I’m a Political Theorist, and I Hate the “Equality”/”Equity” Chart

by Benjamin Studebaker

Have you seen it? There’s this chart that goes around and around the internet, with three people of different heights attempting to watch a baseball game. I hate it so much, but I suppose I have to show it to you, in case you’re not familiar:

Image result for equality equity

I’m a political theorist, and I work on inequality, and this chart is so reductive and so unhelpful I can’t even. Where to begin? Well, first, there are a lot of different ways to conceptualise “equality” as a value. I’d say there are at least three different features that go into it:

  1. The currency of justice–what is it that we are equalising? Is it resources, opportunity, welfare, capabilities, concern, or something else?
  2. The distributive principle–are we aiming at strict equality, or something less demanding? Prioritarianism gives priority to the worst off, sufficientarianism ensures everyone meets a minimum level, while utilitarianism treats each unit as equal within an aggregative calculation.
  3. Who matters–are they individuals, identity groups, or classes? Do you have to be a citizen of the polity doing the redistribution to matter? Do non-human animals matter? Do plants matter? Do ecosystems matter?

You can combine the currency, distributive principle, and answer to the “who matters” question together in so many different ways. Taken together, each one forms a “conception” or “theory” of equality, and they all have a claim on the term. “Equality” is itself a nebulous concept that can be used to say lots of different things. When we teach equality to undergraduates, we need to show them how controversial the term is, how many ways it can be understood, and encourage them to form their own arguments for particular currencies, distributive principles, and answers to the “who matters” question.

But some really terrible universities–mostly American–have lazily used the equality/equity chart as a substitute for properly educating students. The chart collapses the equality debate into a reductive binary. “Equality” is associated with each person getting a box. This looks like a form of equality of resources, but one which would not even meet a sufficientarian standard of ensuring everyone can actually see the game. There are very few political theorists who would support a view of equality in which there’s equality of resources but the pot of resources is not even large enough to ensure everyone can see the game. It’s a straw man position–it doesn’t resemble anybody’s real-life stance. By contrast, they’ve associated “Equity” with each person getting the same view of the game. This is a version of “equality of welfare”. By telling students that equality of welfare is “equity” instead of “equality”, we conceal from them the reality that the concept of equality can be used to say lots of different things. Those students will go through life imagining that whenever anyone uses the word “equality”, they are referring to a ridiculous position that nobody in the literature holds.

This doesn’t give students interesting debates to think about or engage–it’s set up to force students to accept a particular conception of equality by giving it the imprimatur of its very own term, “equity”. It’s an attempt to persuade students by using definitions to trick them instead of giving them the tools necessary to form their own positions. The people using this chart don’t care if students understand the complexities of the equality debate–they just want the students to leave university with their preferred view. This is propaganda, not education, and I say that as someone who is honestly quite sympathetic to the “equality of welfare” view.

But this is just one problem with the chart. There are others. The chart fails to engage the debate over scarcity–are there enough boxes for everyone to see the game, or do we need more boxes to get the job done? If there aren’t enough boxes, how do we decide which people are denied a view? The chart also builds in an assumption that some people are able to see the game without any help from society at all. Are there really any people in our society like the tall man? Surely everyone gets some help from the state, whether it’s in the form of education, healthcare, infrastructure, or security.

Let me give you a different version of the story, one with a bit more pedagogical value:

Tall guy, medium guy, and short guy all try to watch a baseball game, but the fence is too high, even for tall guy to see over it. With one box, tall guy would be able to see the game. Two boxes would let him see it well, and three boxes would give him a great view. Medium guy needs two boxes to see the game, three to see it well, and four boxes to have a great view. Short guy needs three boxes just to see the game, four to see it well, and five to have a great view:


A view A good view A great view

Tall Guy

1 Box 2 Boxes 3 Boxes
Medium Guy 2 Boxes 3 Boxes

4 Boxes

Short Guy 3 Boxes 4 Boxes

5 Boxes

The three guys need six boxes for everyone to see, but twelve boxes for everyone to get a great view. Tall guy comes up with an idea.

“Hey guys,” says tall guy. “Let’s build some boxes so we can see the game.”

Medium guy and short guy think this is a great idea, and they set to work making the boxes. Tall guy gives them instructions on how to make the boxes. He finds the wood and the tools they need. He organises them and manages their time. Medium guy and short guy do all the manual labor. Together, they make six boxes.

“It was my idea. I organised the whole thing. They’re my boxes to distribute as I please,” says the tall guy.

Tall guy builds a throne of boxes, six boxes tall. Medium guy and short guy are very cross. They start shaking tall guy’s throne, trying to knock him off his perch.

“Okay, okay!” says the tall guy. “I give!”

He gives the medium guy two boxes, leaving him with four. It’s still enough for a throne, albeit a less spectacular one. The medium guy can now see the game, albeit not especially well.

The short guy begins the cry. “I can’t see anything,” he wails. “You guys are jerks!”

Tall guy punches short guy in the throat.

“Shut it! We’re trying to watch the game.”

Short guy begs for help. “Medium guy! Make him stop!”

But medium guy can already see the game. He doesn’t want to lose his boxes or get punched in the throat. Short guy’s wailing is annoying him, too.

I think this is a more realistic description of where we are. There’s a debate to be had over how many boxes there are. Are there six boxes? Are there five? Are there ten? How many extra boxes does tall guy have squirrelled away? Then there’s a debate to be had over how to distribute the boxes. In this case, tall guy gave away the minimum number of boxes necessary to buy-off medium guy, knowing full well that he can beat short guy into submission. The distribution wasn’t motivated by justice at all, but by expediency.

Even this, more complicated version of the story leaves out quite a bit. I never got into the “who matters” question. Maybe there’s a fourth guy from another country? Maybe there’s a lizard that lives on one of the trees tall guy had cut down to make the boxes? We could go on and on.

But you get the point–the “equality”/”equity” chart obscures far more than it reveals. Every time I hear someone use the word “equity” unironically, I get suspicious. Do they really know what they’re talking about? Have they actually engaged the equality literature, or are they just parroting lazy propaganda? Do they understand that political theory concepts are deeply contested, or do they think “equality” and “equity” have straightforward textbook definitions? The word “equity” makes me suspicious. It should make you suspicious, too.