It may be more than 200 years since the Jacobins ran through the streets of Paris to the rallying cry of “Liberté, egalité, fraternité, ou la mort”, but while these principles still underpin our ideas of civilised society, their interpretation remains the subject of fierce debate.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, approved in France in 1789 as the fundamental document of the French revolution, defines equality as a civil right to equal opportunity:
“All citizens, being equal in its [the law’s] eyes, are equally eligible to all public dignities, places and employments, according to their capacities, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.”
A few months ago, Joseph Stiglitz claimed in a provocative piece for Vanity Fair that in the US, the top 1 per cent took 25 per cent of the country’s income and controlled 40 per cent of its wealth. The figures, argued the economist and Columbia professor, put the US at the head of a global inequality ranking, outflanking Russia and Iran.
Earlier this week, The New York Times published findings from a survey it commissioned from Equilar, an executive pay data provider, into the salaries of executives in the 200 largest US companies. Median pay for these executives had grown to $10.8m in 2010 – a 23 per cent rise on the previous year.
“Growing inequality is the flip side of something else: shrinking opportunity,” wrote Stiglitz, arguing that a growing gap between the poorest and richest in the US eroded its identity as a country of “fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community”.
Equality of opportunity is difficult to maintain. As the UK’s National Equality Panel reported last year, social mobility in Britain is the lowest in Europe, with women in particular failing to convert better educational achievement into career progression beyond the age of 30.
In the week that Bastille Day was celebrated with French tricolores and fireworks, we should re-examine what equality means for society, the workplace and the individual.