On what grounds have socialists criticised the liberal view of equality?

Socialists have argued that the liberal views of formal equality and equality of opportunity are flawed and have instead proposed equality of outcome.

Socialists have argued that the liberal views of formal equality and equality of opportunity are flawed and have instead proposed equality of outcome.

Liberals believe in foundational equality, the belief that everyone is born equal and is of equal moral worth, something that is embodied in the idea of human rights. This leads to a belief in formal equality, where citizens should enjoy the same formal rights within society. Rights should not be reserved for any particular class of person, and thus liberalism is said to be ‘difference blind’. Formal equality most commonly takes the form of legal equality (the belief in equality before the law) and political equality (the idea of ‘one person, one vote: one vote, one value’). Liberals also prescribe to equality of opportunity in which individuals are given the same chance to rise or fall in society. There is no equality of outcome, just an equal opportunity to develop unequal skills and abilities. Thus, society is based upon merit.

Socialists have criticised equality of opportunity because it leads to a survival of the fittest mentality based upon social Darwinism. This view was particularly embraced by R.H. Tawney who argued that equality of opportunity amounted to a ‘tadpole philosophy’, in which he emphasised the lack of tadpoles that turn into frogs. Equality of opportunity legitimises inequality by perpetuating the myth of innate inequality, and thus promotes rivalry and competition. Therefore, the liberal belief in the meritocratic market has also been criticised as it fosters selfish and competitive behaviour, and leads to unjust unequal outcomes.

Furthermore, socialists have criticised the liberal belief in formal equality as it takes no account of very different economic and social circumstances. It disregards the structural inequalities of the capitalist system that cause unequal treatment in society. Justice, from a socialist perspective, demands that humans are treated equally, or at least more equally, in terms of their rewards and material circumstances but due to the capitalist system this is not the case. Therefore, as equality of outcome is not achieved, formal equality is clearly inadequate.

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