EQUALITY by William Ryan


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We live in a society that extols equality, bat one that, because of the way in which it understands equality, institutionalizes inequality. That's the basic point of this harangue by Boston College psychologist Ryan (Blaming the Victim) against the current order and its rationalization. A chatty writer in a social-science sort of way, Ryan distinguishes between two different understandings of equality: the ""Fair Play"" and the ""Fair Share"" doctrines. The first is dominant in the public arena and is basically the notion that what counts is an equal shot at winning the proverbial race to get ahead. Ryan has little trouble in demonstrating that, even if it was a good idea, the Fair Play approach fails in practice. Turning the footrace idea against itself, Ryan says that you can tell something about the preparations for a race by looking at who wins, and in the American race to the top there are precious few besides white males (and only certain of them). The preferred Fair Share approach is communitarian rather than individualistic, and holds that everyone should have equal access to resources for the public good and ""the basic necessities of life."" Under this head, Ryan starts from accepted examples of such sharing (public libraries, public transportation, etc.) and such necessities (e.g., food, recognized as a necessity through programs like food stamps), and expands them to include housing, heating, fuel, work, etc. This is his idea of a ""universalistic"" rather than an ""exceptionalist"" approach to social welfare; all should be guaranteed something, that is, rather than some people marked as exceptions and maintained in a marginal social position. Ryan summarizes a lot of debates on IQ, education, and related matters, in what might pass as an informal common-sense popularization. For a more thorough treatment of the same themes, and a stronger attack on inegalitarians, see Philip Green's The Pursuit of Inequality (p. 326). This might strike some chords, however, with people who've been following the budget debates.

Pub Date: May 29th, 1981
Publisher: Pantheon