Are All People Equal?

Are all people equal? This is a question that has been asked perhaps since the beginning of human thought. With regard to today’s world, the correct answer is certainly: hell, no! And this, at least when one looks at the issue from the perspective I do, is a tragedy.

The fact that I would like to highlight here is that the basic source of inequality among people is luck. I am going to use an “empirical” example to explain what I have in mind. Let us consider my own life.

My luck began when I was born in 1988. I was lucky enough to be born in Europe, in a part of the continent that was spared armed conflicts during my lifetime. Moreover – I have lived in a relatively well-functioning democracy almost my entire life so far. When I was a teenager, my family moved to one of the world’s richest countries, with a very well-functioning, inclusive welfare state. To put it in other words: I was not born in Belarus. Nor in Bosnia. Let alone in the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa. Although in my childhood I was relatively poor, I never experienced hunger in my life. I always had access to a warm shelter, to electricity, basic health care, education… And I was safe. The probability that I be murdered some day is as high as the probability to rightly pick 5 numbers in a 6-of-49-lottery (both lie under 0.003%).

There are more “lucky” aspects in my life – I have a great family, a rather high IQ, a (so far) good health… All these things share a common characteristic: they are pure luck. They are nothing I were able to influence.

Now consider the fact that I am part of a relatively small minority. There certainly are some people who are better off out there – but it is nothing compared to the billions who had less luck when they were born (a during their lives). Almost 1 billion people are currently undernourished. An estimated 1.1 billion people in the developing world lack access to safe water, 2 billion are without electricity, and 2.4 billion without sanitation (according to the World Bank). According to the Economist’s Democracy Index for 2010, only 12% of the world population live in full democracies, further 37% in flawed democracies – i.e., about half the world population is not living in democratic states. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program counted 30 ongoing armed conflicts in 2010. The global average of homicides lies at 7 per 100.000 population (in Africa and the Americas it is more than twice as high). To name only a few examples. We are not equal. Not regarding luck.

What can we conclude from that? A lot. First, when people in developed countries are complaining (as they do frequently), they should, from time to time at least, remind themselves of the misery that is an inherent part of the lives of the majority of the world population. Second, we should not interpret what accounts to our luck as something making us better than others. We are better off. Not anything more. Third, it could be argued that we, the lucky ones, owe something to those who have been less lucky. People are not equal and won’t be equal. It is neither possible nor desirable. Yet it is one thing to demand equality in general (whatever that means), and another to call for doing as much as possible to provide equal capabilities to all people. So that the less lucky are somehow “compensated” or given fair chances to pursuit happiness in their life.




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