"We're not really sure what we mean by equality, we just know we like it."

In the more than two centuries since the nation's Founders declared that "all men are created equal," what exactly they had in mind has sparked a civil war, a social revolution, and an ever-present debate over where equality ends and liberty begins.

Notions of rights and equality have intermingled and often are invoked to justify growing public demands on government. Programs such as Social Security, federal deposit insurance, Medicare and even the Federal Emergency Management Agency are some of most notable results of increasing public reliance on government for to make amends for "the invisible hand" of unbridled competition"

The institution of a federal minimum wage and laws aimed at assuring certain health care benefits to low-income families are among many attempts government has made to legislate improved living conditions for certain groups in order to bring them closer to parity with others.

But a scramble to fulfill rising public expectations inevitably encounters cold reality: How can government afford to provide such protections to all citizens in equal measure? And why has government assumed the role of "equalizer" in situations where some citizens are better off than others?

"At the time of the founding of the nation, the notion of equality was inextricably bound up with the notion of natural rights. Everybody had them, and the key was to allow people to exercise them," says Joseph Kobylka, a Southern Methodist University political science professor widely regarded for his writings on the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court and the evolution of American political thought.

"As society has become more complex, and as material differences have increased, other dimensions of equality that were not part of the original American stew have come to the fore, and we have to come to grips with that," he says. "Is it meaningful to say that somebody growing up in a slum is equal to or has the same opportunity as somebody growing up in a wealthy suburb? The question wasn't relevant in the time of the Framers."

Kobylka believes most people are "fundamentally confused" about the meaning of equality because the concept itself is confused. "Ask somebody, 'Do you believe in equality?' and they'll say, 'Absolutely,' " he explains. "The question is, what constitutes equality?"

Some people view it "procedurally," as the right to vote or get a job, he says, while others believe it refers to equality of material things such as housing or food. Still others put the focus on equality of opportunity to exercise freedoms or improve their lot.

Legislating equality

Wide-ranging definitions of equality tend to complicate discussions of important issues, Kobylka says.

"The confusion conditions the tenor of debates on issues like public education, affirmative action,
the provision of health care, and even the immigration issue," he says. "The problem is, each side or the various sides are sure they know exactly what equality means, but since they define it differently, they end up talking past one another and it becomes more difficult to get
things done."

Lawmakers across the country can attest to that, particularly as they grapple with increasingly heated issues in areas such as health care and education.

In Massachusetts, a sweeping new health care law will take effect this summer requiring health insurance coverage for all citizens. The law puts a substantial chunk of the program's cost on employers, including small businesses.

State Senator Richard Moore (D-Uxbridge), who co-chairs the legislature's Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, says supporters of the bill faced opposition from some who believe that health care market forces "should be left alone" and that individuals should be responsible not only for their own health but for their own health coverage.

"That is just not realistic in our current economy," Moore says. "Insurance in general and health care in particular can't work (properly) using the traditional market economics."

Moore points out that some people, because of ethnic or cultural factors, or even because of their age or where they live, do not have equal access to quality care. "It really requires that government step in," he says.

Does every citizen of the United States have a right to expect the best health care?

"Absolutely," Moore says. He adds that while individuals must take responsibility for keeping themselves healthy and for paying "within their means" for needed care, employers and government both have a role in "bridging the gaps."

That idea is certain to spark debate in California's legislature as lawmakers ponder a similarly broad health care plan recently proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

California Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine) criticizes the plan on at least two counts ­— that it will increase taxes on businesses and it will extend expensive benefits to illegal immigrants.

"Anytime you have someone saying, 'You work, and I will eat off of your labor,' that is not fair," DeVore says. "The poor man does not have a claim on the rich man's labor."

DeVore takes issue with the proposition that health care is a fundamental right and everyone should have equal access.

"That's fine for revolutionary France around 1800, but that's 'Liberté, egalité, fraternité,'" he says, referring to the motto of the French republic. "We were founded on the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. … it's not about equality of outcome but equality of opportunity."

