Cover: Making Up for Lost Time or Lost Utility

Making Up for Lost Time or Lost Utility

Casual Notes on Equality and Equity

Published 1968

by Albert Wohlstetter

These offhand notes are some of many written for my own clarification in the course of empirical work on race differences in income. I am putting them out as a D(L) on the chance that they may be of interest to someone else. The six "games," in particular, seemed a useful device to several people.

We say that a gin rummy game at the Friars Club was unfair because some of the players played according to the rules and others received information from confederates looking through peepholes in the ceiling. The crooked players gained some advantages having nothing to do with luck or their skill in gin rummy.

Of course, even if there had been no cheating it would be possible to use the words so that we would say, "It's unfair: So and so is smarter than I am, and better at gin rummy." (It must be tempting, for example, for some at Rand to say it's unfair that Ed Quade is so smart at bridge.) And it's even possible to say "There is no equity in this world: I'm terribly unlucky at cards." Ordinarily, however, we regard stochastic fluctuations and differences in skill as part of the game, and complaints about Unjust Fortune, Cruel Luck, or the other fellow's keenness are metaphor, pathetic fallacy or plain bad temper. One can, of course, decide to use the words so that every inequality is also an inequity. But then, I'm afraid that we would have to make a distinction between two sorts of inequity — one corresponding to the old "inequality" and the other corresponding to the old "inequity." We need such distinctions as "equality of condition" and "equality of opportunity." In fact, we need more of them. A simple pair won't do.

Part of the trouble is that the words "inequality" and "inequity" look and sound pretty much alike. They have several logical connections with each other; and a great many etymological or genetic ones. But in many contexts, they plainly don't mean the same thing. In ordinary language we don't regard every difference in rewards as unfair. Nor is the reverse true: We don't take every case of identical rewards as just. Quite the contrary. If a man skilled as a surgeon, after many years of training and practice in providing a service that is generally prized highly in the market, were to earn only the same amount, with much effort and diligence, as an unskilled man may make with modest application in a much less valued activity, ordinarily we would call that unfair. If I were the first fellow, I'd be outraged.

Everyday language has its vaguenesses and inconsistencies here and, even more, some ethical and political theories depart from everyday usage. Egalitarians sometimes adopt the position that any difference in rewards is intrinsically unjust. It is hard, however, to find even a theorist who holds such a strict egalitarianism consistently. Most merely would reduce "inequalities of condition" and believe that this reduction would follow from reducing inequities, from increasing "equalities of opportunity." (R. H. Tawney who is usually thought of as being "against" inequality talks mainly of "a large measure of practical equality" in his classic tract on the subject. And of the elimination of "...the most shocking of existing inequalities.")

Those who in some future society would separate reward from ability and from effort, commonly use some such principle as "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." And that principle doesn't make rewards equal to all persons. It simply shifts the basis for differentiation from "ability" to "need." Presumably a couple in the prime of life with a large variety of interests and responsibilities — including 5 or 6 children in school — would have greater "needs" than a contemplative bachelor in good health. In the hypothetical society envisaged, then, paying them the same would be unjust.

There are difficulties in defining both "needs" and "rewards." Separating "needs" from "wants" is poking at a hornet's nest; it is plain that we are not simply talking about biological needs. And "rewards" may cover an immense variety of non-pecuniary valued things and relationships — some of which by their nature cannot be held equally by all. Or even by two: for example, some specific position in a series like being first in line at the Rose Bowl; or single possession of some unique object. It is possible frequently, of course, to construct "equivalents." An equal chance to obtain the position of the unique object is one such equivalent but this leads one away from equality of condition towards some variant of equality of opportunity. A strict egalitarianism in respect to all valued conditions is hard to make consistent even in theory. That is another and longer story. The point I would make here is that in normal usage we make a distinction between "inequity" and "inequality." And so do most ethical theorists, even those who are generally regarded as egalitarian. This is not to say, however, that in practice, in the complex circumstances of modern society, the distinction is an easy one to make.

