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?
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.