Social inequality (as a general philosophical and social concept including, before all economic inequalities along with the modern racial and gender issues of disparity) has always been a characteristic feature of human society therefore it is not surprising that majority of ancient and contemporary social philosophers are involved into discussion of how the inequality came to be and what can be done to reduce it.
As usually there is no single opinion on the issue. There is an attitude that inequality is an ingrained feature of our social structure so any attempts to reduce or eliminate it are self-defeating. Still there is another opinion: inequality emerged on a certain stage of development of human society when one group of people took advantage of all other people and captured the source of welfare – material goods. It is not yet clear which one is true.
The problem of social inequality has a long tradition of analysis; at least since the times of Aristotle, the existence of social disparity appeared a key problem for democratic theory and practice. Nowadays several major philosophical paradigms study the nature of inequality, i.e.: conservative, liberal, and radical; each of them has different vision of the problem (Conservative… 2004). We will focus on liberal and radical visions of the problem and contrast their approaches to view the problem.
Libertarian approach before all concentrates on freedoms and social rights of individuals as the members of common society. The approach focuses on people and, contrasting radical outlooks of the problem could be described as the “individualistic” one. Radical approach, speaking critically, is a “collectivistic” paradigm that put a focus on social classes instead of people.
Liberalists, in their turn, stay on the premises that everyone is before all an individual, and that all individuals have inalienable social rights guaranteed by the society (Kidder et al, 2004). The central value of liberalistic theory is, therewith, inborn freedom of people. Liberals believe that people are able to change their social status themselves and become prosperous in this life. Radicals, on the contrary observe people as foredoomed creature who can’t leave the measures of their social class. As a result, they could become equally treated only through revolutionary changes.
Capitalists, observing radical philosophy of social inequality, use all resources available to make the rest of the society equal; therewith, capitalists appear the primary enemies of social inequality who victimize the average people. Liberals never expressed such radical ideas; instead they believe that it’s rather the role of capitalists and government to establish a welfare society.
The core differences between liberal and radical approaches, comparing and contrasting ideas of Marx (Avineri, 1968) and Weber (1958), lie in their vision of the fundamentals of social inequality. While Marx stayed on the material premises and some objective reasons that people can’t change, Weber believed in people’s rationality and knowledge that help them to achieve social equality themselves. Weber’s ideas of liberalism are close to the vision of people from protestant religion perspective, while Marx’s ideals are, admittedly, closer to orthodox Christianity.
The serious difference between radicals and liberals lies in their vision of key aspects of social inequality origin. Radical philosophers develop a theory of social classes where material aspect is considered to be the key one in people’s social inequality. While liberals believe that relatively few people are unequally treated in the modern welfare societies, radical philosophers and Marx (Avineri, 1968) first of all state that the inequality is to be observed in a wider context, first of all as a disparity between major social classes.
Marx outlined five social formations; inequality did not exist in the first and the fifth formation. All people were equal during the epoch of Primitive Communism but gradually the situation changed. Asiatic or Ancient formation (slavery), Feudalism and Capitalism – other three formations – were based upon different modes of production and were characterized by great inequalities.
Liberals don’t support the idea of social classes in which radical philosopher believe so blindly. Instead, they believe that the roots of social inequality lie simply in unequal share of commonwealth during the previous time periods. This unequal distribution is, as liberal philosophers believe, the principle factor in the emergence of social inequality.
One of the first liberal philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1993; p. 84) exploring the problem of inequality came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a natural state of human beings; instead he claimed that people were born equal but voluntarily bonded themselves into the society that was evil in itself. As a result, apologists of this approach see the problem of emerged inequality as arising from societies where individuals were not listened to or treated equally. Standing on this ground, liberal philosophers criticize unlimited acquisitiveness as sheer greed, and do not agree that the market should be the arbiter of all values.
As far as liberalists stay on the principles of equal freedoms and opportunities they criticize the permanent system of welfare distribution amidst the society. The fundamentals of liberal approach to social inequality could be described, in fact, as the civilized and humane ideals where all people possess individual freedom, moral and physical autonomy social equality, a set of inalienable human rights (i.e.: to life, to express own thoughts and opinions, religious worship etc), due process at law), private property, democratic participation etc. Individual rights and freedoms are therewith are at the top of liberals’ value scale. Liberals believe in democracy as the best way of human existence and states’ development and vote for equal opportunities for all people. They, however, don’t support the necessity of regimes’ changes as the radicals’ do. Radical philosophers, in their turn, vote for immediate and rapid changes of the society.
At the same time, radical philosophers vote for rapid changes of society’s norms and traditions through revolutions. There lies the major though implicit difference between both approaches as liberals first of all want to fit unequally treated people to the standards of the others, radicals, on the contrary insist that the top of society must be pulled down and treated unequally. As a result, radicals don’t suggest a clear solution of inequality eliminating because in their model one social class shifts another while inequality isn’t reduced at all (the former USSR could serve here a good illustration).
Liberals and radicals also differ in the vision of ideal society, while first one support regulated and humane capitalism, radical philosophers believe in socialistic society where are people have equal rights. This idea, however, turned to be utopist one judging from the USSR collapse example.
Dislike radical philosophers, liberals observing Kidder (2004) never vote for the rapid and all-round changes in the society in order to reduce or eliminate inequality. Instead, they suggest the remedies for those, who became unequal in this society through no fault of their own. Therewith, liberalism as a philosophical and political system is targeted to defend people from any abuses by authorities or other people. To achieve relative social equality liberals suggest various social programs, labor units, reduction of taxes for those who are in need of such alterations.
Liberalists, dislike radical philosophers, believing in the role of society and a state as a self-regulating mechanism that is helpful for every its member. In order to achieve this objective, the government is to regulate somehow market relations to protect public interests. Apologists of liberal approach believe that government can indeed play a constructive role in the society and don’t insist on its elimination as the radicals do. In a word, liberals want both business and government to be more responsible and responsive to the public interest. That’s achieved through corporate social responsibility and governmental regulation of businesses.
Radical philosophers and politicians (Kidder, 2004) never presume the idea that a government or a state could abolish social inequality. Instead, only the unequally treated people could do this through revolutionary changes in the society having wiped out a ruling class and capitalists. The language of the radicals tends not to “convert” but to “repel” most people. Radicals, therewith, call for some drastic and fundamental changes in the economy including nationalization instead of private property, complete governmental regulation instead of partial intervention and equation of all salaries instead of mixed approach.
Do you think American society is open now?
Traditionally, American society is believed to be the most free and democratic one in the world. Comparing with the other states, even the democratic ones, we come to the conclusion that American society is quite open nowadays: that mean that all people are born equal and are provided with equal conditions for their life and development. At the same time American as probably no other society could guarantee its people the same financial welfare. Instead, provision of people with equal rights make them responsible for own social and financial development.
At the same time, American society is not deprived of several serious drawbacks that slow down building of a completely open society. It’s first of all social discrimination and derogatory stereotypes that dominate over the minds of million Americans; protectionism and some other forms of inequalities that, however, tend to lessen in the modern society.
Avineri, S. The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx. Cambridge University Press, 1968.
Conservative, Liberal, & Radical Economic Philosophies (2004). Online article retrieved July 13, 2004 from http://www.tc.umn.edu/~smith097/articles/C.3.htm
T. et al (2004). World Views on Inequality: Where Did It Come From and What Can We Do? Online article retrieved July 13, 2004 from http:/www.earlham.edu/~pls/
Rousseau, J.-J. The Social Contrast and The Discourses. [Translated by G.D.H. Cole]. London: David Campbell Publishers Ltd., 1993.
Weber, M. (1958). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.