Saturday, 6 February 2010

Strict Equality


In this article I will share an idea of mine - an alternative political/economic system that I have called “strict equality”. I believe that this idea may have great potential and am keen to debate and develop it. I am also anxious to learn of any previous similar ideas that may have been suggested or tried. If nothing similar has been tried then I believe that humanity will lose very little and potentially gain massively by trying this system out somewhere.

The most similar previously-suggested system that I know of, and indeed a major inspiration to this system, is participatory economics/politics introduced by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. I’m happy for strict equality to be described as a particular version of participatory politics/economics or of socialism or communism in general. I don’t think that it qualifies as a form of anarchism as it recommends a state of some sort, however its abolition of hierarchies is in the anarchist spirit. Anyone who thinks strict equality is a good idea should, in my view, find common ground with other similar left-wing radicals and utopians, as I do.

I have divided this piece into four sections. The first section summarises the main rules of the system. In the second section I deal with two major criticisms/issues that I think will come to the mind of the reader, and hopefully deal with them successfully. In the third section I try to flesh out how I think society would look if it followed the system. Finally, in the last section, I try to lay out my philosophical/moral justification for the system.



Strict equality is quite a simple political/economic system to summarise. It consists of a constitution that equalises three quantities among all mentally able adults (with the exception of people who actually choose to have less of one or more of the quantities). These quantities are the following –

1) Political Power
2) Social Status
3) Material Comfort

I define power as an individual’s ability, which he or she derives from his or her role in society, to change the world in ways that affect people. Status, I define as the respect derived from one’s role in society. Comfort is the pleasantness of one’s role in society, excluding pleasantness derived from one’s power or status. The major determinants of comfort are pleasantness of one’s home, possessions and recreational activities, working conditions and working hours. (By "role in society" I mean a person's job plus possessions plus any commitments they have in their spare time).


“Equality Courts” will be set up to enforce equality of the three quantities. The way these courts work is that any mentally-able adult (hereafter referred to as a "citizen") can accuse another of possessing more of one of the three quantities than they do, even if the accuser and accused have never met one another or interacted economically. It’s as if every pair of citizens had signed a contract agreeing to share equally what they have of each of the three quantities.

If the court agrees that the person accused does indeed possess a greater amount of the given quantity than the accuser, then a transfer has to take place such that both individuals concerned are left equal with regard to the quantity in question (and unchanged with regard to the other two quantities). A court order goes to the defendant which the state will back up by force if disobeyed. Citizens who repeatedly end up being ordered to hand over large amounts of one or more of the three quantities will have their freedom to acquire more of them restricted for a penalty period, say a few years.

The equality courts should have a jury. The jury can be dismissed by the judge if the jurors don’t stick to the plan of equalising whichever quantity is in question and instead, for example, try to allocate more of it to the person they think is more deserving of it.

The decisions of these courts should be made on balance of evidence, so there is no greater onus on the accuser than the accused to back up their claims with evidence. This means that every citizen will be well advised to, throughout their lives, keep evidence of their levels of the three quantities, for example by getting witnesses to see how much time they spend working or how basic their lifestyle is.

Groups can make equality claims against other groups, and the procedure will be the same as with individuals but with average levels of the quantities per person of the two groups being considered.


Strict equality is a system that might be applied to an area of any size, from the whole world down to a small community. Let us call the area under strict equality the “strict equality zone”. Whatever the size of this zone, the system should, I would suggest, be written into a constitution that can be abolished by a majority vote in a referendum.


There are two major questions/criticisms that might well be on the mind of the reader based on what's been written here so far. Firstly - how are the equality courts going to be able to measure such nebulous quantities as political power, social status and material comfort? Secondly - in a society where an equal share of material comfort and social status are guaranteed, why would anyone work? I think that these points are crucial, so let me try to deal with them now, before I go on to sketch out how society would look in more detail.


