What is equality of opportunity?

Almost everyone is in favour of equality of opportunity; even free market activists from the Institute of Public Affairs. But whenever a large number of people agree on a form of words, it’s a safe bet they interpret those words differently. How else could party members agree on political platforms without splintering into factions?

Look up ‘equality of opportunity’ in the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics (pdf) and you’ll find this definition:

An equal-opportunity (EOp) policy is an intervention (e.g., the provision of resources by a state agency) that makes it the case that all those who expend the same degree of effort end up with the same outcome, regardless of their circumstances.

According to this definition (from egalitarian economist John Roemer) equality of opportunity requires policies that indemnify individuals for disadvantages that are the result of circumstances or brute luck. So according to Roemer, genetic endowments or the education level of your parents shouldn’t make a difference to your life prospects.

Some libertarians object this definition on the grounds that individuals are entitled to be rewarded for ability as well as effort. As self-owners, their human capital is their property and they are entitled to benefit from it. While Roemer acknowledges this is a coherent position, he insists that it’s not consistent with equality of opportunity. No doubt there are libertarians and classical liberals who would say that Roemer is wrong.

According to classical liberal economist Friedrich Hayek, "Most people will object not to the bare fact of inequality but to the fact that the differences in reward do not correspond to any recognizable differences in the merits of those who receive them" (p 156). So for most people, equality of opportunity is about justice. It’s about ensuring that individuals get what they deserve or are entitled to.

People who believe that individuals entitled to the products of innate intelligence, beauty and athletic ability as well as their own choices and effort, will reject Roemer’s definition. They may argue that people should be rewarded in proportion to their achievements even when those achievements depend heavily on endowments they did nothing to earn.

It’s almost impossible to settle these kinds of disagreements. And they are just the tip of the iceberg. However, it may be possible to tease out what people mean when they talk about equality of opportunity. And that’s what I’ve tried to do below.

Below is a outline of some of the different interpretations of equality of opportunity. It’s a work in progress so if you’ve got something better, feel free to suggest it in the comments.

People can differ about both the scope of opportunity and who should they should target when they advocate for something to be done.

Opportunity for what?

Money isn’t the only thing that people value. Other things people want equal opportunity for include:

  • Status: Most societies have a hierarchy of status or prestige. High status individuals and groups get more attention and are held in higher esteem than those further down the pecking order.
  • Political power: Many institutions such as governments and workplaces have a hierarchy of authority. Not everyone has an equal say in decision making or about the rules members must abide by. Some egalitarians argue that decision making in institutions such as workplaces should be democratic. No individual should have more opportunity for influence than any other.
  • Welfare: Few people desire money, status or power for its own sake. According to some thinkers, these are all valued because they contribute to welfare or utility. As a result they argue that it is opportunity for welfare that ought to be equalised.
  • Self-actualisation: Some people argue that argue that welfare or utility is too narrow an idea of human flourishing and treats wellbeing as if it were the product of consumption. They argue that what is really in a person’s interests is to fulfil their potential for self-actualisation — to be the best person they can be. According to this view, equality of opportunity is about giving everyone the opportunity to discover what their potential is and to actualise it.

Target for advocacy

Equality of opportunity is a political concept. People disagree about the legitimate scope of politics and political action. Some people think politics is just about laws and government. Others insist the personal is political.

  • Minimal state: Libertarians will argue that governments should not pass laws that exclude women, racial minorities, or members of a particular religion from voting or holding public office. But at the same they will insist it is not legitimate for governments to pass laws preventing private businesses from discriminating against job applicants or customers. Libertarianism, they say, is a theory about the limits of government, not a philosophy of the ideal society. So while individual libertarians may regard racism, sexism or other forms of bigotry as immoral, they will not speak out about them as libertarians. As a result, they will usually argue that equality of opportunity is about preventing government from erecting barriers that limit the opportunities enjoyed by particular individuals or groups.
  • Welfare state: Other groups such as social democrats recognise a broader role for the state. As a result they argue that governments should intervene in the market to ensure equality of opportunity. For example, they may push for redistribution of income and investments in child care, education and health in order to improve the life prospects of children from less advantaged families.
  • All public institutions: More radical egalitarians argue that equality of opportunity requires much more sweeping changes than redistribution of income or investments in education and health. While libertarians tend to regard everything beyond the state as private, radical egalitarians argue that workplaces and civil society organisations are also public and ought to be designed in a way that equalises opportunity. They may or may not advocate legislative measures to achieve this. In some cases they rely on protests, boycotts and direct action.
  • All social institutions: For the most radical egalitarians, no social institutions including the family and informal social networks should be treated as private. They argue that we have a legitimate collective interest in how children are raised and how things like ‘old boys’ networks help perpetuate advantage. These egalitarians extend their political activism into family and social life. Again, they may or may not rely on legislation or government action.

