Human equality is one of the foundational biblical values we talk about here at ELI. Every single human being is made in God’s image and has been tasked with bearing the role of image-bearer, which is the royal priestly role of extending God’s care, creation, and rule into the world and reflecting the worship of the world back to God. Hierarchies between humans, where some are seen as more valuable and are thus given extra power to exercise rule and creative capacity while others have these powers diminished, are not a part of God’s creational design and will be fully done away with when the Lord returns to finally mend the divide between heaven and earth — maranatha! And yet, there are many Christians who question whether this fundamental of our faith should lead us to praise economic equality. They object that in order to achieve equality, you would have to force everyone to be identical. Human beings don’t all make the same choices, we don’t all have the same abilities, and we don’t all think the same. How could we possibly expect or even desire equal outcomes when, say, even two siblings are so unalike as to create inequality between them?
I think this is where the fact that “equality” has so many meanings becomes a barrier to good conversation. “Equality” in the way I and other egalitarians use it does not mean “equivalence.” It does not mean we should ignore, downplay, or suppress the ways people are different from one another. It’s never enough to just say that you want “equality” and say nothing more. Many people who use that term think it’s sufficient to give formal equality to different people in a given process — that is, not showing favoritism in court, for instance. I’m trying to argue for something more specific: since we are creatures of a good God who has graced all of us with his image and all that entails, we ought to ensure each person has equal real access to the means to live a flourishing life.
This vision of equality precisely does not want to force every person to become identical, but it rather asks a society how it can give full access to a flourishing life to all kinds of different people. Let’s think of one way in which people are different from one another: the mobility of their bodies. Some people have to use wheelchairs or electric scooters, either temporarily or for their whole lives. For a long time, city sidewalks and buildings were constructed in such a way that it was a lot more difficult for these people to access the means to live a flourishing life. That’s the purpose of things like ramps and curb cuts: to make it easier for those with mobility-limiting disabilities to enjoy equal access to the basic structures of our society. It is precisely by attending to these kinds of differences between people that greater equality is achieved.
So what about people’s different choices? How could we possibly have a society with this kind of equality without completely constraining the choices people are allowed to make? I think here it’s most important to remember that people don’t live in “choose your own adventure” books, where the result of each choice is already given. We live in societies that we build together, and the different economic consequences for people’s choices are not usually just natural. It is not a law of the universe that someone who decided to become a Wall Street trader should have far more access to the resources they need to live a flourishing life than the parent of a Downs syndrome child who decided to be a musician at her church. In fact, with regard to children, capitalism will constrain the kinds of choices people feel they can make all on its own. Adding children to your family adds a cost without adding any income, which is the way people survive in capitalism. People often have to choose between having children, which is a good in itself, and being able to pay all the bills. To create greater equality than capitalism does would be to give people more freedom to grow their families.
There is often a false opposition at work in this debate: if you increase equality, you will, in an equal and opposite way, decrease liberty. That is a very oversimplified way of thinking about both equality and liberty, for you have to imagine that equality is simply the act of making everyone equivalent and that liberty is only freedom from any constraints. But neither of these things are true: there are kinds of equality that are more important than others, and likewise kinds of liberty more important than others. Equality in the ability to access food, shelter, and healthcare is more important than equality in ability to play basketball or dance. The liberty to have a say in the rules of society, including one’s working life, is more important than the liberty to accumulate limitless wealth. The equalities and freedoms we encourage should be the ones that allow everyone to access the means to live flourishing lives as images of God, and that extends even to our economic and working lives.