Addressing the first question - suppose a tax expert accuses a 6th grade schoolteacher (leaving aside for a moment the question of whether these specific roles would exist in the society that I am imagining) of having more political power than he or she does. How can we measure which of the two has the greater political power, defining political power as I did above, as the “ability, which he or she derives from his or her role in society, to change the world in ways that affect people”?

While I am under no illusion that such measurements can be made with complete rigour, I believe that sufficient accuracy can be achieved such that people’s levels of political power and the other two quantities can be kept roughly equal by the threat of the equality courts. Jurors will be able to draw on a body of expertise on these matters. Social scientists will develop their knowledge of the measurement of political power, social status and material comfort.

An example of the work such social scientists might do would be the following experiment: groups that are campaigning for changes in the law in various areas would be asked if they want a new supporter who is (a) a tax expert, or (b) a 6th grade schoolteacher. If most of them choose (a) then this might imply that the tax expert is expected to have more political power. This is, I believe, an example of how rigour can be brought into the measurement of such things as power, status and comfort.

The measurement of status might be based on statistical relationships between the results of surveys asking people to rate how much they respect people they know and the activities/jobs/possessions of these people. The measurement of comfort is, I admit, more difficult than the other two, as comfort is a subjective quantity – different people find different tasks pleasant/unpleasant. Here the juries and the experts that they might use to help them would have to try to guess people’s taste to some extent, for example if a person is accused of having a comfortable life because he or she spends a lot of time painting and drawing, the jury will have to guess the extent to which the person in question enjoys such activities. For two people who have the same taste, the more comfortable would be the person whose day-to-day activities are preferable (discounting the pleasantness derived from power or status).

A last difficulty comes when the jury has to, having decided that the accusing person or group is indeed worse-off with regard to the quantity in question, transfer to this person or group the amount of the quantity that renders them equal. In some cases, like those of comfort, it might be a case of forcing the better-off person or group to hand over some possessions (although they would have to be ones that don’t carry any status value). The handing over of power might involve giving the worse-off person or group some jobs or responsibilities of the better-off person or group (although they should be jobs that don’t carry status). All this is, I admit, a challenge, although not necessarily more difficult than some of the issues that courts deal with nowadays, such as trying to quantify psychological damage or a non-working spouse’s contribution to their partner’s job.


So, to address the second question that I posed above, concerning incentives to work - would guaranteed equal comfort ensure universal idleness? I don’t believe it will. If a person does little work and consumes a lot they will fall foul of the equality courts and have to reduce their comfort levels by either increasing their work or reducing their consumption, as I have defined comfort as the pleasantness of day-to-day activities, which would include both the pleasantness of consuming a lot and the pleasantness of not working so much.

If this argument is accepted, strict equality can still face the criticism that citizens have no incentive to endure productive discomfort. For example, someone might avoid the equality courts by lying on a bed of nails on a daily basis!

Under these circumstances I believe that the moral motive would kick in in many cases and people would do what they feel is socially useful work. Given a choice between digging holes and filling them in again and digging holes that fulfil some purpose, I think that most people would do the second one. I can’t imagine, on the other hand that society would be as materially productive as our present system is. Maybe, at a total guess, strict equality might produce half the amount of goods as our present mixed economy. However I am hopeful that the system would be superior by most other measures – pollution levels, individual freedom, maybe happiness or health. It would also offer an end to the division of rich and poor and much of the oppression of gender, racial and age groups by others.


Having roughly described the system and discussed two crucial potential criticisms, I will now try to sketch out in a little more detail how society would work under strict equality, before finishing with my philosophical/ethical justification of the system. I should make it clear that I define strict equality simply as the equalisation of power, status and comfort as described in the first section, above. This and the previous section contain my own guesses and recommendations of how a society under strict equality might work. Someone might disagree with these predictions and recommendations but still be a supporter of strict equality.

Society under strict equality would be free to pass any laws it likes as long as they don’t contradict the constitution, for example it could ban trespassing on private property or drinking alcohol in the street. I expect laws that get passed to be backed up by state force if and when they are broken. The strict equality zone will be ruled by a specific bunch of laws which need not be greater in number or more complicated than the laws that govern a typical country today.