Equality of opportunity can mean anything from celebrating the end of Jim Crow laws while insisting on the right of business owners to refuse to employ or serve blacks, to calling for the immediate overthrow of capitalism, the patriarchy, and the traditional nuclear family.

Of course in many cases people won’t have a clear idea about what they mean when they talk about equality of opportunity. As George Orwell said, a lot of political rhetoric is about tacking nice sounding phrases together without bothering to think about whether they mean anything at all.

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jennifer
jennifer
9 years ago

‘the personal is political’ Shulamith Firestone et al certainly changed the opportunities for women – just went back to the essay that provoked the title and I was struck by how much things have changed and how many more opportunities there are for women and men, at least in the white middle class culture, than there were even in 1969 when the second wave was going strong. It is hard to imagine that affluent, educated and supposedly free thinking people living in wealthy democracies were constrained so tightly to the ‘world of work’ for men and the ‘world of home’ for women, and that there was social censure for any who stepped outside those worlds.
“He stays at home you know, and looks after those children while she works. I’m not one to criticise, but it’s not right….. and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is something else going on in that family.”
The chattering classes were largely responsible for freeing us from that and I’m very grateful. Although a lot of the feminist theories that draw on oppressed classes, races, etc make me shudder just a little, the guts was good. Even while the more radical elements suffered backlash, childcare centres were opening, more women were going to universities to be other than teachers and nurses and we all got increasingly accustomed to seeing women in positions of influence. Dare I say, women entered the discourse of power in the second wave and have not stepped back from the opportunities afforded us there.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago

No doubt there are libertarians and classical liberals who would say that Roemer is wrong.

Roemer is wrong, but to appreciate just how wrong he is, I’ll quote from Robert. H. Frank, taking this idea to its logical conclusion:

Debate continues about the extent to which personal traits are attributable to environmental and genetic factors. But whatever the true weights may be, in combination those factors explain virtually everything. Someone is smart either because she war born with genes that made her smart, or because she was raised in a nurturing, stimulating environment that fostered her intellectual development, or — almost certainly — because of some combination of those two factors.

The same is true of someone with an unusually strong capacity and inclination to work hard. That aspect of her character may be partly genetic, and it may be partly a result of the particular circumstances of her upbringing. But whatever the true weights may be, there can be no doubt that someone possessed of these qualities enjoys a substantial advantage in life.

On what grounds might people born with good genes and raised in nurturing families claim moral credit for their talent and industriousness? The plain fact is they were just lucky.

Notice how we have now taken a step back and neatly ruled out any credit the individual might be able to claim for effort expended. At least Robert. H. Frank is intellectually self-consistent because there is no systematic way to decide exactly what part of an outcome might be attributed to effort, and what might be attributed to ability.

By lumping it all into blind luck (or God if you prefer) you reach the same self-consistent but useless position as the determinist argument that there’s no point looking before you cross the road, given that it only comes down to luck (or God if you prefer). For that matter, don’t bother looking while driving either.

Andrew Norton
9 years ago

While very few people today want the nuclear family abolished, the push for more early childhood intervention is designed to get children from lower-class families away from their parents for enough time each week to develop greater cognitive and non-cognitive abilities.

Peter Patton
Peter Patton
9 years ago

“equality of opportunity” is an even more airheaded cliche than “social justice”. It is very sad to see this is the road taken by John Romer once he realized his socialist/marxist drugs no longer worked. I suppose he could have followed so many of his comrades who ran away hiding under the girdle of ‘critical’ theory’, ‘pomo’, and ‘cultural studies’, but with his mathematical and broader analytical talents, he’d have been as welcome as a cow on the Haj

Peter Patton
Peter Patton
9 years ago

Why do so many of these otherwise very smart and skilled marxists, not just admit that their leftist cognition was wrong, wrong, and wrong, and surrender themselves to reprogramming.

Pedro
Pedro
9 years ago

Other than the removal of State discrimination, such apartheid, equality of opportunity as defined in the post is achieved by reducing the opportunity of some individuals. Some people might be lifted up, but others have to be pulled down to pay for it.

It is also obvious that the Roemer definition ultimately is stipulating equality of outcomes and not opportunities. You cannot make the stupid smart or the slow fast.

