First, differentiate equality

Much of the vocal debate over equality has been and remains at the macro-principle node. We all have equal rights; we all should have equal opportunities. Yet from the very beginning exceptions have been in the form of specific contingency scenarios read-off the macro, e.g., people are in principle equal but people are not born with the same and equal potentials. Contingency scenarios qualifying the reading of macro-principles–“It’s always a good principle, even as it needs modifying here. . .”–litter debates over equality.

As the genetics we are born with are of course not everything, we also find vast differences in human-by-human particularities in virtue of different life experiences, lived contexts and tacit knowledge. Equal at the macro level, the most obvious fact at the micro-level is how unequal each person is so many other ways.

Macro-principle, principle-based contingency scenarios and micro-experience are not the only nodes around which equality debates organize. The gap between macro-principle on paper and system behavior in practice is everywhere evident when it comes to equality. Systemwide pattern recognition, our fourth node, is populated by all manner of trends and statistics that show, e.g., just how unequal income, wealth and consumption distributions are within and across countries. Indeed, the shortfall between equality as professed and equality as realized is benchmarked in this gap between macro-principle and the recognition of systemwide patterns.

To sum up, the macro-node for equality debates formalizes as principle what others cannot help but seek to informalize more through exceptions and contingency scenarios. The micro-node informalizes what others cannot help but seek to more formalize when they talk about systemwide patterns emerging across different cases. Equality, in this way, can’t help but be a messy project.

Even though the four nodes are interconnected, nothing stops privileging one over another, or some over others. In doing so, however, one risks exaggerating his or her emphasis. There is a world of difference between privileging one node from the get-go versus answering the question, “What do we do here and now for this equality,” after first assessing the four nodes with their conflicts and examples.

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