All lawmaking will be achieved without politicians or unelected powerful people.

Each citizen may propose changes in the law. At any one time each citizen is allowed to have one active proposal. Active proposals may be supported by other citizens. Each citizen may support, say 10 proposals of other people at one time (in addition to having one proposal of his or her own). Each week, the two proposals with the most supporters in the strict equality zone are advanced from the support gathering stage to the debating stage. For example, I may write a proposal saying that cannabis should be legalised. After a few months this proposal might get thousands of supporters. This might get it to No2 in the "proposal charts" and move it on to the debating stage.

At the debating stage 2,000 randomly selected citizens debate each proposal. They are divided into juries of five citizens. Juries may call any expert witnesses they want to argue for and against the proposed change in the law. Eventually each jurist votes and the change in the law may be passed by a simple majority of votes of all the citizens debating the law.

Citizens would be wise to put clauses in many of their laws allowing countries and regions within the strict equality zone (assuming the zone is that big) to opt out of them. Other laws, on the other hand, I believe should be compulsory for all regions, for example laws governing pollution, which affect the whole world.

Equality of power will force each country, region, town etc. to also make decisions in a directly democratic way, so laws at the equality zone level need not prescribe this for them. Likewise the law need not insist that entities such as companies, partnerships, agencies, co-operatives etc. have egalitarian decision-making procedures as the constitution will do this. However, it seems likely that entities similar to partnerships or co-operatives in our current society would be the most popular way for people to be employed and the law would probably want to insist on some decision making procedures specific to such entities in order to make life easier though standardisation.


It may be realised by the majority in some cases, that a minority is ruining the world by, for example, polluting or creating new, dangerous technology. The simplest way to deal with this is to ban the activity. In other cases the majority may realise that individuals are failing to do some vital activity, for example not making enough food. The simplest way to deal with this would be to make the activity compulsory. (One would hope that in this second case people's moral motive would kick in, as suggested above, but things may not always go to plan).

A preferable, less draconian/painful (albeit a little more complicated) way to achieve these things, however, might be with "ration points". In the case of undesirable activities such as polluting, individuals would have a limit to the number of ration points they can spend, say, per month, with each undesirable activity carrying a certain amount of points. Falling short of state-set individual targets for socially useful activities such as growing food would also cost ration points. Ration points would not be transferable between people.

This would all be in addition to the constitutional rationing of political power, social status and material comfort that is the core of strict equality. It may help the smooth running of society if shops are forced to label all products with an estimate of the contribution of each product to material comfort, expressed as a number. This would be similar to calorie values of food being quoted on food packaging. Consumers would be able to avoid the equality courts by staying on a “comfort diet”.

I don’t believe that the strict equality zone needs to go further and have a currency that is transferable between people.

With regard to private property, I believe that when it is egalitarian it is a reasonably natural thing, particularly outside work, and will and should continue under strict equality.


Most workplaces may be categorised as co-operatives. Whatever their exact rules, certainly there would be no management in any workplace due to the equality of power – no police chiefs, head teachers, directors, editors, bosses, unless these posts are constantly rotated.

Important tasks such as flying planes, performing surgery or other emergency or potentially dangerous situations can still be left to experts who must keep proving their abilities though a licence/qualification system. However, those experts must be carefully denied above-average levels of power and status. This can be achieved in several ways, albeit at a cost to efficiency. Expert tasks can be part time, with experts spending the remainder of their time on particularly low power and status tasks. With regard to power, “second opinions” can be sought from other experts nullifying much of the power that can be derived from expert roles. Experts can also be forced to suffer low status houses/cars etc. Other, more extreme measures might be to reduce experts’ lawmaking power or forcing them to keep their expert work secret.

These balancing actions would also be applied to more common areas of expertise such as driver’s licences or licences to work with children. To the extent that such licences bestow power and status upon people, those people should have power and status reduced in other parts of their lives.