Even if true that our genetic and societal starting points are lucky, how is that a moral case for corrective action? And is it true? I come from a middle class family in which the various ancestors worked hard as families to have their children get a good start and now I’m doing the same for my kids. So how does that make me or them lucky? I wasn’t a soul in heaven waiting for a body who picked a moderately good package from the lucky dip box.

jennifer
jennifer
9 years ago

The perception that the elevation of an undeserving party must result in the sinking of the ‘more deserving’ does not acknowledge the wider benefits to a society that can organise the distribution of resources and opportunities. All societies that can do so in the interests of their survival whether at a family, local community or national level.

Access to health care, education and provision for lack of income are baseline requirements that enhance the quality of life for everyone. Sure, some will pay for but never receive an unemployment benefit; or pay for but never require public healthcare. The payoff to ‘the deserving’ is that utter desperation born of inequality of opportunity for the most basic life supports ie; healthcare, education and income is averted and the society can exist at a more sophisticated, and a more stable level than it otherwise might.

The current debate about healthcare in the US interests me. The view that says; I’m ok and if you aren’t and I don’t know you it’s your own fault and not my problem, is shortsighted and barbaric – not civil in the slightest.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago
Reply to  jennifer

Yep. Happy to pay a premium to live in a society that isn’t iniquitous – but in any event it’s kind of an insurance policy as well.

Pedro
Pedro
9 years ago
Reply to  jennifer

So you’re saying that I am better off as as a consequence of paying tax at the current rate than if I was taxed at a level required for a less redistributive State? And what’s more, thank goodness the State is there to see the error of my ways and tax me at a higher rate than my preference and so make me happier than if my money was dealt with in accordance with my own preferences? I don’t think it is a perception that the welfare state requires the relative pulling down of some to benefit others. It’s a fact. My family would be substantially better off if the rate of tax we pay was halved or even reduced by a third.

But I have to admit I’m with Maggie, there is no society in that sense. There are people who earn the money and the people who have it transferred to them to varying degrees.

What’s more, one of the elements in this debate is the question of the degree of social mobility, which seems lower than it ought to be if equality of opportunity was really giving people a deserved opportunity to pulls themselves up by their bootstraps.

“The payoff to ‘the deserving’ is that utter desperation born of inequality of opportunity for the most basic life supports ie; healthcare, education and income is averted and the society can exist at a more sophisticated, and a more stable level than it otherwise might.”

But of course, we are not talking about a minimal welfare state, which is easy to justify on pragmatic grounds. And there are degrees of income, healthcare and education that are basic lifesupports, but is that a proper description for the current australian welfare state. Also, how do Grandma’s pension and hip replacement lead to a more sophisticated State?

“The current debate about healthcare in the US interests me. The view that says; I’m ok and if you aren’t and I don’t know you it’s your own fault and not my problem, is shortsighted and barbaric – not civil in the slightest.”

So you’ve moved into a caravan so you can send the maximum amount to deserving waifs in Africa? Seriously, any debate about the morality of redistribution that ignores the fact of line-drawing is half-cocked. And why should we not have greater regard for ourselves and our families?

Dan
Dan
9 years ago
Reply to  Pedro

You get to express your preference at the ballot box.

We can both see the playing field isn’t level. You’re okay with that (I’ve always thought conservative claims about desiring equality of opportunity rang hollow); I’m not (because I am actually interested in equality of opportunity.

Of course you draw a line. A good place to draw it is where there is equality of opportunity within a particular country.

Pedro
Pedro
9 years ago
Reply to  Pedro

Why do you think I’m ok with it? When have I suggested it is a good thing people are born with different abilities and opportunities. I’ve only noted that it is a fact. Practical people address facts. I think that the govt should address in equality of opportunity by not discriminating and by providing a basic welfare system, as compared to one seeking to indemnify the “unlucky”. I think that should be done on pragmatic grounds.

I do think there is a natural impetus to generousity, but that it is a personal morality and that the State does not become moral though the fuzzy approximation of the in fact indiscernable common intention of voters. The commonwealth is not the sum of our individual means. Plus I’m not a conservative.

What I did say is that I don’t think there is a moral obligation to organise a society to remove inequality in the way suggested in the post. I also said it is impossible anyway.

I also think that nationalism is not a basis for a moral distinction.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago
Reply to  Pedro

When it comes to playing God, seems like you aren’t even in the game. **sigh**

Tel
Tel
9 years ago
Reply to  jennifer

The current debate about healthcare in the US interests me. The view that says; I’m ok and if you aren’t and I don’t know you it’s your own fault and not my problem, is shortsighted and barbaric – not civil in the slightest.

