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Against equality of outcome?

March 20th, 2004

Since I’ve argued previously that there’s a lot of confusion in discussions about equality of opportunities and of outcomes, I was interested by this story that UK Home Secretary David Blunkett has hired as special advisor on race someone named Matt Cavanagh, most notable for writing a book called Against Equality of Opportunity which says that employers should be permitted to engage in racial discrimination.

This interview with Cavanagh in The Guardian does not seem very promising – he comes across as the worst kind of contrarian[1] – but is not really enough to go on. So I was hoping someone with a subscription to the London Review of Books might send me a copy of Jeremy Waldron’s apparently favorable review. In case you’re worried about the sanctity of intellectual property, I am a subscriber but I’ve never registered with the website and don’t have the required address slip to hand.

Meanwhile, I’m confident that lots of readers will be well ahead of me, so I’d welcome comments, particularly setting me straight if I have misunderstood Cavanagh (or Waldron).

fn1. That is, one who makes great play with contradictions in the conventional wisdom, does not put forward a coherent alternative, but nonetheless makes authoritative-sounding pronouncements on public policy.

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  1. March 22nd, 2004 at 10:23 | #1

    At first I thought I might like Cavanaugh. I also am against equality of opportunity and I also believe people should be permitted to engage in racial discrimination. However, on flicking through the Guardian article – he doesn’t come across as having a very cogent argument. However, that is the Guardian, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they made sure to portray him in a negative light.

    Brief comment in explaination of my views. Equality of opportunity, as it has come to be understood (and not how was intended by types such as Milton Friedman) effectively implies a commitment to equality of outcome preceeding each decision. Otherwise, how can we expect two people in different situations to have equal opportunity? Different people will always have different opportunities in a free society.

    The legality of discrimination can be regarded as an issue of property rights. If I own my car, then I am free to give it to whomever I like. On whatever basis I like. Of course, racism is often not profit-maximising will lead to negative social consequences (free-market incentive against racism) – but if somebody values being racist enough to pay the price, I cannot justify using my moral preferences to justify restricting their property rights. Note that permission does not imply approval.

  2. James Farrell
    March 22nd, 2004 at 11:38 | #2

    This definition of contrarian needs some discussion in its own right. It’s very different, in particular, from Christopher Hitchins’ notion of someone who fearlessly rexamines conventional wisdoms on every side of politics. Yours is essentially pejorative: you have previously used the term mostly if not exclusively in relation to ratbag science, and the essence of it, as used in this instance as well, seems to be: contrarians give academic respectability to opinions that, for better or worse, had come to be regarded by educated people as unenlightened and discredited.

    What about a resurrection of Word for Wednesday, starting with this one?

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