The levels of power and status given to celebrities - film, TV and sport stars, writers, film directors etc. - in our current society, cannot be balanced for in this way however. Under strict equality, therefore, no-one would be allowed to be famous For example, individual writers who are influential will fall foul of the equality courts and be forced to share their newspaper columns, books etc. with co-writers. If they still remain powerful they will perhaps be commanded by the courts to reduce the scope of the distribution of their writing, for example by limiting access to their website to, say 1,000 users. Or they might be commanded to write less often. Similar sanctions would be taken against any artist, actor, film-maker etc. who started becoming well known. The only writing, art, performance etc. that would be seen by large numbers of people would be collectively produced work, such as Wikipedia or an episode of the Simpsons (if there were no management running the show, and the voice actors, writers and artists etc. were regularly changed). Indeed in a society under strict equality the only famous people allowed would be fictional cartoon characters (or perhaps live-action characters played by a different actor every time) or dead people.


Lastly, the issue of punishing criminals is a slightly uncertain area for the system. If strict equality is taken to its logical conclusion punishment of criminals would be virtually impossible as it generally means depriving the convict of one of the three equally distributed quantities. A simple solution to this might be to make criminals an exception to the equality rules. On the other hand - and I am hopeful about this - we might simply restrain and attempt to rehabilitate criminals, affording them the same overall power, status and comfort as everyone else.


This system is an attempt to improve humanity’s chances of surviving into the long term on this planet. The reason I believe this to be the aim of paramount importance is that I adhere to a hedonistic utilitarian ethical system. According to the version of the system that I endorse we should aim to maximise the amount of happiness in the universe over the long term and minimise the amount of pain. For humanity, the priority for the next few hundred years or so should be to avoid wiping ourselves out. This is because I believe that if humanity turns into a very advanced race that is stable over the long-term it will probably develop the ability to alter its own biology and use this power to live in a pleasurable state most of the time as this is arguably our greatest desire. Determining the best approach to reaching that point is a complicated matter but one crucial thing to realise is that getting there safely is our aim, not getting there quickly, as we potentially have billions of years to play around with.

So we ought to advance our technology, but the problem is that we might destroy ourselves along the way. Whether our chance of destroying ourselves is 1%, 99% or anything in-between, making this chance less should be our goal as so much happiness is on the line.

We clearly need to be selective in which technology we develop, possibly holding back technological development in most areas. Clearly our current political and economic culture is a million miles away from taking this sort of approach. Two problematic features of our current society are concentrations of power in the hands of few people and a competitive ethos. The collection of political power in the hands of few people has given us the problem that humanity has largely been steered by the most extremely competitive people of its number, leading to high levels of militarism and weapons research, which I view as the greatest threat to human survival. The competitive culture has lead us to levels of material consumption that may be dangerous to the stability of our biosphere. It has also lead to an frantic race among firms and countries to develop new technology, which again over time increases the risk to the biosphere and human health. The competitive culture also blinkers us towards acting in the interests of humanity as a whole and future people.

Unfortunately the centralised state and capitalist systems which are so rife with these problems have, so far, been extremely stable and hard to get rid of. One of the things that has made them successful, particularly in the case of capitalism is that they are simple systems that everyone can (roughly speaking) understand. We need an alternative that is equally elegant but without the drawbacks just described. Strict equality is an attempt to do that. With comfort and social status, and to a lesser extent political power, equalised across all individuals, strict equality will reduce the competitive culture and individuals will feel a greater freedom to act in humanity’s collective interest. Also its levelling of the powerful elite will, hopefully bring a greater level of sanity to political decisions. Furthermore it is as simple as capitalism, which might help it to catch on. It probably won’t furnish us with as much material wealth as capitalism or centralised state socialism have done, but I believe that this is a price well worth paying.


I hope the reader has enjoyed my summary of the system and found it thought provoking - ideally agreeing with every word! Whether it be praise or criticism, the sharing of your own utopian visions or a request for more detail on a particular part of this system, I would love to hear it and publish your contributions and my responses to them here.

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