Noting that U.S. health care spending now constitutes 14 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, DeVore blames the soaring costs largely on "government interference" in
the health care marketplace.

"You have people who have perhaps made bad choices in terms of personal habits, such as smoking, alcohol and being overweight, and then government provides them a safety net. How do you ration a valuable commodity when there's no cost ascribed to the people?"

Wisconsin's voucher program

As emotional as debates over access to health care have become, the issues may pale in comparison to the battles unfolding in many states over public education. While parents generally consider decisions about their children's schooling to be uniquely personal choices, they differ sharply over the matter of affording all U.S. children equal opportunities to receive a quality education.

Complicating the discussion is the poor quality of public education systems in many states. Recently, moves to fund vouchers that less affluent families could use to send their kids to better schools — including private and parochial schools — have sparked fierce debate.

Wisconsin state Representative Annette Polly Williams (D-Milwaukee) authored the bill that in 1990 launched a school voucher system in Milwaukee, the first such program in the country. "I referred to it as a parental choice program because it was about parents having the right to make a decision based on the needs of their children," she says.

"Parents with money have always been able to put their child into a good school or move into a neighborhood where there are good public schools. Our legislation was to empower families that don't have the funds to help their children get a good education," Williams says.

The Milwaukee program kicked off with just $3 million of state funding and six schools participating. Today its budget is almost $100 million and the program has a roster of more than 100 schools. While the numbers may seem an indicator of success, some people, including recently elected state Representative Cory Mason (D-Racine), aren't applauding.

"My problem with the voucher program is that it actually takes money away from an already challenged school district. Every time a child goes into the voucher program, it's about $38,000 less for the public school children," he says.

Mason wants the state to focus on better ways to measure achievement and force accountability in the public schools as a step toward ensuring that all the schools deliver quality.

As to whether it is possible to provide all students with equal educational opportunities, he says: "It's a constitutional mandate, so we have to succeed. A democracy can't sustain itself—pragmatically, you can't sustain a state or a city—if you don't succeed at this."

Washington's living wage

As the nation has struggled to live up to ideals of educational equality for its children, government has made repeated attempts to equalize economic conditions among adults as well. For several decades, both federal and state governments have used minimum wage legislation as a tool in this effort. Over the years, some states that felt the federal minimum wage wasn't keeping pace with workers' needs legislated their own, higher minimums.

The state of Washington, for example, today requires employers to pay entrylevel workers at least $7.93 an hour, the highest rate in the nation and far above the $5.15 per hour federal minimum. In addition, the Washington legislature recently amended its law to provide an annual wage adjustment based on the rate of inflation.

State Representative Steve Conway (D-Tacoma), who chairs the House Commerce and Labor Committee, says the move was a no-brainer. "Equality of opportunity is a fundamental American right," he says. "The minimum wage is a beginning point for equal opportunity. It's a first step on the ladder."

But in Missouri, which increased its minimum wage to $6.50 an hour as of Jan. 1, state Senator John Loudon (R-Ballwin) strongly disagrees.

Loudon and other opponents were particularly disturbed by a provision in the new law that indexes the wage to inflation.

"I think it is very dangerous to pass legislation that attempts to manipulate the marketplace," he says. "I'm a huge believer in equalizing opportunities, but it's dangerous to try to equalize outcomes."

Nonetheless, it appears that the momentum has shifted nationally behind a higher federal minimum wage. In recent weeks, both houses of Congress passed versions of a wage bill that will raise the minimum to $7.15 an hour.

Is the action a sign that political leaders are increasingly willing to intervene in the marketplace in the name of equality?

"I think it's just that people a lot of times vote with their hearts and not their minds," says Loudon.

Which may explain precisely why lawmakers and many other leaders will continue using broad interpretations of the word "equality" to justify a broad spectrum of political, social and economic initiatives. As political scholar Kobylka puts it, "We're not really sure what we mean by equality, we just know we like it."

About Kathy Finn

Kathy Finn is a freelance journalist and writer living in New Orleans.