Why ‘Equality of Opportunity’ is Not Enough

by Elias Blum

Some people have suggested that ‘equality of opportunity’ is sufficient, and that provided there is an equal chance to climb a ladder to ‘economic success’ then the requirements of a just society are met, such that the resulting inequalities of outcome, being a circumstance of merit, can just be ignored.

I regard such notions as utterly wrong. Inequality of outcome is bad in and of itself.  Here are just some of the reasons why:

Firstly, equality of outcome in one generation is, comparatively and empirically, the best guarantee of broad equality of opportunity in the next; indeed, the very things that create the conditions for equality of opportunity in the future have the ‘side-effect’ of reducing inequality of outcome in the present. (e.g. free school meals decrease educational inequality by ensuring that poor kids are not hindered in their studies by malnutrition, but they also, as a side effect, mean that poor families have a little bit more disposable income right now.)

Secondly, there are baselines beyond which no-one should fall, because to fall below them would seriously undermine human flourishing and well-being. Not everyone can be a successful business person, manager, professional etc. Some people have to wipe elderly arses, empty bins, and clear tables. And here comes the most radical part – the part that makes me, ultimately, on the left: those people matter too. They are precious human beings, with families, feelings, loves, fears, and a God-given life to be lived. An economic system that forces people to compete for ‘success’ in order to enjoy a life of reasonable comfort and dignity, and is not concerned with the well-being of those in humbler stations, is to my mind deeply unrighteous. And that’s before you include people who are just incapable, for various mental or physical reasons, of holding down a job, or who cannot find work because of the overall economic situation – but who still deserve by virtue of their humanity to live decently.

Thirdly, it is about power. If inequalities of economic outcome reach certain levels, other forms of inequality are also produced. We end up in an ‘upstairs downstairs’ society, where some expect always to command and others to obey, and where the same rules don’t apply to the rich and to the poor. Rich man dodges millions in tax, and he gets a nice yacht in the Caribbean; poor man steals a loaf, and he ends up in jail. The poor have no lawyers. So economic inequality is both the product of, and produces, corruption in the state, and corrosion in society.

Fourthly, a competitive-acquisitive society where we are concerned only about ‘opportunity’ and not about outcomes will inevitably lead to a narrowing of the notion of opportunity; basically, unless you put your efforts into self-enrichment through economic acquisition, you will end up on the scrapheap. There is no incentive, in such a society, to develop one’s talents and opportunities in other directions – such as through public service, creativity, voluntary work etc. People have to conform, to play it safe, to keep on trying to climb a ladder that is always being pushed down.

Fifthly, there is a body to evidence to suggest that societies with economic equality of outcome are better for everyone: life is less stressful, less hectic, less difficult. (Some on the right wing seem to think it is wrong to make life easier for others, especially for others who are struggling, but I would ask why anyone would want life to be more difficult that it has to be.) That means that there are fewer of the signs and symptoms of a society ill-at-ease with itself: heart attacks, binge drinking, violence etc.

Sixthly, it misjudges merit.  Ignoring inequalities of economic outcome, assumes that getting rich is a product of merit, whereas this is rarely the case. If anything, most of those who have become rich have shown that such merit as they possess is only merit at enrichment, at not merit at being a good citizen, a good friend, or a good parent. It assumes that the acquisition of wealth is the highest value, to the exclusion of other values. It also assumes that these relative values can be quantified: that a director, for example, can make 400 times as much as a worker, because they are in some sense 400 times ‘better’. No, all they are is 400 times more powerful, and in a position, therefore, to rake off 400 times more of the fruits of labour than the person who actually does the labouring. (Yes, of course, there should be some differential return for expertise, responsibility, difficulty of work, and risk. It’s probably right that a medical doctor – who has to undergo years of training, has life-and-death responsibilities, and may have to work unsociable hours – gets paid more than an office clerk or shop assistant. However, there’s no one person alive who is worth ten times more than any other person, let alone the several hundred times.)