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Ethics of Equity: Part 2

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Stephen King
June 16, 2023

Social equity is a hot topic in public administration. In my March column, I acknowledged its importance, but suggested its meaning should reflect fairness in process as much as administrative or policy outcome or result. For this column I briefly suggest some alternative meanings and implications for social equity. It is often used interchangeably with equality, whether of opportunity or outcome, justice or even social justice. In public administration, some scholars and practitioners alike claim it should join the three pillars of public administration: efficiency, economy and effectiveness. With a concept this important, there should be consensus by scholars and practitioners alike as to what it means, and the consequences it produces. Let’s start with equality.

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story titled “Harrison Bergeron” is set in a dystopian world, where perfect equity or equality is required by government. To accomplish this goal, every person was handicapped in some way, so that in the end everyone performed at the lowest common level. Is this illustration one of equality of outcome or equality of opportunity? Is a world of perfect equity or equality one the Founders envisioned, when they wrote, “…all men are created equal [italics are mine], that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…?” The Founders understood equality as a natural right, one granted to him by his Creator, not by the government. Regardless of any innate difference between individuals (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, etc.), the goal is that each person is viewed and treated as equal (or the same) under law as with any other person, and that their unalienable rights are not forfeited.

Is perfect equity or equality the goal of government? If so, are there consequences? Alexis de Tocqueville’s principle of social conditions contends more equal (social) conditions (e.g., affirmative action) highlight the inequalities (e.g., de-emphasis of merit and emphasis on class or race), which in turn disincentivizes citizens to be satisfied with equality achieved. This attitude is reflected in a 2022 Pew survey, where 73 percent of Americans believe “colleges and universities should not consider race or ethnicity when making decisions about student admissions,” while only 7 percent believe “race should be a major factor in college admissions.” Some contend the inversion of de Tocqueville’s principle is true as well, i.e., “the more unequal a society is (e.g., income equality), the less citizens dwell on inequalities” (Robert Thornett, Law and Liberty, 03/06/2023).

Recent Pew polling (2020), however, seems to counter the second claim. About 61 percent of Americans, for example, “say there is too much economic inequality in the country today.” Some economists push back. In The Myth of American Inequality (2022), for example, Phil Gramm, et al., imply that fears of widespread inequality among income groups is misleading, largely because the government uses faulty statistical formulas, which do not include transfer payments or taxes paid contributing to total income earned. Can the government achieve perfect economic equality? Of course not. Should the government try? The government should establish and deliver economic policies, using fair and just administrative and bureaucratic means to define and deliver the policies, while at the same time working with private and nonprofit sectors to assist individuals in lower income brackets to acquire and use their knowledge, skills and abilities to achieve greater opportunities of employability and economic ascension.

Let’s address justice. Is justice the same as equity? Or is justice a theoretical foundation upon which equity rests? Is the Fourteenth Amendment’s “equal protection of the laws” clause grounded in equity or justice or both? Does the government’s desire to achieve equity, such as with no cash bail laws (Linda-Marie Sunstrom, et al, PA Times, 12/09/2022), mean persons in lower income brackets must be treated differently compared to individuals in higher income brackets? If so, doesn’t this violate the spirit of equal protection? Are implementation and enforcement of no cash bail laws a policy to achieve justice (equal protection), equity (equality of outcome) or both? Or is it something else entirely?

A recent editorial in PAR (vol. 83, #2, 2023), authored by Camilla Stivers et al., may shed light on how to address the distinctions, meanings and implications of social equity and (social) justice. The authors argue both social equity and social justice are important. Where “Social equity focuses on ensuring everyone has the same opportunity to succeed…” “…social justice addresses the underlying systems and structures of oppression that contribute to inequality and injustice.” Even though pursuit of social equity is currently all the rage in public administration, the authors recommend scholars reexamine social justice’s worth, both as a philosophical and legal complement to social equity, but also as a core normative foundation of public administration.

There is a need to recognize and renew the normative (including ethical) foundations of public administration, such as justice, not only to allow for the necessary clarification of the meaning and consequences of social equity, but also to strengthen ties between public administration research and practice. Right now, public administration is concerned about equity, but in coming years will we know how to proceed in addressing the normative and practical nuances of emerging values? Or will we simply repeat our mistakes from the past? The last thing we want to see is a future where Harrison Bergeron is the central character.

Author: Stephen M. King is Professor of Government at Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA. He teaches undergraduate courses in American politics, state and local government, and public policy, and graduate courses in public policy analysis and ethical leadership and administration. He frequently publishes on the topics of ethics and public administration and leadership, and spirituality in the public workplace. He was elected President-Elect (AY23-24) for the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. He also serves on the Advisory Council for SEIGov, ASPA. His most recent book, Ethical Public Leadership: Foundation, Organization, and Discovery, published by Routledge, is due out late summer 2023. Contact him at [email protected].

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