Unequal individuals are nonidentical: they differ in some respect; there is some attribute they do not have in common. That is the barest, most essential understanding of "inequality." Despite its bareness, it can carry us pretty far. It is Leibniz's definition of "non-identity," a definition of continuing importance in logic. Nonidentical individuals, in general, will be equal in some respects and unequal in others. As a yes-no matter, the relation "unequal in respect to attribute A" is not hard to define. Trouble comes from failure to specify the defining attribute or in the arbitrary weighting of several attributes. Metrical or ordinal definitions of "equality" or "inequality" are harder to make persuasive, even when one specifies the respect in which equality is considered. The usage is vaguer, more ambiguous or more arbitrary. Some groups of men are more equal than others. But the ordering may differ, even when the respect in which they differ is specified, depending on whether one uses Gini's coefficient of concentration, the relative standard deviation, the variance of the natural logarithms, the range, the semi-interquartile range, or any of a number of other familiar measures.

"Inequity" on the other hand, even as a qualitative, non-ordinal relation involves a great deal more than a simple difference. It has to do with notions of unfairness, with cases where there are special kinds of difference, with unequal chances for success, with cases where, as we say, "the cards are stacked." The old distinction in democratic theory between "equality of condition" and "equality of opportunity" is one such separation of equality from equity.

But how do we define equal chances of success? Do we mean that people who have the same skills now should have the same chances from now on for success in accordance with skill? Differences in skill in part result from variations in the opportunity to acquire skill. And differences in the opportunity to acquire skill stem in part from past inequities or inequalities of opportunity. Making up for the residual of past discrimination and its effect on current prospects seems quite reasonable. But, of course, not only was time lost and an accumulation lost of cultural traits helpful in success, but in the past there were considerably fewer satisfactions. Should society make up for such deficits in satisfaction in the past? At what rate of discount?

Such questions are the occasion for these rough notes. Nathan Glazer, Patrick Moynihan, James Q. Wilson have all said recently that Negroes no longer "demand...equal opportunity" but "equality of economic results."[1] Such statements sound as if their authors are advocating complete equality of economic condition. I think, however, that what they really suggest is the inadequacy of "equality-of-opportunity-from-now-on," if there is no attempt to make up for handicaps resulting from past discrimination.

Very large inequalities in condition between sizable groups of people defined by traits irrelevant to reward may be strong evidence of some mixture of past and present unfairness. (See p. 9 "An aside on roughly equal outcomes as evidence rather than definition of 'fairness'.") But neither Wilson nor Moynihan nor Glazer are really advocating an abandonment of the distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of condition. They don't advocate that all Negroes or all whites or all people receive the same rewards regardless of skill, effort and tastes, etc. Rather their strictures suggest that the pair of distinctions between opportunity and condition is inadequate. We need more distinctions. The trouble is we seem to find it hard to preserve even a pair.

There seems to be a permanent tendency to lose the distinction between "equity" and "equality" and to treat every inequality as an inequity. This is visible not only in confusions in the use of these words, but also in several related words. For example, "to discriminate," in origin, means merely to differentiate, to see a difference. But, it has come to mean making an unjustified distinction, one that has nothing to do with merit but only with stigmata. This can lead to some rather fruitless dialogues in which all the speakers use words like "inequality" or "discrimination" but some are simply claiming that there are individual differences in ability, either inborn or acquired, and others are opposing invidious distinctions that do not correspond to such differences.

Nor, it should be noted, do considerations of "equity" cover more than a part of the subject of welfare. They deal with distributive questions — how the pie is divided up, rather than its size and rate of growth — and only some distributive questions: matters of compassion differ from cases of inequity. While inequity has something to do with the rules of a given society, compassion may be much less bounded by the territorial limits of the society. This note, however, is about the rules of the game in a specific society.

Consider then several somewhat simplified cases of social arrangements — drawn on the analogy of games — including both skill, chance, and rewards.

1. Equality of condition. A game in which social arrangements from the start allow equally endowed players equal chances, but compensate unequally endowed players so as to iron out any inequality in the rewards. Equality of rewards is imposed regardless also of differences in taste. Identical outcomes then are obtained by redressing native differences in skill potential, neglecting differences in tastes for risks or for leisure and by compensating for bad luck, for all stochastic fluctuations. Such equality of condition does not assure equal satisfaction. It is in particular different from equality of opportunity. It is not much of a game.

