What’s so Great about Equality of Opportunity ?

I think this post by Dylan Matthews is brilliant and a must read.

He says we should focus less on equality of opportunity and more on average outcomes and equality of outcomes.

When you say Dylan he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas (whoever he was), man he ain’t got no respect for posts on ethics and public policy.

Don’t trust this summary, but I think Matthews denounces the focus on equality of opportunity with independent devastating arguments. He argues that achieving perfect equality (of outcome or opportunity) is impossible and any attempt would involve horrible costs. He argues against levelling — if one thinks only of equality then one must prefer reduced opportunity for some with no increase for any. He argues that different outcomes based only on ability can be unfair. He even argues that outcomes based only on effort can be unfair. He argues for less inequality of outcomes. Finally, he argues that we can achieve decent outcomes for all and so we are obliged to do so

I agree with all of these arguments. I have to admit that I think I have been making all of them for 4 decades now (give or take a year).

I write this post, because I think I might have a couple of minor points to add.

First, I think the discussion of perfect equality is a red herring. No one argues for perfect equality of opportunity of outcome. Few can resist the temptation to argue with a straw man who argues for perfect equality of some sort. Even Matthews can’t. There is a silly equivocation in the phrase “I believe in equality” which can mean either, a) “for average outcomes the same, I would rather they be more equal” or “I believe that equality is the only thing that matters, so any equal outcome no matter how horrible is better than any unequal one.” In practice “i believe in equality” is interpreted the first way and “you foolishly believe in equality” the other. This is an example of a false dichotomy — an error of thought more common than any other error of thought or any valid method of reasoning. Equality can be good without being the only good thing — a goal without being the only goal.

Second, since the case against a focus on equality of opportunity is very strong, why do so many people talk about equality of opportunity so much ? I am firmly convinced that most are arguing in bad faith. Mathews notes the strikingly broad ideological spectrum of advocates of equality of opportunity — from Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson to Paul Ryan. I believe it is often invoked by people who really care about equality of outcome exactly because equality of opportunity is such a slippery concept that it can be interpreted in exactly opposite ways.

I think it is clear (as argued by Matthews) that we can’t have equal opportunities for one generation without equal outcomes for the previous one. In practice a sincere effort to provide equality of opportunity, must involve assistance to the poor until there are no more poor. This means that people who wish to reduce inequality of outcome can say they are reducing inequality of opportunity. If there were an equal generation some of whose children obtained poverty through single minded laziness, then FDR and LBJ would have a problem. I am not surprised that they didn’t lose any sleep over that danger.

Exactly because “we must have equality of opportunity even if we accept inequality of outcome” is nonsense, egalitarians can say that without paying a political cost. By claiming that they would accept some hypothetical impossible form of inequality, they can fight real world inequality. They can convince some people that they have made a concession without conceding anything.So they do.

Similarly anti-egalitarians find the nonsense distinction useful (and I am sure that Ryan is against equality — even if he isn’t Ayn Rand certainly was). They say “not equality of opportunity rather equality of opportunity”. This too is impossible. But that way they can pretend they are in favor of equality of some sort, while fighting for inequality. They can convince some people that they have made a concession without conceding anything. So they do.

I don’t understand why anyone falls for either argument, but I am sure that most people who have thought seriously about the issues don’t and are arguing in bad faith

I write more nasty things about Paul Ryan after the jump.

Ryan’s argument is an extreme example of a false dichotomy — an error of thought more common than any other error of thought or any valid method of reasoning. He argues “equality of opportunity not equality of outcome” insinuating that one can’t be for both. He can’t argue that if one is for equality of opportunity one must be against equality of outcome. That is nonsense. Equality of opportunity might mean outcomes depend only on effort, or might mean that outcomes depend only on effort and ability. But in either case, it doesn’t mean that different levels of effort (or effort and ability) must lead to different outcomes. A constant function is a function. I think anti-egalitarians who talk about equality of opportunity believe that fairness requires different levels of effort should lead to different outcomes. This might be a true statement about right and wrong, but it isn’t required for equality of opportunity.

Anti egalitarians who say they are for equality of opportunity often ignore the meaning of the word equality. I won’t provide a link, but I am sure I have read people argue that there is equality of opportunity because it is possible to overcome poverty. This argument is based on based on a false dichotomy — an error of thought more common than any other error of thought or any valid method of reasoning. The implicit assumption is that overcoming poverty must be impossible or as easy as it should be. The intermediate claim that it is possible but we are morally obliged to make it easier isn’t refuted — it is ignored.

Finally note “generation” — I am very sure that people have incoherent views on what entities are to have equality of opportunity. No one can argue that each person has equal opportunities at birth. But people argue that it’s only fair that those who have worked hard all their life can do something for their children. So the entities which should have equal opportunities are families (really technically called dynasties by economists). No one can argue that White and Black dynasties have had the same opportunity in America since they arrived. The unit is the individual when they want to argue that we should look only at the present not the past. The unit is the family when they call the inheritance tax a death tax. I do not think it is possible to reconcile the arguments. I don’t think anyone who didn’t find both useful could find both convincing.