Among the many comments lost (temporarily I hope) in the great database disaster was a discussion of the old distinction between equality of outcomes (like life expectancy) and equality of opportunity. This distinction has long been a staple of debates between market liberals and social democrats, and now defines a central point of distinction between supporters of a Third Way (such as Blair) and modernising social democrats (such as Gordon Brown), who may be indistinguishable on issues like privatisation that formerly acted as litmus tests.
A look at the evidence suggests that a position supporting equality of opportunity while accepting highly unequal outcomes is not sustainable. The most important observation is that, contrary to popular belief, there is less mobility between income classes in the United States than in European social democracies. A good, and fairly recent study in this is The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism by Goodin, Headey Muffels and Dirven, which I reviewed here, along with Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed.
There’s plenty of other evidence suggesting that high levels of inequality naturally perpetuate themselves, most obviously through unequal access to education, but also through more subtle channels like health status – Ehrenreich gives plenty on the plight of the uninsured working poor in the United States, but this isn’t only a US problem.
Turning to the theory, a good starting point is Richard Arneson’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. As is appropriate for an encyclopedia, the Stanford encyclopedia generally seems to encapsulate the conventional wisdom, and its accessibility on the web makes it an ideal subject for blogging.
Arneson starts with what he calls ‘formal equality of opportunity’, which prohibits things like nepotism in the distribution of public office, and racial or gender-based discrimination. Arneson asserts that a market-based economy is a natural setting for formal equality of opportunity (though not the only possible one) but defines out of existence the central problems that arise in such an economy as a result of inequality of wealth. He wants to ignore, as a ‘private’ matter, nepotistic appointment practices by private businesses, while perhaps prohibiting racial or gender-based discrimination.
To summarise, in Arneson’s treatment “formal equality of opportunity” means, primarily, the absence of officially sanctioned discrimination on the basis of group membership . This is important, but it is not equality of opportunity.
The discussion here is blurring two different concepts. One is the notion that requirements for formal equality of opportunity apply only in relation to the state. The other is some sort of distinction between different types of legitimate and illegitimate discrimination. For example, nepotism is OK in the private sector but not in the public sector.
To sharpen up the analysis, consider the case when public offices are sold, with any qualified person being able to bid. This was the case, for example, with commissions in the British army in the 19th century. This is, I think, a breach of formal equality of opportunity. Suppose then that instead of filling the relevant offices by, say, competitive examination, the government privatised the appointment function, taking a lump sum cash payment from the buyer, who then acquired the rights to sell the offices as they saw fit (perhaps subject to rules about racial and gender discrimination). This would make no difference to the actual inequality of opportunity, but would, at least arguably, satisfy the requirements for formal equality of opportunity.
But the problem doesn’t arise only, or most severely, in employment. If places in schools or universities are available only, or preferentially, to those able to pay for them, equality of opportunity is clearly not present. The same is true if ownership of businesses is passed on by inheritance. The idea that these are not ‘formal’ violations of equality of opportunity makes sense only if market wealth inequality is taken as, in some sense, natural. Although never explicit, this assumption clearly underlies Arneson’s discussion.
An obvious implication is that the smaller the economic role of the state, the smaller is the scope of the notion of formal equality of opportunity. In a fully privatised state, everything that was formerly a public office or service would be the subject of private property rights, and therefore heritable, and yet formal equality of opportunity would apply by definition. This is essentially the ideal position favored by Nozick
The really interesting part of Arneson’s discussion relates to “substantive equality of opportunity” and particularly the notion of “equality of fair opportunity” due to Rawls, which is satisfied if “
any individuals who have the same native talent and the same ambition will have the same prospects of success in competitions that determine who gets positions that generate superior benefits for their occupants
This is the only definition considered in the article that seems to correspond to a reasonable notion of equal opportunity. However, as Arneson points out, achievement of substantive equality of opportunity appears to require substantial and intrusive government intervention to prevent parents passing on advantages to their children.
The crucial unstated assumption here is that social outcomes are substantially unequal. The more equality prevails among parents, the less intervention is required to ensure a substantive equality of opportunity among children.
The complementarity between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes is particularly important when we move from ideal definitions to practical possibilities. It is, no doubt, impossible to achieve perfect equality on either definition. But,social-democratic states can get reasonably close, and have done so, though something close to full employment is needed. I have some ideas on this, but not for this post.