massively superior in people's minds in most countries? The International Panel on Social Progress has identified key values that are salient in current debates about institutions and societies around the world:

  • social justice;
  • democracy and freedom;
  • solidarity and belonging;
  • well-being and flourishing.
Social justice, as the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has emphasized, is generally formulated in terms of equality (of opportunities, for instance). Democracy and freedom are close cousins because both democratic rules and basic rights enable people to be in control of their lives and of the decisions that affect them. Solidarity and belonging are about the quality of community life, about each person feeling support and recognition from the community. Well-being and flourishing are about people achieving their goals and enjoying valuable lives.

This list is important. Most debates about inequality tend to focus on income and wealth and forget important things that matter in people's lives. In particular, living in a free and democratic society greatly enhances people's sense of being in control and having the chance of pursuing a valuable life project. But democracy and equality should not be viewed as opposite values, of course. The growth of inequality is worrying precisely because it is a threat to democracy in many ways: the super-rich acquire tremendous power over the media and the political process, and lobby to reduce the size of government programs that serve the ordinary citizens but are of little use to them, such as public education and health care. And applying democratic principles more thoroughly to decisions affecting large groups of people, especially economic decisions, would go a long way toward giving everyone dignity and a chance to improve one's life conditions. It is actually remarkable that so many people keep faith in democracy in spite of glaring imperfections in current democratic political systems.

Fighting growing inequalities and pushing forward democratic practices should go hand in hand. Focusing on inequalities only may miss the important dimension embodied in values like democracy and freedom, and may miss key opportunities to gather strong support.