One of the tensions in the economic arguments about the world is whether we should focus on equality of outcome, or equality of opportunity. The short version of each reads as follows:
It describes a state in which people have approximately the same material wealth or in which the general economic conditions of their lives are similar. Achieving equal results generally entails reducing or eliminating material inequalities between individuals or households in a society, and usually involves a transfer of income or wealth from wealthier to poorer individuals, or adopting other measures to promote equality of condition. [From the wiki]
The aim according to this often complex and contested concept is that important jobs should go to those “most qualified” – persons most likely to perform ably in a given task – and not go to persons for arbitrary or irrelevant reasons, such as circumstances of birth, upbringing, friendship ties to whoever is in power, religion, sex, ethnicity, race, caste, or involuntary personal attributes such as disability, age, or sexual orientation. Chances for advancement should be open to everybody interested such that they have “an equal chance to compete within the framework of goals and the structure of rules established. [From the wiki]
The claim that they are in tension is almost uniformly submitted by people who self-identify as Conservatives (in the American political sense), and that we should favour Equality of Opportunity over Equality of Outcome because the latter is Communism and therefore bad.
Paul Krugman has an excellent article tearing this false dichotomy apart, but I want to go a step beyond: the concept of Equality of Opportunity is pure nonsense and babble if one refuses to measure Outcomes.
Here’s a simple thought experiment: imagine a world where the distribution of intelligence, social skills, athleticism, public-speaking skills, etc, etc, etc, are distributed normally.
This means that there are some exceptionally skilled/intelligent/attractive/athletic people in the world, and there are some exceptionally unskilled/unintelligent/unattractive/unathletic people in the world, with the vast majority of us falling into the two middle 34.1% blocks (i.e. within 1 standard deviation).
Let’s consider this our starting world, and we decided to set up a series of rules (both social and legal) for the world to govern itself. And we decide that these rules (whatever they may be) maximise Equality of Opportunity. We pat ourselves on the back, and move on to the next world.
But… How would we know if we’re correct? How can we just create a set of rules that “maximise Equality of Opportunity”? How could we possibly know that we have successfully created those rules without measuring outcomes?
What if our outcome looked like this:
In a world where skills are roughly evenly distributed, if we knew that for a fact, then the outcome pictured above would tell us one and only one thing: our rules do not support Equality of Opportunity, and that they are clearly biased in some troublesome ways.
Switching to the real world, let’s pretend that the last 200 years of research didn’t happen. Let’s pretend that we know nothing at all about the distribution of skills and abilities among the population of the world. Let’s take the above (real) graph of wealth distribution in the US, and make some inferences. Either
- opportunities are equally distributed, and this graph miraculously perfectly maps the abilities of all the folk in the US onto the appropriate outcomes, or
- opportunities are not equally distributed, and this graph actually demonstrates the disparity of ‘ability’ amongst the people of the US.
I think that if this argument was made, in the context of zero research ever being done, it’s still highly implausible. When you factor in that wealth (and poverty) fall along familial lines in the US (i.e. people who are born into poverty tend to die in poverty), this is an impossible argument to sustain: if opportunities are equal, then you need to argue that “ability” is somehow some sort of genetic characteristic that, for some reason, cannot be learned. You necessarily have to argue that school does not impart any additional skill to people, it merely allows people to capitalize on the intrinsic “abilities” that they are born with. Moreover, you have to argue against the “normal” distribution of abilities in a population, arguing that no matter how lacking in ability a member of the Walton family is, they have abilities that rank several orders of magnitude higher than a person with high aptitude born into a poor family. This runs contrary to everything we have learned (through the research I was pretending we didn’t have) about how genetics works.
But let’s say that we have a perfect ‘normal distribution’ of ability in our nation, and let’s say that (somehow) we manage to set up the rules and regulations perfectly to facility this Equality of Opportunity: societies continue to change. New laws are crafted. New technologies are created. Companies organise in different ways. People grow up in environments, within which the values change over generations. 50 years hence, how will we know if Equality of Opportunity is still a thing? And if we start getting outcomes that aren’t equal, then… What? We insist that in the long, long ago things were set up correctly, so no matter what changed since, we should merely *assume* that things are still correct?
Conversely, we know that things were unequal in the past, that certain groups (generally: white, male, rich) had advantages built into the system. And sure, we can patch our systems of laws and regulations to reduce how much those advantages can be carried forward, and to limit the obvious systemic inequalities (i.e. refusing to hire people because of their nation of birth, or ethnic markers, etc) but that certainly doesn’t address the current starting position of a family that has historically lived in poverty. If in the previous case, we couldn’t simply assume that the laws would continue to be perfect (when changed), then since the laws began imperfectly and were changed, we certainly can’t assume that things will work out: we need to monitor outcomes.
When it comes down to brass tacks, the only coherent argument for ignoring outcomes is one that is rooted in the empirically false position of Essentialism: that 80% people are just born inept, to the degree that results in income disparities that are orders of magnitude apart.