Equality has always been the most powerful political idea in America, and it is becoming the most powerful idea in the world. Observers from Alexis de Tocqueville to the most recent social critics have commented upon the idea’s great force. Yet, for all its influence upon popular ideology, the idea of equality becomes a bundle of contradictory impulses once it is applied to public policy and social institutions. As the title of this lively book suggests, equality becomes equalities.
Once inequality is established, there is a deep difference between equal policies and policies that lead to equality. Once people have different needs, there is a sharp difference between treating them equally and treating them in ways that serve them equally. Once people have unequal (or unequally developed) talents, then equal opportunity cannot mean both equal opportunity and an equal prospect of success. Once society is cleaved by differences of race, sex, income, and so on, there is an intense difference between policies and reforms that reduce racial, sexual, and economic inequality and policies that diminish equality among persons. Douglas Rae and his colleagues develop an ingenious “grammar of equality” to explain and explicate the main ways in which equality turns into equalities as it passes from the realm of ideas to the realm of practice.
The book’s exciting new method of analysis, based on logic and theories of political economy and political science, is a valuable contribution. Equalities helps us answer such questions as: “Is equality possible?” “How, after so long a period of ostensible egalitarianism, can inequality still dominate so much of the social landscape?” The responses are bound to stir controversy among all those interested in political theory or in social policy or in the attainment of equality.