What’s The Matter With Equal Opportunity
We cannot achieve equality of opportunity without equality of outcomes. But is this even what we want?
Most people agree that a just society should include equality of opportunity. That is, everyone ought to have roughly the same chance to succeed on his or her merits. While we don’t want to make everyone successful, we do want everyone to be able to achieve success if they make good choices, work hard, and so on.
This view has a number of positive political consequences, the primary one being that it entails opposition to (at least) legal discrimination against people based on arbitrary characteristics like race or sex. You cannot say that everyone has a chance to succeed if, for example, women are barred from voting, or people of colour are barred from all but the most menial jobs.
It’s worth pausing to understand why most people consider legal discrimination like this to be wrong: arbitrary characteristics like ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation (to name a few) are not morally relevant. People are born with certain attributes that they did not choose, and these should therefore have no bearing on whether or not they can enjoy a decent life. When we are denied some opportunity for a reason that is beyond our control, most of us feel wronged. If the opportunity we are denied is significant enough, we feel a sense of injustice. So if we want a just legal system, then we cannot allow for laws that limit people’s opportunity based on morally irrelevant factors.
This rationale is sound enough, but constraining our understanding of “opportunity” to “what is legally permissible” gets us into trouble. A commitment to this view can justify extraordinary inequalities. For the most part, one might argue, people in liberal capitalist societies are on equal legal footing. The law no longer discriminates based on ethnicity, gender, or other morally irrelevant characteristics (for the most part). Therefore, everyone has an equal shot at success, and we can’t begrudge those who achieve it. After all, it could have been any of us, had we only made better choices, or worked harder. Because there is no law that determines who makes it, those at the top must deserve what they have.
But having an equal shot at success is contingent on far more than merely equal legal standing. One’s real opportunity to succeed is constituted by factors that include a whole range of biological, economic, and social circumstances that are difficult to quantify.
To understand why this fact is so critical, recall the argument of equal opportunists. First they told us that in order for equal opportunity to exist, everyone must have equal legal status regardless of race, gender, or other arbitrary characteristics. That is because these characteristics are not morally relevant. Nobody chooses these things for themselves, they’re born into them, and if our institutions are setup to help or hinder people for reasons beyond their control, then we do not have equal opportunity.
As we just noted, however, people’s actual opportunity is not just a product of their legal standing, but also major social and biological factors. Let’s explore two of the major influences: one’s parents and one’s natural talents.
Who your parents are plays an enormous role in how well your life goes. All else being equal, a child born into a low-income family will typically make less money over their lifetime than a child born into a wealthy family. This isn’t a thought experiment; it’s what happens right now in current conditions. There’s a rich body of scientific literature documenting the negative effects of poverty on children’s health and economic prospects.
Even children born into families of similar socioeconomic statuses might have their “opportunity” expanded or limited for reasons out of their control. One family might spend more money on private tutors and education for their child, while another might spend it on vacations and cars. The child with the education-focused parents is more likely to succeed, again for reasons beyond his or her control. Or you might get a child born to parents who are negligent and abusive, while another has parents who are nurturing and supportive. Which of these kids, do you think, has greater opportunity to succeed? Of course, choices people make can influence how their life goes, but there is no doubt that innumerable accidents of birth shift the limits of one’s opportunity either for the better or worse.
Another factor we have to consider is innate ability and natural gifts. It’s a reality that some people are born with greater talent in certain fields than others. That should be apparent to anyone who’s ever watched professional sports. Athletes, of course, put in a great deal of hard work to get where they are, but I could put in an equivalent amount of work and never make it to the NBA (sadly). Some people are born with a gift for numbers, or an artistic streak, or charisma. It seems strange to say that people born with talents they never chose or worked for “deserve” the success their talents bring them.
The strangeness of this is compounded when we realize the demand for certain talents ebbs and flows over time. So while Babe Ruth is now a celebrated athlete and household name, had he been born in the 18th century his talents would have been basically irrelevant, and he likely would have filled some badly-compensated role as a farm hand. Should we then say that our Babe Ruth deserves success, while 18th century Babe Ruth deserves nothing, simply because one iteration of the man happened to be born at the right time?
If we agree that factors like this — to whom you are born, and with what talents — are out of one’s control, then we must expand our understanding of equal opportunity to account for them. They are, like ethnicity and gender, not chosen by oneself and therefore not morally relevant to whether or not one ought to succeed. If that’s the case, then so long as these factors influence our life outcomes we cannot say equal opportunity exists.
We now can see why it’s impossible to maintain a distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. This will no doubt be highly distressing news to some, but if you are committed to equal opportunity, then you must also commit to roughly equal outcomes for all. You have to level out all the chance factors that expand or narrow one’s ability to succeed. These biological and social factors are, after all, out of one’s control and should therefore not impact their opportunity for the same reason that one’s ethnicity shouldn’t.
Before we get on with this levelling, though, we may want to think twice about what such a process would actually involve. Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron offers one solution: a world in which great effort is spent grinding everyone’s abilities down to the lowest common denominator through body weights, neural inhibitors, and so on. Bergeron is often read as some Ayn Rand-ian warning about the dangers of equality, but what it actually shows us is the absurd logic at the core of the meritocracy. Vonnegut appreciates, as we have just shown, that if you really want equal opportunity you need everyone to start from equal positions — and that means equalizing outcomes along all sorts of strange and unexpected dimensions.
Rather than creating a Harrison Bergeron-style dystopia, we should instead question our commitment to the meritocracy as the organizing principle of our society. Why should we prefer this structure, the existence of which pre-supposes that people get what they deserve? Look at the facts on the ground. The actually existing version of meritocracy is one in which people may have roughly equal legal status, but all sorts of other critical gaps in opportunity persist. This is shallow to the point of being meaningless. The idealized version of meritocracy, on the other hand, is one that requires constant and drastic levelling of outcomes to preserve equal starting points. Neither case is desirable.
Another possibility exists, fortunately. We could admit that equal opportunity is mostly incoherent, and stop trying to construct elaborate justifications for gross inequalities. We could just say what we want: a decent life for everyone, regardless of who they are or where they are born or the size of their parents’ bank account. That’s what each one of us deserves by virtue of being a person. No appeal to merit is required.