How much inequality should there be?
How much inequality should there be?

Harry and Helena are having dinner with their Dad.

They're having sausages. Both children like sausages.

There are five sausages left.

Dad gives Harry three sausages, and Helena two sausages.

Helena says, 'That's not fair!'

Is Helena right? It depends on the reason for the unequal allocation of sausages.

Let's look at some possible reasons for Dad's decision.

1. Helena is three, and Harry is thirteen.

2. Dad thinks boys are more important than girls.

3. Helena is fourteen, and Harry is thirteen, but Harry emptied the dishwasher, swept the kitchen floor, peeled the potatoes and took out the rubbish before dinner, while Helena lay on the sofa watching Netflix.

4. If Harry doesn't get more sausages than his sister, Dad knows, from long experience, that he will pick up his plate and throw it on the floor, shout and swear all afternoon, and generally make everyone's lives a misery.

5. Both children have just got their school exam results. Harry got all As, and Helena got all Cs.

What has this got to do with debating?

The story of Harry and Helena is a way of illustrating a fundamental issue that comes up in a lot of debates: inequality. How much inequality is fair? How much inequality is too much?

The historical fact is that there has never, for any length of time, been a completely equal society. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the early Christians 'had everything in common', in an attempt to live out their faith that all people were created equal in the sight of God; in due course the church acquired immense wealth and power, which was not equally shared. In the very early days of both the Russian and the Chinese communist revolutions, people shared communal living spaces with virtually no private possessions in an attempt to enact Karl Marx's dictum 'from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs'; before too long an elite of party members with access to the best houses, schools and jobs developed.

Is that because inequality is inherent in human nature? Should we just accept it? Or is it possible - is it desirable - to make a society that is at least more equal, even if it isn't 100% equal? Or, on the other hand, might inequality actually be a good thing? Might it be a way of recognising that we are all different? Or a way of encouraging us to work hard and aspire to improve ourselves?

Let's go back to Harry, Helena, and different reasons for the unequal sausage allocation.

1. Helena is three, and Harry is thirteen.

In this case, Harry simply needs more food than his sister, because he has the body of a teenage boy, and she has the body of a toddler. Similarly, in wider society, some people have greater needs than others.

Let's imagine two women, Anna and Bella. They both work in a call centre for a bank. They sit next to each other. They do the same job, for the same pay. They like to chat to each other in the breaks, and as they do, they realise that they have very different lives. Anna has six children. The father of those children (having forced Anna into having them) now has nothing to do with them, or with her, and cannot be found. Anna also has a recently widowed father, who is disabled, who lives with her, and for whom she cares. Bella, on the other hand, is single (and is happy to be so) and has no dependants.

Although Anna and Bella earn the same amount, Anna needs more money than Bella. She needs a big house for her children and her father to live in, and she has to buy food for them to eat. She could work work extra hours to generate more income, but then she would not have time to look after her family. Her life is hard. Meanwhile, Bella has money and time to spare. Her life is easy.

Is it fair that Anna's life is harder than Bella's? How is their situation going to affect their relationship? Are they more or less likely to be friends? What if the state gave people an income in proportion to the number of children they had? Would this be a good idea? Or would it just encourage people to have more children? People can, to a degree, control how many children they have; none the less, once the children are there, they need supporting. Is it right that some children, who have not chosen their family situation, should grow up with less? Isn't it fair that people should be given what they need? Or should people take responsibility for themselves and their families?

2. Dad thinks boys are more important than girls.

Dad is wrong, of course. But there are endless examples throughout history and around the world of people being economically excluded, earning less, for reasons which are beyond their control and have nothing to do with their inherent merit. It might be because of their skin colour; their gender; their religion. Sometimes this discrimination is openly enshrined in the law, as in the legislation banning black people from certain jobs in apartheid South Africa, or in the requirement for women to resign from certain jobs on marriage in early twentieth century Britain. Sometimes it is not in the law but is none the less present in the structures of society, as in Northern Ireland in the twentieth century, where the best paying jobs and the best housing were only available to Protestants; in theory Catholics could apply for a better job or or put in an offer for a better house, but everyone knew their application would go straight in the bin. Sometimes the discrimination is so subtle and deeply embedded that even those practising it are not aware that they are doing so, as in the unconscious bias that leads black people in the UK more likely to be excluded from school, more likely to end up in prison, less likely to be appointed or promoted to well paying jobs.

We all know treating people unequally on the grounds of their race, gender or religion is wrong; that's beyond debate. What's more, in the UK it's against the law. The Equalities Act of 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage, civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity. Is having that law enough? Or do we need to impose quotas to ensure that the representation of different types of people in different professions reflects their representation in society as a whole? Or will that be counter-productive, causing women and people of colour to be seen as only having got their jobs because they are the 'diversity hire'? Will it undermine the achievements of those who have got to the top by their own efforts?

