Recently, much public discourse and ink have been given to addressing issues of equality
and equity, particularly the widening chasm of inequity between the rich and the
poor despite notable economic growth.
Many times, we confuse the two words to be the same and use them interchangeably.
I am not here to parse the nuances of these words, except to say that equity is not
synonymous with equality but a concept more encompassing and that encompasses equality;
equity relates to fairness, whereas equality does not necessarily.
Here, rather, I would like to distill the concept of equality and the tangential
relationship to the concept of equity or fairness, but more specifically its direct
relationship to democracy.
On several occasions, in personal conversations with Khmers and non-Khmers alike,
democracy is blamed for unfairness in demanding equality: 'Why should a lazy bum
share in my wealth when I worked hard for it? Democracy is not reasonable to expect
that everyone be equal.'
Logic of equality
It is true that democracy arises from the "logic of equality", as Robert
A. Dahl tells us in On Democracy. Everyone has equal rights before the law. Democracy
accords the same rights to a beggar as to a prince, the same rights to a woman as
to a man, the same rights to a peasant as to an Okhna.
However, a distinction must be made between political equality and social equality.
Democracy assures political equality, thus fairness. It cannot assure social equality,
which can lead to unfairness.
For example, democracy gives every Khmer who is 18 years and older the right to vote.
If breached, this political right is "justiciable" or legally enforceable.
Political equality assures every child has the right to free primary education, and
that there can be no discrimination between the opportunities afforded a boy or girl
in this regard. Should there be violation of this political right, the State can
be held to account, as a matter of law. Political equality assures everyone to right
to freedom of expression and belief. There is redress should the law treat a Christian
Khmer differently than a Buddhist Khmer.
But democracy cannot enforce nor should it demand that everyone be equal socially.
For example, it cannot assure that everyone will be as rich as Kith Meng, every woman
as beautiful as Her Majesty the Queen Mother or actress Duch Sophea, every man as
dashing as Matt Dillon or everyone as intelligent as Sam Rainsy. Nor can it assure
that everyone sings like Sin Sisamouth or tenor Khuon Sethisak, compose music like
Dr. Him Sophy or play jazz like Prince Norodom Sirvudh.
That is to say, you do not have the right to sue your neighbor or the government
because you are penurious or even middle class. You cannot take your parents to court
because you are less than aesthetically pleasing. You cannot demand compensation
because you croak like a frog and are lyrically challenged. You have no right to
reimbursement from your dance instructor for moving more like comedian A Lo than
graceful Princess Bopha Devi.
Put simply, democracy assures equality before the law in terms of political rights,
not social conditions. But, why not?
First of all, there is the problem of enforcement. Democracy cannot legally correct
these social inequalities. Even if it wants to do it, it cannot. Why? Because beauty
is in the eye of the beholder; wealth (beyond meeting basic needs) is an issue of
relativity and luxury; much of talent and genius are an exercise of personal habit,
discipline and study. How do we even begin to draft a law in light of the subjectivity
of standard? Where is the bright line to be drawn on the sliding scale of beauty
Even assuming we can draft a just and fair law and pinpoint the threshold of liability
or criminality for poverty, for idiocy, inaptitude, etc., then, there is the second
issue of whether we desire social equality in its strictest sense. Is variety not
the spice of life? Are there not aesthetics in our differences, in our creativity?
Staidness, blandness and boredom would quickly set in. Additionally, perfect social
equality would deplete all incentives for excellence resulting from competition,
where we are stuck existing at the lowest common denominator.
Here, it should be noted the distinction between democracy and Communism. Both believe
in equality. Communism emphasizes and enforces social equality, and plays down political
equality. Democracy, on the other hand, knows its constraints and limitations with
regards to social equality, and only enforces political equality.
But in assuring political equality, democracy builds the foundation for social equality,
or more correctly, social progress for everyone. Communism cannot say the same of
Hence, in response to my friends who fear sharing their wealth because of democracy,
I say: we should applaud the fairly-gained wealthy, the talented, the beautiful,
the intelligent, rather than, many times is the habit here, of cutting them down.
For the rest of us who desire the above, we then should exercise our political rights
for the obtainment of these social conditions, rather than sit sulking and envying.
In both democratic and Communistic regards, some people will continue to be "more
equal" than others. But democracy's equality is more just and fair because it
is practical and not utopian. And it does lead to social development and progress,
even if not perfect social equality.
Theary C. SENG