Yesterday, BG picked up one thread of the “mega blog discussion” kicked off by Don Arthur. I want to pick up another. In the discussion on Arthur’s post, BG and I seemed to agree that, apart from a firm safety net which encouraged able-bodied people to work, the social policy goal should be to strive for more equal opportunity rather than more equality of outcomes per se (although the first generally leads to the second). I believe this view is also shared by a majority of Australians as polls suggest they respond coolly to passive redistribution to low income persons of working age but warmly to the idea of giving them equal opportunity.
However, some rightly queried what such a goal would mean in practical policy terms: do we really need more policy intervention to address inequalities of opportunity in Australia?
The answer to this question depends on how one responds to five other sub-questions:
(i) What do we (and mainstream Australia) mean by equality of opportunity as a policy goal and in particular how does one deal with natural endowments (a question posed by TIOW and in my view only partially answered by Don)?
(ii) Hasnt Australia already come pretty close to achieving the ideal of equal opportunity in practice i.e. isnt it broadly true that Australians are able, through their own efforts and skills, to move easily to a higher class or social status than those of their social origin?
(iii) Even if the answer to (ii) is no, will the benefits of government intervention outweigh the economic costs of higher taxation?
(iv) How does a policy maker weigh equality of opportunity as a goal against other dimensions of fairness such as individual freedom of choice, self-reliance and individual responsibility – values which Australians are also strongly committed to?
(v) Will governments be able to effectively deliver opportunity-leveling programs i.e. is government failure worse than market failure?
I have written a great deal on each of these questions in recent years including in an
extensive discussion paper in 2006 (http://www.tai.org.au/documents/dp_fulltext/DP85.pdf.)
I might try one day to summarise and update my views on each of these five questions perhaps in 2 or 3 large installments – but only if there is sufficient interest in this topic among Club Troppo readers. Alternatively, we could just have a free rein discussion.