« Punk is dead, alas | Main | Markets against markets »

June 05, 2012


Luis Enrique

Surely the relevant consideration is "It might be that policies to achieve greater equality of incomes are more achievable than *greater* equality of opportunity."

Luis Enrique

Also I think most who think greater equality of opportunity is desirable do not have in mind offsetting biological endowments, but rather mean equality of opportunity conditional on them.

Richard Gadsden

Equality of opportunity is surely impossible to achieve in an absolute sense. Pure equality of opportunity surely means that parents can't give any advantages to their children other than their genetic legacy.

If there are any inequalities in society - and the essence of the argument for equality of opportunity as opposed to equality of outcome is that it accepts inequalities in society - then those who are "more successful" will be able to grant advantages to their children.

Account Deleted

Equality of opportunity is a nonsense as opportunity is itself a commodity and thus unequally distributed (education, internships, networks etc). That distribution is clearly biased by class.

Meritocracy is meaningless without agreement on a common scale of merit. So long as that scale over-values certain class characteristics (e.g. public school self-confidence), such agreement is impossible. Far from mitigating inequality of opportunity, meritocracy typically reinforces it.

Social mobility is a metric that tells us very little about either equality of opportunity or meritocracy. It is a measure of class churn, which means it reflects larger forces than the marginal impact of the pupil premium or changes in the way that A-levels are marked.


"All of this suggests that substantive equality of opportunity is not "equality-lite". it requires very radical changes"

Yeah - that was one of Freddie Hayek's point, was it not?


@ Luis - yes, that is the consideration. One issue here, though, is that a small increase in equality of outcome makes the poor better off - it raises their income - whilst it's not so obvious that a small rise in opportunity does so. The costs of both (the deadweight costs of taxing the rich) are similar.


Some single parents are both poor and eccentric - they start life with youth and potential talents and potential opportunities, some parents, leave their children to bring themselves up on their own 'somehow'

My own rebellion to my own upbringing was 'to study' ... my way to self-preservation not because of being particularly talented, just curious about equality and equal opportunities at a young age, too young.

I had nothing to be embarrassed about, but I suffered embarrassment all my life - part of the cruelty that any single parent has to put up with from the rest of society (then and now). My reaction to that: to study.

Some people have upward trajectories, I have had constant zigzag trajectories of opportunity and equality, but it has taken me twice the time to achieve the same as what I perceive, someone who didn't have my kind of upbringing did. I now absolutely detest the word 'talent' - not because I am not pleased about a talented person's talent... but because 'talent' is an unfair kind of currency.

By the time I reach the goal-posts the posts themselves have moved... money and regular parents and an average steady income allows the potential talents of an average child to develop faster. Parental income opens those doors, and this is something that most educated 'talented' people take for granted. Opportunities and equality via 'meritocracy' is a phoney, everybody needs a helping hand 'somehow' [not charitable donations or charitable grants but a genuine helping hand]. The only times when the zigzags worked in my favour were when I had received a genuine helping hand somewhere along my journey.

Unfortunately, there are no second-hand stores where I or someone like me, can go to buy the next hand-me-down job or packet of helping-hand from, the choice isn't there, to either ask or to receive, so 'talent' or 'some-talent' or 'no talent' becomes a blur to someone like me, without a stable and financially secure extended family. Everything takes much longer to achieve, and recuperate from if lost - more so the older one gets!

Certain Human Rights should be guaranteed, and the right to a dignified job is just as important to the right to a family life and a home - 'talent' in this day and age shouldn't come into this equation as a replacement currency.


Confusing post for me.

You talk about wishing to compensate for biological advantages in order to promote more equal opportunity.

So do you mean equal opportunity regardless of individual variance? In other words a lottery.

How is that fairer than the lottery of birth?

Or are there some aspects of individual variance that are somehow deserving of reward? Harder working? More talented? Won't those have biological correlates? And so what if they don't? If you are excluding differences in hippocampal grey matter then what do you allow? A good soul? Good luck?

I'm confused about your underlying moral philosophy. You seem to be more interested in equality of outcomes.


@ Andrew - the moral intuition behind substantive equality of opportunity is that inequality of outcome is justified insofar as it reflects factors within the control of individuals, such as differences in effort.
If two people have unequal backgrounds and (hence) unequal innate abilities, then the same level of effort will lead to an inequality which opportunity egalitarians think unacceptable. To them, the solution is to equalize backgrounds, eg via differential education spending.
I can imagine rightists opposing this on principle (my objection here is empirical). But if they do, they cannot really give us all that Tory crap about hard work because, ex hypothesi, inequalities would exist even if everyone worked hard - and in winner-take-all markets there'd be big inequalities.

james higham

Equal opportunity can be argued, equality no.


The largest inequality arises from the private ownership of the "means of production, distribution, and exchange" as clause four once put it; before Blair et al ditched socialism they had a plan to produce equality but then abandoned it. You cannot equalise every ones brain size or produce identical habits of life, and it is undesirable on grounds of freedom to try. But if you Nationalise land and banking you can remove the largest unearned incomes. So get on and do it. Jaw boning does no one any good.

Greg Marquez

Amen to golookgoread, pretty much gets at the nut of the problem, most opportunities are available because of relationships, not meritocracy.

One factor I think being ignored: You assume that the only road to success is intellectual, "Poor kids, then, are at a biological disadvantage."

I imagine that "poor kids" have their own set of biological talents, e.g. the ability to visit violence upon their competitors.

The possessors of intellecutal talents must, to achieve success, also limit competiton to the arena of intellectual talents.

I wonder how long those with other biological talents will accept those limitations?


@Chris - " the moral intuition behind substantive equality of opportunity is that inequality of outcome is justified insofar as it reflects factors within the control of individuals, such as differences in effort."

So we might wish to reward effort. Which is the product of genetics and environment. We might then wish to alter the environment to compensate for other ability differences but carefully preserving those factors that promote or hinder application. Like ability for concentrated attention, something with huge biological correlates.

What about genetic variation in intelligence between individuals with the same environment? Do we wish to attempt to compensate for that?

Does anyone actually think that is a coherent position? I think they would need to be a Cartesian dualist.

"But if they do, they cannot really give us all that Tory crap about hard work because, ex hypothesi, inequalities would exist even if everyone worked hard - and in winner-take-all markets there'd be big inequalities."

I think most of them grant that talent and even luck are legitimate factors in relative success. Which ones think that success is entirely explained by hard work (or ever could be?).

The comments to this entry are closed.

blogs I like

Why S&M?

Blog powered by Typepad