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Egalitarianism (derived from the French word ''égal'', meaning "equal"), has two distinct definitions in modern English. It is defined either as a political doctrine that holds that all people should be treated as equals and have the same political, economic, social, and civil rights or as a social philosophy advocating the removal of economic inequalities among people.
In modern cultures, peoples tend to be divided into upper and lower classes. However, before the relatively recent agricultural revolution, humanity existed in primarily hunter-gatherer societies that, some believe, were at least largely egalitarian. It is considered by some to be the natural state of society.
Social inequality has been shown to cause many social problems. A comprehensive study of major world economies revealed that homicide, infant mortality, obesity, teenage pregnancies, emotional depression and prison population all correlate with higher social inequality.
Common forms of egalitarianism include economic egalitarianism, legal egalitarianism, luck egalitarianism, political egalitarianism, gender egalitarianism, racial equality, asset-based egalitarianism, and Christian egalitarianism.
The framers of various modern governments made references to the Enlightenment principles of egalitarianism, "inalienable rights endowed by their Creator," in the moral principles by which they lived, and which formed the basis for their legacy.
The Christian egalitarian view holds that the Bible teaches the fundamental equality of women and men of all racial and ethnic mixes, all economic classes, and all age groups, based on the teachings and example of Jesus Christ and the overarching principles of scripture.
At a cultural level, egalitarian theories have developed in sophistication and acceptance during the past two hundred years. Among the notable broadly egalitarian philosophies are socialism, communism, anarchism, left-libertarianism, and progressivism, all of which propound economic, political, and legal egalitarianism, respectively. Several egalitarian ideas enjoy wide support among intellectuals and in the general populations of many countries. Whether any of these ideas have been significantly implemented in practice, however, remains a controversial question. For instance, some argue that modern representative democracy is a realization of political egalitarianism, while others believe that, in reality, most political power still resides in the hands of a ruling class, rather than in the hands of the people.
A study published in 2009 took into account data sets from major world economies and correlated them with inequality indices. The study found that the absolute wealth within a country had little effect on the citizens' wellbeing or social cohesion, and that inequality correlated strongly with social problems such as homicide, infant mortality, obesity, teenage pregnancies, emotional depression and prison population. For example, countries such as Sweden, Finland and Japan scored highly in social wellbeing and equality indices, while countries such as the United States and United Kingdom scored low in both.
A study of American college students published in ''Nature'' showed that people are willing to pay to reduce inequality. When subjects were placed into groups and given random amounts of income, they spent their own money to reduce the incomes of the highest earners and increase the incomes of the lowest earners. Critics argued that no experiments have been made on working adults whereupon they might not be generous with redistribution of their income.
In a follow-up study, Swiss children showed a significant increase in sharing between the ages of 3 and 8. It has not been determined whether the results of either of these experiments are due to an innate instinct, or exposure to and adoption of the customs of other people.
Support and criticism
A society that meets the meritocratic goal of equal opportunity might still be a harsh environment for those who lack the physical or mental capabilities to compete. It can be argued that policies that go beyond the meritocratic ideals are ineffective.