Equality of opportunity is becoming popular. Alan Johnson says it "remains the great cause for progressives" and points to several younger New Labour figures supporting the ideal.
This is unwelcome. Equality of opportunity is unattractive, for at least four reasons:
1. It's infeasible. If equality of opportunity means anything, it means improving the education of poorer children, to equalize their life-chances with the rich. But US evidence suggests this requires massive increases in school spending; this is because the links between school spending and quality, and between school quality and life outcomes are both weak.
Of course, there's a cheaper way to equalize opportunities. But there's no way the middle-class or meeja would tolerate it.
2. It's insufficient. Imagine we introduced a compulsory lottery, where there was a £1m prize and ten "prizes" of the death penalty. We've created equality of opportunity. But few would tolerate such a lottery, as it's unacceptable to impose such risks onto people.
This thought experiment shows that we care outcome outcomes, not just opportunity.
3. It's not meritocratic. As Hayek pointed out, a free market - at best - only rewards skills that are in demand, and these will not often correspond to recgonixable merit. And Hayek was probably over-optimistic. Research on footballers (pdf) and Pokemon cards (pdf) confirms what we all know - that superstar incomes are largely arbitrary. And of course, countless big salaries, in the public and private sector, are rewards to rent-seeking and office politics. An equal opportunity to become a talentless parasite is not an attractive ideal.
4. It destroys social solidarity. This point was made by Michael Young in his classic Rise of the Meritocracy. If the rich and successful feel they "deserve" their success, and that the poor are only poor because they squandered their opportunities, they will become even smugger and more ruthless than they already are. "Noblesse oblige" may have been greatly exaggerated, but it existed because the more sensible of the rich knew they were lucky, not meritorious,
I'm not sure if this means equality of opportunity is merely insufficient as an ideal for the left, or whether it's entirely the wrong ideal.