2. Equality of opportunity from the start. In this game the arrangements starting at time zero allow equally skilled players equal chances of success, and unequally skilled players unequal expectations of success. It is fair to all players at time t0. Some players of equal skill may have unequal luck. The game doesn't compensate for differences in luck. (It may be that some players enjoy risks and some dislike it. This game permits players to select safe or risky strategies according to taste.)

3. Equality of opportunity from now on: Original players only.

This game is "unfair" from t0 to time t1. But beginning in t1 discontinues the initial biased practice. That is, from t0 to t1 the arrangements offer selectively certain cumulative advantages (for example, "clues" or helpful information). The arrangements may offer such advantageous information at a steady rate da1/dt. Players in a first class k1 have greater chances of success than players in a second class k2. Moreover, some of this advantage in information carries over. It cumulates, offering increased chances of success to members of k1 up to time t1. Players in k2 get cumulative advantages at a lower rate da2/dt during the whole period from t0 to t1. During that period

Beginning at t1 the rules are changed. From then on first and second-class players reeive advantageous information at the same rate. But past advantage, the cululated past information continues to help k1. Is the game fair?

The answer isn't open and shut. The simple alternatives of equality of condition and equality of opportunity do not cover such a case. Nonetheless, it seems plausible to say that this game isn't very fair, and to suggest some adjustment of the sort indicated under game 4.

4. Cumulative equality of opportunity: Original players only.

This game like the preceding one starts out unfair at time t0. Up to t1 there are cumulative disadvantages to the k2 players. However, from time t1 to time t2 the arrangements are altered, not simply to prevent a further accumulation of disadvantage to k2, but to compensate for the cumulative disadvantages in the prior period. The compensation is intended to make up for the information received by k1 and not by k2 in the prior period only insofar as information left a residue for the players of k1. "Information," moreover, should be interpreted broadly to include the residual attitudes, value judgments and social habits which by t1 put k1 members at an advantage over members of k2. It is broad enough in short to include the sorts of things entitled "culture" in studies of political and economic development. No compensation is provided for any psychological suffering or lost enjoyments by k2. The compensation is meant only to bring k2 up to speed with k1. By t2 it is assumed the members of k2 will have received as much cumulative information as k1 will have received from the start of t0. That is the point of intended compensation, not heart balm. (Though another case might consider that, too.)

From t2 on there are only random differences between the members of the two classes. Some play poorly, some are unlucky, but this is not correlated with membership in k1 or k2.

5. Cumulative equality of opportunity: new players or immigrants entering the game at t1. In the games (3) and (4), it was assumed that all members were in the game from the start. The disadvantaged class k2 might be thought of as the American Negroes and the American Indians, for example. The game in this case may be said to have started early in the 17th century. The Indians were here at the beginning and Negroes came with the early settlers of Virginia. The game has been running for over 350 years. t0 to t1 has been a long time. The most obvious justification for applying the rules described under game (4) to Negroes and Indians is that the present culture of the American Negroes and the American Indians has been formed over a very long period in American society. And it is the result in good part of several centuries of cumulative disadvantage. And even if Negro and Indian characters had not been positively formed by the context of American society — in the sense that their characters had just persisted unchanged — it seems reasonable to call this a failure of American society, a case of nonfeasance if not a case of misfeasance.

One basis for a constitutional argument in favor of special attention to the Negro and to the Indian from now on, until they can be brought in with the white majority, is that our society's responsibility to provide equal opportunities involves bringing about cumulative equality of cultural advantage. The balance needs to be struck considering the past as well as the present advantages of the white majority. American society has a responsibility for the culturally disadvantaged state of the Negro and of the Indian. We are aiming at equality of opportunity at time t2 and equality of cumulative advantages from t0 to t2.

