Brad de Long picks up my post on opportunities and outcomes in which I argued that the achievement of meaningful equality of opportunity in a society with highly unequal outcomes would require extensive government intervention to prevent the development of inherited inequality, and says that I’m falling into Irving Kristol’s trap, which he describes, accurately enough, as
an ideological police action designed to erase the distinction between Arthur Okun and Mao Zedong, and delegitimize the American left.
I agree that many people, particularly critics of social democracy like Kristol ,use the outcome/opportunity distinction in a dishonest way. This is particularly true in the American context, since anyone honestly concerned with the issue would have to begin with the observation that the United States performs just as badly on equality of opportunity (as measured by things like social mobility) as it does on equality of outcome (see the book by Goodin et al, reviewed here for one of many demonstrations of this). So if Kristol were genuinely concerned about equality of opportunity he’d be calling for at least as much intervention as the liberals and progressives he’s criticising.
On the other hand, there is a genuine debate within the social democratic/socialist movement which I was addressing. On the basis of fairly limited knowledge, I identified Blair and Brown as proponents of equality of opportunity and outcomes respectively. In a long comments thread, no-one picked me up on this point, so maybe my judgement on this was accurate. My comments were addressed to the fairly large group of social democrats who genuinely think that, as long as you equalise opportunity, for example by providing good-quality schools for all, it’s not a problem if income inequality increases. To restate my point, that might be true for one generation, but in the second generation the rich parents will be looking to buy a headstart for their less-able children, for example by sending them to private schools where they will be coached in examination skills and equipped with an old school tie. Given highly unequal outcomes in the previous generation, it’s much harder to prevent the inheritance of inequality, and the achievement of equality of opportunity requires more, and more drastic, intervention rather than less.
In the real world, no-one advocates either perfect equality of outcomes or perfect equality of opportunity. My point is that, in the same real world, these two are complements, not substitutes. The more progress you make on equalising outcomes in one generation, the easier it is to equalise opportunities in the next. I don’t expect Irving Kristol to embrace this insight with hosannas, but then it’s a long time since I expected anything positive from Irving Kristol.
fn1. I’ll post more on this distinction soon, I hope.