WHAT "EQUALITY" DOES NOT MEAN
When egalitarians talk about how people are equal we do NOT mean that people are identical. We do not mean that people have the same talents or skills or integrity of character. We know full well that people vary from one another in all sorts of ways, physically and mentally.
Egalitarians do not advocate making people equal, in the sense of identical. We're not concerned that some people are different from others. Indeed these differences are often a positive thing that makes life more interesting!
And yes, some people deserve more respect than others as leaders who should be followed in particular situations: the trained medical surgeon should be accorded more respect in an operating room than the janitor; the trained pilot of a passenger plane should be obeyed rather than some random passenger. And in most places where people are engaged in some enterprise, certain individuals will emerge as better leaders deserving more respect (because of their integrity and knowledge and dedication to the shared goal of the enterprise) in that situation than others. No-rich-and-no-poor equality has absolutely nothing to do with denying these differences among people.
For egalitarians, equality (meaning "equality of outcome" as opposed merely to "equal opportunity" to get richer than others) most certainly does NOT mean anything at all like what the novelist, Kurt Vonnegut, portrayed it to be in his satirical story titled "Harrison Bergeron" in which:
"It is the year 2081. Because of amendments to the Constitution, all Americans are fully equal, meaning that no one is allowed to be smarter, better-looking, or more physically able than anyone else. The Handicapper General's agents enforce the equality laws, forcing citizens to wear 'handicaps': a mask if they are too beautiful, radio earphones with shrill noise to disrupt the thinking of intelligent people, and heavy weights to burden the strong or athletic."
Apologists for social/economic inequality want people to believe that egalitarians are crazy people aiming to make everybody exactly the same. Asserting that egalitarians hold such a stupid view is just a cheap debater's trick. Thus Ayn Rand, the champion of inequality, writes:
"To understand the meaning and motives of egalitarianism, project it into the field of medicine. Suppose a doctor is called to help a man with a broken leg and, instead of setting it, proceeds to break the legs of ten other men, explaining that this would make the patient feel better; when all these men become crippled for life, the doctor advocates the passage of a law compelling everyone to walk on crutches—in order to make the cripples feel better and equalize the 'unfairness' of nature."
The fact that the critics of egalitarianism have to resort to flat out lying about what egalitarians believe shows how incapable they are of making a persuasive argument against what egalitarians actually believe.
So what do egalitarians mean by "equality?" We mean equality in the sense of no rich and no poor. We mean that people--despite their very real differences--nonetheless have an equal right to enjoy the benefits made possible by naturally occurring and socially produced wealth according to need and reasonable desire if they contribute reasonably according to ability. It's that simple.
Sure, people have different needs. So a sick person needs more medical care than a healthy person; a large family needs a larger house than a small family; one person may need to eat more than another, etc. People have all sorts of different needs. So what? The point is that, among those who contribute reasonably, there should be equality of status with respect to being able to take (for free) products and services from the economy according to reasonable need and desire (or in the case of scarcity to have equal status when things are rationed equitably according to need). THIS is what it means to have "no rich and no poor."
Yes, of course, some people have greater or different abilities than others; and some people have greater or different needs and desires than others. We know that, and have no problem with that. We believe, however, that the differences between people are not a reason for some being richer than others. We believe, for example, that the children of a janitor and the children of a physician should enjoy the same standards of education, healthy food, quality health care, comfortable living space, quality clothing, leisure time, fun vacations, and healthy and attractive environment.
Egalitarian equality does NOT mean Equal Opportunity. Equal Opportunity means an equal opportunity to get rich in a society in which some are rich and some are poor. Egalitarian equality means there are no rich and no poor because all who contribute reasonably according to ability have the same right to take for free products and services from the economy according to reasonable need or desire (or, in the case of scarcity, to have things that are equitably rationed according to need.)
To repeat from the #1 discussion above, the children of a janitor and the children of a physician should enjoy the same standards of education, healthy food, quality health care, comfortable living space, quality clothing, leisure time, fun vacations, and healthy and attractive environment. This is the kind of equality egalitarians aim for.
Apologists for class inequality (i.e., those who approve of having some rich and some poor) such as Robert Reich, call for Equal Opportunity in order to divert people from even thinking about, never mind fighting for, what most people ACTUALLY want, which is egalitarian equality.