3. Helena is fourteen, and Harry is thirteen, but Harry emptied the dishwasher, swept the kitchen floor, peeled the potatoes and took out the rubbish before dinner, while Helena lay on the sofa watching Netflix.

Now this looks fair. Harry works harder and does more for the family than Helena (at least today) so of course he deserves more. This is one of most fundamental arguments in favour of economic inequality. People who do more demanding or more worthwhile jobs should be paid more: partly because that's fair, and partly because otherwise no one will want to do them.

But does what people earn really reflect the value of their jobs to society? The Covid-19 pandemic has made us all think again about this. When the rest of society was locked down, shelf stackers, bus drivers, hospital cleaners and rubbish collectors all carried on going out to work, often at great risk to their health. Why? Because, while everything else could come to a stop for a while, society could not function without these 'key workers'. Every Thursday night we all stood outside our houses applauding them. And yet their jobs - essential jobs without which we could not survive - are amongst the worst paid. Thanks for the applause, many said, but could we also have more money?

Or what if it's not Helena's fault that she has had what looks like a lazy day? Maybe she has been lying on the sofa because she is recovering from a serious illness. Maybe she is suffering from depression. Maybe she is disabled and it is physically impossible for her to do what her brother is doing. She might feel intensely frustrated and jealous of her brother for being able to make a contribution to the family and being recognised for it. What do we do about people who are not able to work? Do we let them starve?

4. If Harry doesn't get more sausages than his sister, Dad knows, from long experience, that he will pick up his plate and throw it on the floor, shout and swear all afternoon, and generally make everyone's lives a misery.

Often, people get more, not because they deserve it, but because they have power. They might be high up in a powerful institution within a society, like the Church in medieval England, or the Communist Party in the Soviet Union; as a result, they get the best of everything. Or they might already be wealthy, and use that wealth to keep their wealth by buying newspapers or TV stations and thus exerting influence through the media, or by making large donations to political parties, to ensure that no policies are enacted that threaten their wealth. Or, more subtly and perhaps more insidiously, they might exercise influence through cultivating relationships with powerful people they were at school or university with, or who are in their social group, which enable them to get the highest paid jobs.

Say Jesus wouldn't have lived in a big palace like the bishop's while people starved? You're a heretic who's going to Hell. Point out that being driven everywhere in a limousine isn't very Communist? Off to the Gulag for you as a counter-revolutionary. Just won an election and want to raise taxes on the very wealthy? All of a sudden a best selling newspaper has dug up an embarrassing love affair from your past and is going to splash it on the front page if you don't change your mind. Want that promotion? I know you worked hard for it, but the man who ends up getting it shared a dorm with the boss at prep school, so he knows he's a good chap.

This kind of unfairness is less obvious, but in a way more damaging, than discrimination on the grounds of race, gender or religion. What makes it harder to tackle is that those who have an unfair share of the goodies can use their power to make it seem as if that state of affairs is simply a law of nature that can never be altered. It is God's will that the bishop should live in a palace; the Party is on the right side of history; everyone knows higher taxes will wreck the economy because all the newspapers and all the TV stations say so; we always appoint people from that school because they get such a good education. Harry never actually has to throw his plate on the floor to get his extra sausages; he knows by now that he will get them. What's more, he gets what he wants so often that his sister grows up believing that it is part of the natural state of affairs for boys to get more than girls. Very likely she will end up marrying a man who pushes her around like her brother did, and she will think this is normal too, and perhaps her daughter will too, and her granddaughter, and so on, until one of them sees that another way of doing things is possible.

5. Both children have just got their school exam results. Harry got all As, and Helena got all Cs.

Like example no 3, this looks fair. Harry must have worked harder, so of course he deserves a reward. It's certainly replicated in real life; people's earning capacity is very highly correlated to their level of academic qualification. But it may not be as simple as it looks. What if Harry was always allowed the computer to do his homework on? What if Harry and Helena's parents paid for a tutor for Harry, but not for Helena? What if they sent Harry to a better school than Helena? What if Helena has no confidence because her Dad has always let her know that he favours boys over girls? What if Helena is just less academic than Harry, but is much better at lots of other things - say, fixing bikes, or baking cakes, or telling jokes, or just being kind to her family and friends - any one of which might be more useful than memorising a lot of stuff for a test? Exams look like a level playing field, but in fact all kinds of other factors come into play which have little or nothing to do with academic ability.

The more you think about it, the more complex an issue inequality becomes. Like all the best issues.

Motions that go with this topic

  • This house would introduce a universal basic income.
  • This house would increase benefits.
  • This house would increase the minimum wage.
  • This house would introduce a maximum wage.
  • This house would ban schools from selecting on the grounds of academic ability.
  • This house would oblige all news outlets to observe impartiality.
  • This house would make it compulsory for 50% of members of company boards to be female.
  • This house would make universities offer places to BAME students in proportion to their distribution in society.
  • This house believes economic inequality is bad for society.