Promoting equality in One Guyana

The norm of equality has become the mantra of the age, and certainly in Guyana. However, it has become a very contested issue, which has to be unpacked very carefully so that it may be achieved as broadly as possible. Even in economic terms, as Thomas Piketty has shown, most of the world have moved further away from this goal, and we must question why. The reasons are legion, but not being confined to Guyana suggests they are structural. One salient one is that “equality” is an aspirational term frequently invoked without its users being clear about its meaning. With such subjectivity, no wonder its attainment is so conflictual.
Most would agree with the statement, “We are all equally human”, but what does that mean? Isn’t it a tautology? We are not equally tall, strong, intelligent, or beautiful, so whither equality? For the term to have any content, we have to choose particular areas of endeavour, personal attributes or treatment, and then measure whether or not we are all equal in terms of the identified criteria. As such, things or persons can be said to be equal only with some specific property that we have identified. Equality from this perspective has therefore to be contingent on the context or criteria wherein we speak. Equality is a triadic relationship; we may talk about three types of equality – those pertaining to personal characteristics, to treatment, and to distribution. The last two categories become relevant to politics, but may be dependent on personal cultural attributes.
There are some theories of equality that are purely formal; they specify no substantive content, but are simply a formula or policy. As such, once the rule is followed – for example, in colonial Guyana, where only “men of property could vote”, one could claim there was equality, even though women and slaves could not vote. Statements such as “equality before the law” also fall under this category: no questions arise as to what the content of the law was. Formal equality only demands consistency, and is nettlesome.
It is generally accepted that, in any society, some inequalities will be morally permissible. But should differences in ethnicity, interests, aptitudes, intelligence, and conceptions of “the good” justify such inequalities? Rawls’ ‘difference principle’ proposes that “any unequal distribution of social or economic goods (eg wealth) must be such that the least-advantaged members of society would be better off under that distribution than they would be under any other distribution principle.” In Guyana, these are questions that have to be discussed, debated and agreed on.
Normally, the rewards or punishment from one’s efforts are also seen as permissible (meritocratic), even if not equally distributed. Once indefensible inequalities have been identified, the state/society has to decide what to do about them. Items identified from the latter category at some time or place have been political power, opportunity for scarce resources, welfare or social position, social position/ class, economic resources, welfare etc. In general, some stress political equality, while others focus on economic equality: Conservatives and Libertarians balk at increased governmental intervention, while Socialists/Marxists/Liberals expect the state to intervene to mitigate inequalities. In Guyana, questions on the equality of social status and political and economic parity are intensely contested between the ethnic groups in the society.
As we indicated, we can only have substantive equality when there is a specific criterion identified by which policies can be assessed. For instance, in terms of “equal treatment” or opportunity, there can be formal equality if the law states that offices are open to anyone who is qualified. In this instance, one is being told that all existent inequalities of talent, birth or station etc are morally permissible. But what happens when equality of opportunity does not lead to equality of outcome because of social, cultural, or other personal attributes of some citizens?
It has been suggested that where there are historically determined structural conditions that undergird some inequalities, there may be the need for affirmative action programmes to rectify these imbalances.