Friday, August 28, 2009

What does equality mean?

Someone recently twittered:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, until some men get cancer and their insurance doesn't cover it. -- jantzie
I wanted to respond, but didn't feel I could fit it in 140 characters, so I'm posting a paragraph or two here. This twitter comment starts with a quote from the Declaration of Independence and then adds her own ending, which I believe to be a non sequitur. Let me explain.

First, the original quote:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their CREATOR, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. -- Declaration of Independence
In context, the equality under discussion are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. All men have the right to live life as they see fit. They have the right to go where they wish and do what they want. They have the right to pursue happiness, wealth and property. The Bill of Rights specifically enumerates some of these rights. The rights it lists in no way is intended to list all the rights. The ones it doesn't list explicitly remain with individuals. No where in these founding documents does it indicate people are to be equal in happiness, wealth or property. It only indicates they are equal in their freedom to pursue these things.

When the opening quote uses the word until, it implies that at the point that the insurance doesn't cover cancer, people are no longer equal. The problem is, in this usage, equal is an adjective with the nouns unstated. Leaving them unstated implies they are the same but in this context, they are not. The opening talks about equal rights. The closing talks about equal wealth.

So, even when people are denied insurance coverage, they are still equal to others in their right to pursue medical treatment. One person may not have the wealth required to receive the needed treatment for a cure whereas someone else might. But the guarantee of equal wealth does not exist in our system, only equal freedom to pursue that prize.

In the same way that not everyone is guaranteed the same salary, the same mansion on the hill or the same toys in the garage, not everyone is guaranteed the same health care coverage. However, in the same way that everyone is free to pursue the high paying job, the house, the toys, they are also free to pursue health care. For many varied reasons, people will achieve different levels wealth. The differences in wealth will mean there are differences in products and services that can be purchased, including health care. In and of themselves, these differences, these inequalities if you will, are not unjust. All men are still created equal and have equal rights, even if their insurance claim is denied.