Monday, March 9, 2009

The Entangled Nature of Equality

This week I want to address the fallacy of trying to separate "equality of opportunity" from "equality of outcomes" - one of the great fetishes of the American public dialogue on political philosophy. I doubt I'll say anything especially new or insightful here. I'm positive it has been considered before (in fact, I was somewhat inspired by an article I read recently by Anthony de Jasay in the Cato Journal). But in light of recent concerns that the administration is "redistributing wealth" and engaging in "social engineering", I do think it's worthwhile to revisit basic questions of whether we should be pursuing "equality of opportunity" only, or "equality of outcomes" as well.

Americans almost universally agree that ideally government should only guarantee "equality of opportunity"; a level playing field, as it were. For example, there is little opposition to anti-discrimination laws, universal K-12 education, or bare bones workplace safety requirements. If pressed, a large portion of Americans would also concede that practically speaking, some extenuating circumstances require the government to guarantee "equality of outcomes". The welfare state emerged out of this practical, but not ideal, response to extenuating circumstances in peoples' lives. The battle lines in the modern ideological debate over domestic economic and social policy are largely drawn based on the strictness with which people adhere to government's mission of only guaranteeing "equality of opportunity".

My thesis is that the distinction between guarantees of "equality of opportunity" and "equality of outcome" is far less distinct than we would like to pretend. The major reason for this is that an individual's success in life is based largely on things outside of his or her control. If a person's success was entirely derived from their own intelligence, talent, effort, and thrift, then relentlessly adhering to a policy of only guaranteeing "equality of opportunity" might be possible. But individual success is also influenced by the monetary and non-monetary endowments bestowed on individuals by their parents. Parental success is a major determinant of the quality of an individual's K-12 education, the availability of higher education, exposure to a strong work ethic, and an interest in advancing oneself.

We cannot make the claim that effort and talent are equally rewarded by the market if a youth that grew up in a broken home in a poor neighborhood needs to exert more effort or show greater talent in order to achieve the same success as another youth that grew up in a supportive home in a wealthy neighborhood.

This fundamental inheritability of success in life is by no means a bad thing. After all, improving your children's life chances is a major motivator for any individual's success in life. Parents would be less productive if there was no prospect that their children would benefit from their efforts. Few people advocate denying children the fruits of their parent's labor. But recognition of the high correlation of parental and child success does highlight the fact that guaranteeing "equality of opportunity" for all individuals is absolutely impossible without considering the "equality of outcomes" of other individuals (primarily parents).

This line of argument could obviously be used to justify any number of redistributive schemes. It could justify such schemes, although I want to emphasize that I don't mean to justify those schemes here.

What I do want is to recognize that:
(1.) "equality of opportunity" may be impossible to guarantee, despite it's place of honor in American political philosophy,
(2.) that if we are serious about at least partially guaranteeing "equality of opportunity" it may be perfectly reasonable to explore some "equality of outcome" efforts, even if we completely reject the goal of equalizing outcomes, and
(3.) that we cannot consider an individual's success to be solely derived from his or her own abilities and efforts; individual success is also a function of the collected series of familial successes and failures, compounded over time.

1 comment:

  1. There is a great deal more room than you realize between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes. The first views life as a competition for place, which in part it is to be sure; the second disconnects the link between effort and reward, always a mistake. Between is the question of ordinary people and their chances not to excel or be first but to lead a good life -- something impossible throughout most of history, and endangered today. Another dilemma: should our governing elites (as distinct from the elites of business and science) represent the full ethnic and geographic diversity of America, or does it matter if one or two talented minorities are numerically predominate? Are the best and the brightest of each group not qualified to serve? Are you squaring, or attempting to square, the facts of human biodiversity with the values of a liberal democracy? One of the challenges we face.


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