In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered “Freedom from Want”, and in 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson followed this up with a full scale “War on Poverty”, and every American chipped in, and has done for more than 50 years. So if there’s people today who who have been failed by those two presidents, why would throwing even more resources at failure be expected to achieve anything? I mean at this stage, we have whipped the horse until its knees are wobbling and it staggers around a bit, so might as well finish the experiment and please hope that everyone is taking good notes.

As for “shortsighted and barbaric”, the worst example would be people unable to learn from their mistakes (which I guess requires at a minimum some recognition that history even exists).

jennifer
jennifer
9 years ago

Also, how do Grandma’s pension and hip replacement lead to a more sophisticated State?

Love the question.
If Grandma is without income and unable to move – she and anyone around her is existing at a depressingly base level of need. Income redistribution that gives Grandma a pension and a new hip changes that baseline of need into a more sophisticated existence in which she has the opportunity to choose how she participates in the society.

Tel
I don’t even know where to start with you.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago
Reply to  jennifer

You could start with logic and evidence…

Was the “War on Poverty” a success or a failure in your view?

If a success, are you satisfied with the achievement? Are you willing to thank the people who contributed?

If a failure, then what can we learn from this?

jennifer
jennifer
9 years ago
Reply to  Tel

ok I’ll bite

Let me give you an example.

When we intervene in a student’s education by allocating more funds to that student in order to assist them with an identifiable special need – say Aspergers or ADD, there is invariably an improvement in that students results. The improvements in educational outcomes continues until the funding is withdrawn and the special assistance stopped. Then predictably the student regresses.

The funding is deemed not necessary because the student is meeting expected outcomes. Yes we say, he/she is meeting outcomes because of the additional resources.

We are then required to either lie or wait until the student begins to visibly struggle once more before assistance can be proved necessary.

The assistance and the success that results ceases to be a wonder, success is taken for granted and its cause, the additional assistance becomes invisible until it is removed and the need reappears.

Sounds like a familiar argument in favour of Johnson’s Great State, particularly once state welfare was progressively dismantled by governments of a nation that had arguably forgotten widespread desperation.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago
Reply to  Tel

Yeah. It’s pretty straightforward. In general terms – certainly, general enough to draw some useful conclusions from – serious welfare states (eg. the Nordic countries) don’t contend with poverty. Countries with half-assed welfare states *eg. Aust.) have some poverty. Countries with degraded or non-existent welfare states have lots of poverty.

Johnson’s program was too modest, so didn’t achieve what it set out to. That’s not to say it achieved nothing.

conrad
conrad
9 years ago
Reply to  Dan

That’s a poor generalization — there are many serious welfare states with people in poverty. In this respect, how you distribute the money is probably more important than how much you collect above a certain level. In addition, if you go to those Nordic countries, you’ll still find people in poverty and living on the streets, and there are many reasons for this, often obvious. These include rather intractable ones like, for example, alcoholism, mental disease, being an illegal immigrant, etc. .

jennifer
jennifer
9 years ago
Reply to  Dan

I wonder if it created some sort of backlash though given the roll back of the reforms. Wouldn’t you think that if a grand social policy was working it would be enhanced not removed?

I guess social policy is just like fashion – moves in cycles.

jennifer
jennifer
9 years ago

Agree Conrad

It occurred to me while writing it was an imperfect analogy, but didn’t want to hit the pros and cons of the Franklin New Deal and subsequently Johnson’s social reform head on. Still I do admire Johnson’s vision and the national will that must have existed to ‘level the playing field’ during the 60’s.

Was it Jesus who said something like ‘There will always be poor’? Blake says that if the poor and charity didn’t exist then hypocrisy would have a hard time surviving – in The Poison Tree.

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;

But that’s just chattering cold comfort when you haven’t got enough.

Pedro
Pedro
9 years ago

You can always find individual successes for programs, what is not so easy to find is big programs that are widely successful.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago

OK, if I understand Jennifer’s anecdotal example and the answer to the question I asked, we have a situation where the plan did work, but then the rug was pulled out from under it by lack of funding. Well, we also have pretty well documented figures regarding how much money was taken from taxpayer’s by the US Government which I link to here —

http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/taxfacts/displayafact.cfm?Docid=205

You should be able to see the column marked “total” … not rock solid but generally hovering between 17% and 20% of GDP. So where exactly did those nasty taxpayers yank their funding? I dunno, can’t see it myself. So once more I go back to my original point: the taxpayers worked hard, they paid one fifth of everything into the hands of the people who promised to defeat poverty and eliminate want. One side kept up the bargain, so what about the other side? Was the promise fulfilled?

