The Egalitarian In The Lunchroom (a parable)

Recently, a self-described egalitarian tried to school me on his school of thought, which he thought I’d been unfairly impugning. He described egalitarianism this way:

“To use an analogy like you it would be more like one person has a vegetable garden and another person has apple trees. Egalitarians would say give them each a loaf of bread to have a nice lunch.”

He summed up what he saw my approach thusly:

“But, say the vegetable person got upset because they think it’s unfair that the other person gets both apples and bread. So they start a group to support other vegetable people. They petition you to not only give them extra food (like cheese) but also to stop giving the apple people their bread. You tell them they could just grow apples too but that offends them and they demand you still give them bread and cheese and they actually want bacon now too. They even demand you confiscate some of their apples to make it more fair.”

And summed up his defense of egalitarianism with:

“To say that the only way you can have equality is to be shown unfair advantages, goes against the very idea of equality.”

I have to confess, I found this very charming. Egalitarianism as a political philosophy defined as “Give everybody bread, and they can make a nice lunch out of whatever they have.” It’s such a great capsule description of… well… everything that’s wrong with it as an approach, and why exactly we need the more nuanced solutions that are inevitably reduced by their detractors to “showing some groups unfair advantages and calling it fair”.

It is in that spirit that I present:


Once upon a time, an egalitarian was given charge over a school cafeteria and tasked with making sure that every child within it had a nutritious meal. This was a very important job, and the egalitarian was pleased to have a chance to show his dedication to equality by carrying it out in the fairest form possible.

“I shall give each child,” he said, “a SANDWICH. Each sandwich shall be exactly the same, consisting of delicious, fluffy, lightly toasted bread, a modest amount of mayonnaise, a slice of American cheese, nutritious lettuce and tomato, and a standard serving size of ham. All children shall receive this sandwich, and a carton of milk. All needs shall be equally met.”

When lunchtime came, the egalitarian went to the lunchroom to observe his ingenious system of lunchroom equality in action. The children were all lined up, and the sandwiches were all ready for them, one for each child, as the uniformity of the menu had resulted in a marvel of efficiency.

He watched as the first few children filed through the line.

Then one got to the front of the line and stopped.

“Is that real mayo?” she said. “I’m allergic to eggs. Could you make me one without mayo?”

The server looked at the egalitarian, who shook his head no. Didn’t this child understand equality? She was holding up the lines with her demands for special treatment.

“Every child gets the same sandwich,” the server said, giving her one. “That’s how you know it’s fair.”

But the special snowflake demands didn’t stop there. One child with sensitive gums had the gall to demand that the bread be untoasted. Several said they were lactose intolerant and could not digest the cheese, nor the milk that was served as a drink.

The egalitarian thought this one was a particularly transparent ploy to get special attention, as—though he did not see color—he couldn’t help but notice that most of the children who pulled it were racial minorities. Though he believed all races should be treated equally and he held not a single prejudiced thought in his head, it was his experience that some of those people did not believe this, and would use any excuse they could think of to demand special treatment.

“Everybody gets a sandwich,” the egalitarian said. “That’s a nice lunch for everybody. Look at all the kids who already have their sandwich and are happily eating it. This could be you, but you’re not happy to have the same thing everybody else has. You have to be special, so you’re holding up the line demanding we make something special just for you.”

Then one child claimed something called “coeliac disease” and asked for a sandwich with no bread at all. That ignored not only the definition of equality, but the definition of sandwich! One person said they couldn’t eat pork, because of a cultural tradition they were trying to keep alive.

“That’s your choice,” the egalitarian said. “I’m giving you the same opportunity to eat as everyone else.”

When an anemic student asked if there could not be a meal option that had some red meat, or at least some spinach, the egalitarian snapped. He’d tried to make everything equal, but if it would stop the grumbling for one minute…

“Fine!” he said. “Starting tomorrow we’ll put spinach on the sandwiches instead of lettuce! Will that make you happy?”

“Excuse me,” said another student. “I have a thyroid condition, and I’m not supposed to eat dark green vegetables.”

“Aaah!” screamed the egalitarian. “You see? I tried being nice, and do I even get any credit for compromising? This is what happens when you kowtow to special interest groups? There’s no way to win with you people! No way! If I take the bread off the sandwich, somebody will say they need the carbs! If I take away all the dairy to please the ‘lactose intolerants’ someone will tell me that they need calcium and potassium! The demands never stop with you people, which is why it was a mistake to bother trying at all! EVERYBODY GETS THE SAME SANDWICH! THAT IS WHAT EQUALITY MEANS!”

For reasons that are unclear, the egalitarian did not keep this job much longer, and soon after the school cafeteria went to a buffet model where children could select from several dishes, including things such as salads they assembled themselves and sandwiches assembled to order.

The egalitarian still visits the cafeteria from time to time and watches the children moving from station to station—not even the same stations—picking out their lunch. He watches the coeliacs taking unbreaded chicken and making salads from underneath signs reminding students how to avoid cross contaminating them, and mutters, “No one else gets signs just for them.” He watches the lactose intolerant students getting their orange juice and sneers, “I bet they feel really special with their yellow milk.” He watches a student peering at labels for kosher certification. “This isn’t equal food, it’s special food.”

He watches them all: the vegetarians and vegans, the anemics, the kosher-keepers and the halal-observers, and he says, “This isn’t equality. This isn’t what equality looks like.  I gave them equal. I gave them fair. It was so simple, so beautiful. But the fools, the fools didn’t want to listen…”

He breaks down sobbing.

“Everybody got a sandwich.”