The Radicalism of “Equal Opportunity”

Having anything close to equal opportunity would require a complete global social transformation…

You will often hear a distinction drawn between two different kinds of equality: equality of “opportunity” and equality of “outcome.” The people who draw this distinction often say that they believe in the former but not the latter. Equality of “opportunity” is desirable, but equality of “outcome” is not. As they frame it, one of these is fairly basic while the other is radical and frightening. If we were to try to ensure equal “outcomes” we would have to create a colossal social transformation. It would resemble the dystopia of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” in which able-bodied people were saddled with weights so that they could not dance better than disabled people, etc. The people who distinguish opportunity and outcome often do so in order to discourage us from trying to redistribute wealth from rich to poor—what matters is not whether people end up highly unequal, but whether they have the same opportunities at the start. If life is a race, it’s okay if there are “winners” and “losers” so long as the race is played fairly. “Equality of opportunity” describes the conditions under which the results of the race should be accepted: Everyone went in with the same ability to succeed, but some people came out ahead of others.

It’s very tempting to accept this framework, because it allows for a clean distinction between “capitalist” and “communist” equality. We capitalists believe that everyone should be equally able to pursue the good life, whereas the communists make the error of believing that everyone is equally entitled to the good life, and introduce all kinds of distortions and horrors in their efforts to force equality upon a highly unequal world. The wise egalitarian simply makes sure the “rules of the game” are set up fairly and doesn’t try to meddle with the outcome, even if that outcome is highly inegalitarian.

But there are severe problems with this way of looking at things. For one, it makes no sense. It sounds nice, but when you start examining it closely, the boundaries between “opportunity” and “outcome” become very unclear. One generation’s outcomes structure the next generation’s opportunities. Let’s say we start with a fair economic “race,” but then a few people become much richer than others. Those people can send their children to private schools, they can pass on all of their connections and knowledge and wealth to their children. Even if Generation A has equal opportunities, Generation A’s unequal outcomes mean that Generation B will have dramatic variations in opportunities. If you want to create equal opportunities, you’ll have to constantly be meddling with outcomes.

In fact, when we actually think about what it would mean to provide real “equal opportunity,” we can see just how radical a notion it is. Providing anything close to equal opportunity would require exactly the kind of transformation that “equality of outcome” is criticized for pursuing. Consider what it would mean for schools. I recently gave a talk at Phillips Andover Academy, one of the oldest and most expensive private schools in the country. It’s a remarkable place, with a 5:1 student-to-teacher ratio. Meanwhile, a friend of mine who teaches in the Detroit public school system has approximately 30 children in her elementary school class. Because several are severely autistic it can be difficult to teach any of the others. Yet look at these descriptions of some of the best elementary schools in the country:

On a 26-acre campus with an amphitheater, certified wildlife habitat, trails, and outdoor classrooms, children in nursery school through eighth grade enjoy a varied STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) curriculum. Students in grades one through eight each have computer access. In nursery and preschool, the young students have a dedicated indoor gym, and physical education begins at age three. There are four playgrounds and four school buildings. The New School has over 350 students, 52 part-time teachers, and 63-full time teachers.

If we believed in equal opportunity, every school would have to be like this. You wouldn’t have a $23 billion funding gap between predominantly white and predominantly nonwhite school districts. You probably wouldn’t even have private schools at all, because allowing private schools means allowing rich parents to buy their children more opportunity than other children have. If we’re in favor of “equal opportunity rather than equal outcome,” we might be fine with rich parents being rich, but if children have to “compete on a level playing field” then those riches can’t be used to put one’s own children ahead of others. That means no private tutoring, no test prep courses, nothing for the children of Georgetown that the children of Baltimore don’t get.

Many people who use phrases like “equal opportunity” or “equality under law” do not seem to think much about what it would actually mean to have those things. If we were truly to be equal under the law, for instance, we would all need to have the same quality of legal representation. There would be no difference between the outcome you would get with the Alabama public defender’s office or Harvey Weinstein’s legal defense team. If we had equality before the law, nobody would mind being given a public defender, or even being randomly assigned a lawyer.

Real equality of opportunity is inconceivable. It would mean that nobody had any genetic disadvantages, everybody had equally good parents, schools, communities. And that’s just within a country. When we start thinking about the world, equality of opportunity becomes a laughable concept. How can you have equality of opportunity in a world where borders exist? If a child born on one side of a geographic line lives in an area with lower crime rates, lower poverty, better schools, etc. than a child born on the other side of that line, and the second child is prohibited from crossing the line, in what sense is there anything resembling equal opportunity? The United States bestows distinctly unequal opportunities on its own children, keeping the rest of the world locked outside its fortress gates.

Think about what it would take for everyone to have an equal “chance” in life, for the only variations in individual outcomes to be the product of individual effort and hard work rather than the accident of birth. It would be a radically different world from the one we live in. We would have to have a far more equal distribution of wealth, because wealth is power, and power buys opportunity. We’d have to ensure that people never got jobs because of who their parents knew, that their parents barely affected their lives at all! Personally, I believe that meritocracy is impossible precisely because these differences can never be corrected, which is why I think “opportunity” rhetoric needs to be discarded and we need to stop accepting the results of social competitions as just.

It’s very easy to say that equality should be of opportunity rather than outcomes, that if we start the race in the same place then it doesn’t matter if people finish differently. But what does it mean to “start the race in the same place”? If there has a been a black-white wealth gap since the time of slavery, then surely we’d need reparations. Differences in child mortality across races and countries certainly create differences in opportunity. There should be no poor parents and no rich parents, if we think that the amount of money your family has might affect your opportunities.

It’s funny: When people endorse “equality of opportunity,” I don’t think they know quite what they’re saying. If it’s just a word for non-discrimination, then it’s misleading, because non-discrimination doesn’t equalize opportunities. But if they really want equal opportunity, let’s go for it. First we’ll need a far more socialistic society, in which wealth and power are distributed evenly…

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