In a debate organised last week by Victoria University students, the motion that ‘inequality is natural’ won out over the opposing view by a margin of 49 to 43.
This might seem like a setback for those who care about inequality. But in fact it wasn’t. The affirmative team, led by Shamubeel Eaqub of the New Zealand Institute for Economic Research, were arguing that inequality is natural – but not necessarily right.
As Eaqub himself put it: “Our argument was very simple. Inequality is natural – as in, it is in nature. We appealed to biology, evolution and human behaviour. But that it does not make it fair or equitable. We have to appeal to our humanity and empathy to deal with negatives of inequality.”
So what the audience were choosing between was in fact two versions of the view that we need to do something about inequality. It would have been fascinating to see what happened if the affirmative team had argued that inequality was natural and we should do nothing about it – but it’s very hard these days to get people to front up and say that kind of thing!
In addition, Eaqub’s team triumphed because inequality in the loosest sense – of ability, of characteristics, of inherited features – is of course a natural part of life. The negative team, led by Victoria University’s Sandra Grey, were arguing about something slightly different: the income inequality that we see in New Zealand, which is of course largely unnatural, the creation of social structures not individual differences of nature. Had the debate been ‘Is income inequality natural?’ there would have been a different outcome.
Either way, the event was a great success. About 150 students attended (many had to leave before the voting took place, sadly); the organisers put on an exhibition about Wellington’s green spaces and their relationship to inequality; and the debate itself was punctuated with music and humour. A triumph all round.