Two Problems With Equality of Opportunity

Peter DormanThere are two large difficulties with equal opportunity as a principle of justice. First, what exactly should be this hypothetical moment of perfect equality — the equal starting line, to use the metaphor of a footrace? Should it be birth? This means that the unequal distribution of luck before birth must be counterbalanced, so that those who are congenitally stronger or more clever should be disadvantaged in equal measure. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then you perhaps imagine a moment even before birth and before genetic qualities are doled out. But related to this is the problem that, as soon as we are born, we begin to do things or have things done to us that, if not offset, will lead to unequal life chances down the road. The further back we push the moment of equality, the more subsequent inequality we must accept. If opportunities are to be equal at birth, then the advantages that some get in childhood will not count against “equal opportunity.” Perhaps you would set a much later age for the “starting point” — say 18. This commits you to much greater intervention to offset all the many pluses and minuses that can accrue by that age, including many that are due to the choices that children make for themselves. At the same time, it can be seen as a bit heartless, since it doesn’t allow for second chances. If someone discovers what they truly want at the age of 25 or so, too bad: they missed the moment of equality and they will have to make do with whatever opportunities they are lucky enough to still have. This sort of criticism can be addressed by requiring a multiplicity of “somewhat equal opportunities” that can reappear as one grows older, but then the criterion loses its sharpness: how equal must these second chances be and how many must be offered?

The second large difficulty is that equality of opportunity is compatible with almost any level of general inequality, as we defined it in this chapter. Suppose, for example, that you have a society that works according to this rule: every year a lottery is held with just one winning number. The individual who wins that year gets everything — every last penny of income, all the wealth, the land, everything of value. Everyone else must beg for enough to survive on. The principle of equal opportunity demands only one thing, that the lottery be perfectly fair, so that each person has the same chance to be tycoon-for-a-year, but surely this demand does not go far enough. Can extremely unequal divisions of life’s good things be viewed as just simply because the system is fair at the moment just before division?

—Peter Dorman
Inequality of Opportunity: Another View

2 thoughts on “Two Problems With Equality of Opportunity

  1. I eschew the equality-of-opportunity/equality-of-results false dichotomy in favor of equality of footing.

    The snarkiest voices among the litas and other rightists frame equality as something that comes in precisely two distinct forms, which they call equality of opportunity and equality or results. The former is possible, if not inherent, in the frictionless plane that is the unfettered market, while the latter is theoretically impossible, and as a stated goal is a symptom of the psychological disorder called sense of entitlement. They love to ridicule it with Diana Moon Glampers jokes or by implying that it implies people being identical. I recognize a third sense of the word equality, characterized by the very widely understood notion of an equal footing. I understand this type of equality to be somewhat broader than the narrow sense of equality of opportunity that seems to imply a society free of de jure privilege. It requires the (to me) more ambitious goal of a society free of de facto advantage. This is in no way equivalent to equality of results.What does it mean to be on an equal footing with another party? I think most people know intuitively what it means. It means nobody has your head over a barrel. It doesn’t mean getting everything on your terms, but it does mean you have enough clout, game, or whatever, to negotiate a compromise in which the other party doesn’t, either. Expressions like ‘market leverage,’ varying degrees of ‘duress,’ ‘boilerplate contracts,’ ‘getting taken advantage of,’ and ‘monopoly’ are very common figures of speech, even though the litas perform much derivation to demonstrate their theoretical impossibility. Everyone understands what they mean, and that understanding comes from very routine personal experience. Certainly it’s possible for the conventional wisdom to be wrong, but I find it to be a more ready guide than theoremsies derived from assumptions such as a universe in which the only economic goods that exist are eggs and root beer.

    • I’m not clear what equal footing means in practice. The truth is that liberals don’t ask for equality of opportunity or outcomes. I think what we ask is for a system that is not so unequal that it perpetuates itself. If the richest people made $100,000 per year, they would provide their children enormous advantages over those who make over $10,000 per year. But they wouldn’t be in a position to mandate that their children (and many generations after them) would be rich. Conservatives scream at the idea that the poorest person would make $10,000 and the richest, $100,000. But there really is more to society than economic wealth — and I think this is something that you are getting at. If people knew they could only make $100,000 per year, they would find better (or at least more diverse) ways to spend their lives. The biggest problem we face is this idea that economics is the only value in society. That leads to ridiculous wealth and ridiculous poverty. And the result is that neither the wealthy nor the poor maximize their potential.

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