Equity

It seems like lots of social justice people started using the term “equity” a couple years ago, though I’m not exactly tied into that community so for all I know they’ve been using it a lot longer than that. When I saw it I was initially confused, because I only knew the term from a financial or economic context and yet here it was being used in the same context in which I was accustomed to seeing the term “equality”. Thus I figured it was just one of those common grammar mistakes, like when people say “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes”.

Turns out the social justice people are using “equity” on purpose and it has a specific meaning. While “equality” refers to different people being treated equally, “equity” critiques the notion that equality is possible or desirable when people are on unequal footing, and calls for the “playing field” to first be leveled, usually through means of redistribution, affirmative action, etc. There are several problems with this concept and I’ll try to briefly cover them.

People’s unequal footing is indeed one contributing reason we cannot expect equal outcomes (although we really shouldn’t ever expect equal outcomes, because different individuals will always vary in their ability to take advantage of the same opportunities), but unequal footing needs not impact the ability to provide equal treatment.

Now, the argument goes: equal treatment is undesirable anyway, because the unequal footing means desirable treatment for one person is putting the cart before the horse for another person. For example, a completely meritocratic college admissions process treats all applicants equally, but this means applicants who attended K-12 schools in struggling school districts will tend to be at a disadvantage compared to those who went to schools in strong districts. In other words, this argument says that you can’t provide equal opportunities now to people who haven’t had equal opportunities in the past because the inequalities of the past will influence people’s abilities to take advantage of opportunities now.

This seems true on its face, but leads to what I think is one of the two biggest problems with the notion of equity: either through deliberate sleight of hand or sheer mindless error, the framing of equity is frequently shifted between individuals and groups, and when the framing is on groups they are defined by trendy but arbitrary parameters like race, sexual preference, gender identity, and so on, without regard to whether that framing is relevant in whatever specific context equity is being considered. This is important because no two individuals have had exactly the same opportunities or advantages in the past, and this is true even if those individuals are defined as members of the same group. This means no two people can ever exactly equally take advantage of a given opportunity.

The other huge problem with “equity” is that most of the advantages or disadvantages people and groups have had in the past are impossible to quantify, and yet quantity is needed if anything is to be made equitable. For one thing, a “quantity of advantagedness” would be the only empirical way to determine on whose behalf an equitable intervention ought to be implemented. For another thing, quantity tells you what kind and how much of an intervention to implement. If a gay white guy and a straight black woman are both applying for a job, which one of them is more advantaged? in what way? and by how much? The idea that you can figure this out for people you don’t intimately know and then apply it as some kind of policy is ridiculous.

Taken to its logical conclusion, equity gets you to a Harrison Bergeron situation where people are handicapped for their advantages. Or maybe it settles to the group level, so people who are members of certain groups are handicapped for their advantages. Not a pleasant vision for any society.

It could be that I’m wrong. If you (either of the two readers of this blog) use the term “equity” or know people who do and think I’ve misunderstood it, please educate me.

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