No one disputes that equality and justice belong together. Having said that, everyone is clear that they are not the same. Since Aristotle established justice as proportional equality there have been countless attempts to refine the relationship between the two. For the purposes of discussion I shall examine two current issues:
First, How much inequality can justice bear?
In my opinion, Rawls’s justification for legitimate inequalities cannot really be operationalised. Methodologically, we cannot determine empirically with sufficient accuracy from what point inequalities improve the situation of the poor. On the contrary, a recent study by Richard Wilkinson and Jane Pickett – The Spirit Level. Why Equality Is Better for Everyone, Penguin Books 2010 – shows that equality in many different dimensions benefits even the rich. Naturally, the line is crossed when equality (of outcome) is purchased at the price of politically imposed lack of freedom. Empirical investigations of communism, moreover, have shown that the lack of openness – that is, of freedom – meant that inequality was even more pronounced than under contemporary capitalism.
Today, after almost 30 years of global deregulation, we live in the shadow of increasing discrepancies between people’s opportunities with regard to health, income, education and freedom. At the same time, demands for equity and equality in the globalised economy either arouse suspicion as the product of envy and as likely to promote it, or are regarded as irrelevant because the global market and competition in any case make political demands illusory. For example, at any rate in the industrialised countries, in the public perception the idea has been discredited that we live in a merit-based society. While in the old Federal Republic of Germany in the 1960s/1970s the chairman of the board of a large company earned around 30 times more than ordinary employees, over the past decade or so this gap has in many instances increased tenfold. If the natural inclination towards equality in terms of proportionality between performance and reward – equal wages for equal work – is disappointed to this extent it could have serious social consequences. This does not mean that those who do not work should not eat. However, the correspondence between wages and labour must be more transparent. Sheer pragmatism dictates that the enormous discrepancies between incomes must be drastically curtailed, even if only through taxation. Otherwise, people will become demoralised on a large scale.
Second, where should one stand with regard to the demand for equality today? I am thinking of democracy’s fundamental promise of the equal right of all citizens to freedom. This right, on my understanding, is not aimed at equality of outcome but at the requirement that everyone is entitled to basic provisions in terms of public goods – security, law, health and education – which prevent them from falling into humiliating dependency, and to shape their lives at their own discretion. This does not mean, say, that they should be able to take a round-the-world trip three times a year, but rather that they at least should be in a position to choose an occupation which enables them to support themselves and to live in a social situation that they are able to determine themselves.
Given the complexity of the world in which we live now it is all the more important with regard to the one we will encounter in the future and in which our children will have to find their way when they grow up to keep the promise of an equal right to freedom, to equal opportunities for every child in relation to education. Because only if our children are as well equipped as possible to find their own way in the face of whatever life might throw at them will there be a realistic prospect of an equal right to freedom. This presents no obstacle to variety; on the contrary, it will bring it about.
Supposedly there is a consensus in our society that every child must have an equal opportunity with regard to education. In practice, that is not feasible in Germany – and in other countries – for various reasons. On the one hand, it is well known how much education depends on social background. It is not necessarily a matter of parental income but rather how much education is valued in the family. Academics tend to have their children well educated. Those who come from a long line of doctors, lawyers, clerics or teachers are more likely to excel educationally. They are also more likely to receive the requisite letter of recommendation to proceed to Gymnasium (grammar school).
On the other hand, education is usually equated with young people’s certified success in established educational institutions. Over the past three decades, in parallel with increasing global economic competition, competition between students and between educational institutions has increased enormously with regard to both young people’s motivation and educational attainment. There is more and more concentration on »the best brains« and a desire to attract them to a given business location. As a result, for the purpose of measuring educational outcomes quantitatively, in such a way that it can be expressed in the form of rankings, the criteria of assessment are increasingly being generalised, numerically reduced and narrowed down in terms of content. Young people’s diverse potential is therefore coming to the fore less and less and many become discouraged and their capacity to learn and their achievements are thereby being drastically reduced. As a result, it has not been possible to offer all young people an equal chance to develop their diverse potential and so to find their place in the world.
The alternative would be to radically reduce competition because it only offers equal opportunities if the starting conditions are the same. But that is far from the case given both external circumstances and variations in natural ability. If one wanted to make equal educational opportunities a reality one would have to provide teachers with the time, money and skills needed to do justice to individual children and to bring them along in the best possible way. It goes without saying that young people have to do their part, but that will be possible only if they are first put into a position to do so. Creating the requisite intellectual and material conditions for this, in my opinion, is among the urgent tasks involved if one wishes to live up to the demand for equality inherent in justice.