Blackadder’s Lair

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Equality of Opportunity No More Desirable Than Equality of Outcome

When people talk about equality, they sometimes distinguish between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. Equality of outcome, it is said, is neither a possible nor desirable, and ought not be a goal of social policy. Rather, the state ought to focus on creating equality of opportunity, which, unlike equality of outcome, is supposed to be readily attainable without injustice. But if my reflections the other day on the nature of equality are correct, then equality of opportunity is no more desirable as a goal of social policy than is equality of outcome. The reason for this is explained quite eloquently by Theodore Dalrymple:

Equality of opportunity is a thoroughly nasty and totalitarian concept. It is the demand that no one should start (or continue) life with any advantages relative to another. But how could such a condition actually be achieved? Leaving aside genetic differences, which must persist until all hereditary endowments can be made precisely the same, and which for the time being must be accepted even though they are unfair (not unjust, although most people nowadays seem to have difficulty distinguishing between the two), the only way environmental factors affecting opportunities can be made equal is by social engineering on a scale that would make North Korea look like a paradise of laissez-faire.

Parents would have to be separated from their children at birth and re-united with them, if at all, only when the environment had had its lasting and irreversible effect; children would have all to be taught precisely the same things, in precisely the same fashion, by teachers of precisely the same level of competence (or more likely, incompetence). No parent would be permitted to leave anything to his children, and therefore one of the great motives for economic prudence would be vitiated. In short, equality of opportunity would mean, if it meant anything, equality of poverty, inhumanity and horror.

As with my comments about equality of material condition, the obvious question raised by Dalrymple’s arguments is: So what? Granting that absolute equality of opportunity could only be achieved through totalitarian means, given that no one proposes achieving this equality through such means, why should we be concerned about more modest efforts to reduce or eliminate unequal opportunities in our society? Dalrymple’s answer is that “[w]hile giving people equal opportunities is impossible, giving everyone, or at least the vast majority of people, a considerable level of opportunity is not impossible. And yet, often in the very name of equality of opportunity, we have created a society many of whose members have far fewer opportunities than they could and ought to have.”

The focus of social policy ought to be on increasing opportunity, not on increasing equality of opportunity, just as it should be focused on increasing the material conditions of the members of a society rather than simply the equality of material conditions. The goals of creating “more equality” and “more opportunity” may seem quite similar, but they are in fact sometimes diametrically opposed. The latter seeks to give to the poor the opportunities had by the rich, whereas the later can be achieved just as well holding the rich and middle classes back as by lifting the poor up. And if we forget this, we may find ourselves harming people in the name of a misguided ideal.

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February 24, 2008 - Posted by | Equality

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