Equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome

May 1, 2019 (1036 words) :: If you don't have the latter, do you really have the former?
Tags: inequality

This post is day 121 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

If you’re familiar with the equality of “opportunity” vs “outcome” dichotomy, it’s probably in the context of differing attitudes towards inequality across the political spectrum: the left favours thinking about equality in terms of outcome, while the right prefers the more meritocratic-sounding “opportunity”.

But what does “opportunity” really mean in this context? Milton Friedman offers one explanation in a fairly dubious essay from 1990. He starts off by noting that equality of opportunity is essentially impossible if we include characteristics based on accidents of birth (obviously), but maintains that it’s still worth aiming at in order to preserve liberty. Opportunity, here, means that people are not arbitrarily denied access to jobs they’re otherwise qualified for.

For Friedman, equality of opportunity is a much more preferable aim than equality of outcome. The latter, for him, stems from a leftist fantasy that governments can rectify inequalities found in nature, which (in his view) could only be accomplished by hindering those who are naturally more talented. The “equality of outcome” position is thus caricatured as proposing that kids who are really good at playing a musical instrument would be “prevented from having access to good musical training”, whereas the rest would be given more training to “compensate for their inherited disadvantage”.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s basically the plot of Harrison Bergeron, a short story by Kurt Vonnegut which describes a dystopia where “everybody was finally equal”, because the government is actively suppressing the talents of people like the main character. From the premise, you might assume that the story is a critique of the left’s propensity for misguided outcome-oriented policies. In reality, though, Vonnegut was a lifelong socialist who wrote the story to make fun of anti-Communist hysteria which, in equating “equality of outcome” with suppression, deeply misunderstood the philosophy behind left critiques of inequality.

Nobody wants a dystopia where people are penalised for having natural talents. The left’s desired vision does not necessitate punishing people who happen to be good at piano or solving puzzles or whatever. Rather, it actually aligns pretty well with Friedman’s own stated goals: to remove the arbitrary barriers preventing people from fulfilling their potential.

So why the dichotomy, if these two viewpoints value the same things? My impression is that it comes down to a different definition of “arbitrary barriers”. For the left, there are many such barriers in the current system: unequal access to educational opportunities (based on zip code, parental wealth, etc); harsh limitations on migration for those born outside the most wealthy nations; the fact that some people inherit wealth from their parents or get professional sinecures while others had to fight for every shitty job they’ve ever had. The barriers are primarily economic, in other words, and in an age where the market has come to take over more and more of the world, even social barriers based on gender or race are often mediated through the market (discrimination when it comes to jobs, housing, etc). In the left view, the problem is capitalism.

On the other hand, if you’re inclined to think that markets are good and capitalism is generally fine, then you probably also see certain social hierarchies as natural. Wage inequality may not be “fair”, but it is natural, and even good, because it’s what allows Muhammad Ali to be a fighter and not a dockworker (to use Friedman’s contrived example). Inequality in terms of access to education may also not be fair, but it is again natural, and preventing people from being able to buy their childen a better education would be depriving them of liberty. Once you’ve identified all the inequalities that already exist within the system as “natural”, then you’re unlikely to demand the abolition of these inequalities even if they may function as arbitrary barriers. They’re not arbitrary, see. They’re natural, and there’s nothing we could do about it even if we wanted to.

The left take is a much more ambitious one, which sees these inequalities as not natural, but merely naturalised. The socioeconomic system we live under is constructed, the patchwork product of choices that were made long ago and that can be unmade, if necessary. Whether or not an individual is able to achieve the economic stability necessary for some degree of personal liberty is arbitrary, dependent on how well they fit within the pre-ordained paths of what’s glorified in the system. And these paths are never natural, and certainly never neutral; they are the result of a bricolage of differing ideas of how best to run an economic system, as identified by people in positions of power.

This perspective also suggests that the idea of “opportunity” itself is highly ideological. For one, when have we ever had equality of opportunity, anywhere? You can try to assess merit in a neutral way - via standardised tests, for example - but that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Rich people will hire private tutors, or send their kids to better schools, or literally just pay someone to help them cheat. It doesn’t matter how loudly you insist that your test is accurate and neutral and non-ideological; it is basically impossible to wipe out all the disparities within society at large, and in case, why should anyone trust that you’re even trying to?

I think a better way of understanding equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome is by seeing the latter as a test of the former. If you don’t have something approaching equality of outcome, you probably don’t have equality of opportunity; rather, the “opportunities” are - deliberately or not - restricted by artificial barriers.

So if anyone ever says that equality of outcome is bad and we should instead aim for equality of opportunity, ask them how they’ll know when it’s actually equality of opportunity without using outcome as a litmus test. Those who benefit from a given system are always capable of inventing some sort of ex post justification for why the system is infallible, and they are always wrong.

Further recommended reading on this topic: this Jacobin interview with Chris Hayes, and my notes from the “Social Scientific Analysis of Inequalities” module at the London School of Economics from 2017-2018.

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