Equality has mainly four dimensions – legal, political, economic and social.
Legal equality refers to equality before the law and equal protection of the law. The concept is all men are created equal and hence deserve the same status before the laws. The law is blind and will make no allowance for the person being dealt with. He may be wise or a fool, brilliant or dumb, short of tall, rich or poor etc but he would be treated the same by the law as others. But there are exceptions – for instance a child would not be treated as an adult man or woman and allowance would be made to a child.
(Legal equality does not necessarily mean real equality unfortunately because as we all know legal justice is not free and the rich can hire the best lawyers and even bribe judges in some cases and get away with injustice. In a strictly liberal set up while you will have theoretical equality before the law you will need time and money to make use of it and if you did not have it the legal equality promised to you would be meaningless.)
Political equality basically refers to universal suffrage and representative government. Universal suffrage means the right to vote to all adults and one-manone-vote. Representative government means all have the right to contest elections without distinction and contest for public service. It does not mean however that all will be forced to vote and give his or her preference. Or that if some people are dissuaded not to vote or vote one way or the other due to undue influence, the state can do much about that. Also no political inequality can be alleged, as per the strict liberal understanding of the term, if most people or, a large segment of the population, don’t vote, thereby diluting the representative character of the government.
(For instance in America, which regards itself as a democracy offering full political freedom and equality to all its citizens, it has been found that just about half the country usually votes in elections. The people not voting are mostly the poorer half and blacks particularly poorer blacks. In the liberal tradition this is not a cause for particular concern as long as constitutionally, equality is guaranteed and present for all.)
Mere political equality guaranteed technically or constitutionally also does not mean real political equality for it has been found that money power in elections come to a play major role in liberal democracies giving people, groups and classes with the money power and the willingness to exert it, an advantage in pushing their political interests that is quite formidable to neutralise. So sheer money power usually and often manages to control the result of elections to a large extent.
(It is believed President George Bush and his Republican Party spent a few hundred billion dollars in his election campaign last year almost all of it raised from large business houses and corporate groups. It is not conceivable how his party and he himself can resist taking the side of corporate interests versus that of the common people, should the need to choose in a particular issue arise. Hence it is clear political equality is a very difficult idea state that is almost never established in any liberal democracy. It may be mentioned here that in India it can take even cruder forms where voters are sometimes paid cash illegally or even offered a night of free drinking by candidates and parties to vote for them. Also of course, it is an open secret that most Indian political parties have corporate friends who donate hundreds of crores of what is usually black money paid in cash for fighting elections etc.)
The notion of Economic or social equality implies rather differently to different people. Early liberals meant by economic equality merely the right of choosing one’s trade or profession irrespective of family position or economic status and the right or freedom to contract so that everybody in the land is treated equally as far as contractual obligations are concerned. Gradually the position began to change towards a notion of equality of opportunity for everyone to live the life of a full human being.
(No doubt this was partly due to the Socialist and Marxist critique of capitalism which developed great acceptance worldwide before the onset of positive liberalism culminating probably with the Russian revolution of 1917 and its emphasis on economic equality which they defined almost as identical economic conditions for all.)
It was understood and accepted gradually equality should mean no one in society should be so poor that he or she lacks the basic needs and the basic opportunities for mental and physical development. As Rousseau put it, ‘by equality we should understand not that the degree of power and riches be absolutely identical for everybody, but that no citizen be wealthy enough to buy another and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself’ . H.J. Laski gave the positive liberal notion of economic equality finer shape and meant by equality availability to all things without which life is meaningless. He said the basics must be accessible to all without distinction in degrees or kind. All men must have access to the essentials of food and shelter. He insisted equal satisfaction of basic needs as a precondition for equality of opportunity and advocated for that creation of economic equality by reduction of the extremes of economic inequality. (Whether by progressive taxation or interventionist welfare schemes for the poor for instance. It was the onset of the welfare state as a consequence of the influence of ideas of positive liberal thinkers like Laski and economists like Keynes that policies like mixed economy, differential taxation, regulation and raising of wages by stipulating minimum wages etc, all of which basically seeks to tax the rich to provide welfare for the poor were introduced. The positive liberals and Keynesians claim this changed capitalism for ever into a welfare system and did much to eradicate poverty and economic disparity and levelled the ground for all citizens from the point of view of economic equality. The great economist and thinker John Kenneth Galbraith has even claimed that this almost made economic inequality a non-issue in the western world for many some decades. In the last few decades particularly the 1980s onwards influence of neo-liberal thinking which is similar to the old classical early liberal thinking has taken such a strong hold and put the clock back so much in that sense that any suggestions and ideas that are similar to positive liberal welfare ideas are immediately seen as leftist socialist or Marxist and hence scary from the point of view of the neo-liberal dominated policy establishments worldwide.)