Of course, per-capita GDP grew during that time (we can argue all day about how to adjust for inflation), technology improved, productivity improved, so that 17% to 20% of GDP became MORE VALUABLE on a per capita basis. The funding actually got more generous.

Getting to the specifics of Jennifer’s example, I’m not sure if it was supposed to represent a real situation, but it does reveal some telling assumptions. The first is the assumption that no matter what happens, you just get what you pay for. Results are proportional to expenditure and efficiency is irrelevant. Personally, I don’t accept that assumption, efficiency is huge, it is the whole gist of economics.

I can remember when I was young I tended to be good at math and science, not terribly interested in rereading Jane Austin over and over until one fully understood the great passion of it (always seemed like trashy romance for shallow social climbers to me). To be good at IT work, you need great concentration, attention to detail, literal mindedness. Back then it was OK for some people to just be good at certain subjects, just because they were. No one seemed to wring their hands over it.

The same behaviour will get you a medical certificate these days, Aspergers or some social disease (or the newest medical fad I haven’t even heard of) because you have less than the prescription number of friends. We don’t have naughty kids any more, we have syndrome kids. Naughty kids just get a few whacks, or given a crappy job to do so they could think it over — cheap and easy, everyone knew the deal, wipe the slate clean afterwards.

Syndrome kids get a whole government department — big, shiny and bloody expensive. All to help them, how wonderful… but the slate is never wiped clean… never never ever. Once they own you, they own you lock, stock and brain cell. You can forget about wondering who “you” is after that. You is syndrome buddy.

That’s the other deep assumption in Jennifer’s example. No redemption. No way back to the mainstream … it’s lifelong expenditure or else it’s regression, nothing better to look forward to. I call that an assumption of failure. Of course when you are growing your charity department, it’s a new kind of farming or something. I feel dirty just writing about it, but it has to be said, because this is rapidly becoming the heart of our society. No wonder there is no “we”, there’s hardly any individuals left to actually put together a “we”.

conrad
conrad
9 years ago
Reply to  Tel

“so that 17% to 20% of GDP became MORE VALUABLE on a per capita basis. The funding actually got more generous.”

This is not a fair comment — it really depends on what your expenses are. Medical costs for the same service certainly went up by more than inflation in that time. Rent, in the US at least (not Aus), would have gone down. So if you are poor and your main expensese are medicine, food and rent, I don’t suppose the increase in GDP really would have helped you that much.

“We don’t have naughty kids any more, we have syndrome kids. ”

This is not a fair comment either. It’s not an all or nothing question — syndromes may well be overdiagnosed these days, but there are certainly kids who are and always will be dysnfunctional. This is just the way life is for some people unfortunately.

“No way back to the mainstream … it’s lifelong expenditure or else it’s regression, nothing better to look forward to”

Again, in terms of the outcome, this again isn’t an all or nothing question. The government of course loves mainstreaming kids that really shouldn’t be because its cheaper.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago
Reply to  conrad

Medical costs for the same service certainly went up by more than inflation in that time.

You are implying that the massive input of technology and research in the bio-medical industry has actually made it LESS productive than it was 50 years ago? That may be true, but you need to back up such a bold statement.

If it does turn out to be true, maybe instead of pulling out the violin and demanding ever increasing dips into people’s pockets, how about pulling out the magnifying glass and finding the leak where that productivity is draining out? Putting more money in the bucket just encourages the leak to get bigger.

And yes, I admit I was exaggerating some of my points a bit, Jennifer’s comment was:

The improvements in educational outcomes continues until the funding is withdrawn and the special assistance stopped. Then predictably the student regresses.

Not much shade of grey in that either is there? If either of us wrote a long essay with copious footnotes then you wouldn’t read it.

conrad
conrad
9 years ago
Reply to  Tel

“how about pulling out the magnifying glass and finding the leak where that productivity is draining out?”

Whilst an interesting question and one that is certainly worth thinking hard about no matter what happens, why medical costs have gone up compared to inflation is essentially irrelevant to the question of how much government money poor people should get (alternatively the amount they need given current costs is relevant) — certainly something which most poor people have very little control over.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago
Reply to  Tel

In my opinion (and that of tradition), government is supposed to be looking after the common good, not the good of any particular identity group (neither the rich nor the poor).

Since avoiding waste is of benefit to rich and poor alike, and over the long run efficiency cumulates, I would argue that’s a better use of resources.

Pedro
Pedro
9 years ago
Reply to  conrad

I expect it’s more accurate to say that the medical expenses have gone up because of new services. Aspirin are probably cheaper now then 30 years ago.