On this view there is an apparent difference between the obligations or, at any rate, the basis of the obligations of American society to the Negro and to the American Indian. And its obligations to (a) poor, developing peoples in other parts of the world whose development has not been determined by the United States, and (b) people immigrating to the United States from these other parts of the world. Under the first heading, one might include villagers in some of the remoter parts of West Irian. They are poor and their traditions and attitudes towards work, family, science, and a great many other matters make it hard for them to catch up with us. But they are not poor because of any prejudicial treatment by the United States; in this case, by assumption, their culture has not been shaped by or significantly affected at all by us. Their situation is quite different from that of the American Negro and the American Indian. There seems to me to be reason enough for the United States to do more than it is doing to help reduce the very large inequality between the rich countries and the poor countries. These reasons, however, have to do with compassion or charity; and they may have something to do with a very long-run increase in international order. Though this is hard to demonstrate and I have no intention of going into it more deeply here, I believe there are such valid reasons. However, such inequalities are not injustices of American society in the sense that we have been talking about in connection with the American Negro and the American Indian.

Case "b" is somewhat different from case "a," and closer to the situation of the American Indian and the American Negro. Case "b" concerns the entry into the game at a later date of people who, for reasons unconnected with the United States, have cultural backgrounds unfitting them for success in American society at the time of their entry. And perhaps unfitting them to acquire the necessary equal skills in a reasonable period between t1 and t2 with a great deal of help. We might even consider a case where they are unable to acquire such skills even with help. At the very least, the Puerto Ricans may be said to arrive in the Port of New York or Miami unequipped to compete evenly with the main body of Americans. Immigrants from elsewhere in the world, less touched by the U.S. influence, might make the point even more strongly. We might take an immigrant from West Irian. His case is different from that of the American Negro. This is obscured by the fact that there has been a vast movement of Negroes from the American south to the north and west. And in some relevant respects we find it useful to compare them with earlier immigrants. But there is a difference. The Negroes have immigrated from one part of the United States to another. The immigrant from West Irian on the other hand acquired his cultural endowments outside this country and independently of it.

It may be then that the United States is under no obligation on grounds of equity to mount a massive effort to fit the immigrant from outside for life in the United States on equal terms. The society might do it on other grounds. And it seems reasonable that a democracy should expand the effort to help a new class k3, entering from outside, to catch up in some reasonable period of time. It also seems reasonable that it impose conditions for entry at time t1 that would exclude anyone with cultural backgrounds so ill adapted to life in its society that they could not catch up in a reasonable period of time with a reasonable expenditure of resources by the society itself. Aside from proposing appropriate entrance conditions and an appropriate grade period, I am not sure that there is any special social responsibility which offers a clear-cut definition as to what expenditures are reasonable.

This much applies to late entrants into the game whose culture was accumulated outside the game. But if players have been in the game from the start and if their culture was shaped in the course of prior play, it seems plausible to attribute a responsibility to the society to help in catching up. That is the case of k2 described under case 4.

An aside on roughly equal outcomes as evidence rather than definition of "fairness." Given two large classes, k1 and k2, with equal genetic endowments, and the long history in the country, roughly equal outcomes are not an absolute requirement. They are, however, evidence that the game is fair and great inequalities evidence the opposite. If outcomes are broadly enough defined to allow for variations in individual choice of occupations, etc., rough equality may offer a plausible intermediate objective.

6. Cumulated equal opportunity plus compensation for past losses in satisfaction. The cases so far have in one way or the other considered the past only in terms of the cumulative, relative disability it may have effected in the present. And, specifically, the effects of past unfairness. But, besides this residual effect on current changes there are past relative losses in satisfaction which have left no trace. compensating for them will have the smallest appeal for those whose ancestors suffered no major discrimination, and who want bygones to be bygones. They will seem less important also to a minority bent on becoming a partner in the large society. But they might conceivably form part of the basis for resentment in minorities today. Presumably, the more remote in the past the discrimination, the less intense the resentment and desire for compensation. The present estimation of hurt is arrived at by some time rate of discount. (Charles Wolf suggests this formulation to me.) but it may be that the time rate of discount itself may change when evils are acknowledged and begin to be correct. The old wounds may be opened up, the discount rate diminished, the desire for compensation increased. This sort of consideration is rather different from those made in the first six sets of arrangements, but it may have some psychological relevance to a minority bent on protest rather than partnership.


  • [1] James Q. Wilson, "The Negro in Politics," p. 438, and Patrick Moynihan, "Employment, Income and the Ordeal of the Negro Family," p. 134, in The Negro American, ed. Talcott Parsons and Kenneth B. Clark (Beacon Press, Boston, 1965).

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