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January 31, 2007



Restrictions on equality of opportunity are a deadweight loss to society. It is unlikely, to say the least, that we will be better off because a potential physicist is a roadsweeper. (This is a case of the paradox that slavery's low productivity should doom it to economic oblivion.)

There's also a liberty issue here.

Certainly, various neo-liberal governments and movements have always been keen on individual advancement as a substitute for egalitarianism. See Michael Young for details. I suspect that, rather than a Bayesian prior, this is actually a case of "blogger tries too hard to be provocative."

Peter Briffa

Daniel F isn't too crazy about equality of outcome either:

"If equality of outcome means anything at all, it means there is no wiggle room. It means that we all become the same. It means that we choose the same occupations, have the same skills, want the same things for our children, make the same choices about how much to spend and how much to save".


I suppose that might be considered a bit of a caricature. Still, he's kind of on the money. What is wrong with equality under the rule of law, Chris? Isn't that enough?


The theme here is that the costs of equal opportunity are high, because it's very expensive to educate the ineducable.

Equal opportunity does not require "trying to educate the ineducable" - a system where training and education was left to individual choice would also be inherently fair. A case in point - if you didn't expect that upper mobility will make you happier, it would be irrational for you to get more education.

The real issue is eliminating undue privileges and inefficient rigidities.


Alex - you're right that its inefficient for a potential physicist to be a roadsweeper. But in giving everyone the (equal) opportunity to become a physicist, we incur the costs of over-educating millions.
I should have distinguished two different conceptions of equality of opportunity - non-discrimination versus John Roemer's conception of levelling the playing field. In the latter, the state spends enough on educating people from poor families to give them the same opportunities as rich kids. This, as Roemer says, can be hugely expensive.
Peter - the problem with restricting equality to equality under the law is that some people come from worse backgrounds than others, and so face worse life-chances. For reasons I might go into later, I don't like this. The question, then is: what should we do about this? Should we spend money equalizing life-chances? Or should we redistribute incomes to compensate?


Which broaches the question of education as a good in itself...


"some people come from worse backgrounds than others, and so face worse life-chances. ... what should we do about this? Should we spend money equalizing life-chances? Or should we redistribute incomes to compensate?"

The efficient solution is probably a mixture of both, such as educational vouchers funded by progressive taxation. But this assumes we care about life-chances in the frst place - if Daniel Finklestein is right, happiness will decrease.


So there are costs associated with equality of opportunity, but there are also costs (perhaps larger) associated with ensuring equality by redistribution. It is not clear that either achieves the aim of making people happier. So why not forget the social engineering and concentrate on ensuring that laws are in place and enforced to prevent rich people from having too much power over poorer people.


Which physicist?


Finkelstein does not conjecture that social mobility causes mental distress - he says that IF you buy Oliver James' line (which I don't think he the Fink does) then the implication is that people would be better knowing their place etc.

I really can't figure out what to make of this post. I usually try to remind myself that if I think somebody is saying patently something absurd then I have proabably misconstrued them, especially when it comes to this blog - but surely this is nonsense?

You think social mobility is a bad thing? You think that poverty and wealth should pass down through the generations undisturbed? You think shitty schools in shitty areas should stay shitty because trying to make them better costs too much and beside the pupils would not be much happier if they did get more chances in life?

But then you talk about equalising wealth and power, and redistributing income? But you don't object to any of that because it might cost too much or it might not actually end up making people happier. And how would you equalise wealth and power without equalising opportunity to the same degree?

And really, what do you mean by equalising wealth? If your book is a run away best seller, how much of the resulting income do you think the state ought to seize and redistribute? I don't seem to recall you favouring super high income tax brackets, so how is equalisation of wealth to be achieved? You can give to the poor, but you can't really equalise wealth without taking from the rich, and what are the costs of that in terms of incentives etc.

When you say redistribute income, do you just mean giving the poor a citizen's basic income that might make them a bit better off than they are now, but not really much closer to wealthy authors? That's not what I call equalising wealth.

It's one thing saying that there are bad aspects to equalising opportunity / increaseing social mobility - it's another thing to say you prefer unfairness and social barriers. There are bad sides to everything, and OK maybe equality of opportunity and social mobility aren't panaceas but what are the alternatives?

chris strange

An opportunity implies a choice since an opportunity can be missed. Compulsory education is better described as attempting to reach equality of outcome since it cannot be missed, being compulsory, and is supposed to shape everybody in the same way to pass a set of standardised tests. Compulsory education should therefore surely be considered an attempt to reach equality of outcome.

Mark Wadsworth

Taken to either extreme, you might have a point.

But the point is if all chidren are streamed at 11 and at 16 and at 18, everybody has (at birth) an equal "opportunity" to go to a good secondary school, those that do have an equal "opportunity" to do A levels and so on with university.

So the theoretical "opportunity" for all children is the same at birth and this gets progressively narrowed down as time goes on.


All this hinges on your belief that we should work for the overthrow of the rich, rather than accomodation with them.

But, I think that if we accept that isn't going to happen quickly, there remains the question of what we do in the meantime, policy wise.

Finally, you're concerns with social mobility are a bit weak. You don't present any evidence that it makes more people unhappy than it makes happy, except for the plight of the "deserving poor."

Fortunately, society remains so buggered that no-one need feel they are certainly poor solely through their own actions. If we ever get close to that stage, we can worry about it. How about you post this again in 2080 and see if we're there yet?

James Hamilton

There'll be no need for Chris to bother posting again in 2080. If he keeps comments open on this post, we'll be able to pick up the thread and have all the 2007 arguments at our fingertips.

Marcin Tustin

One question is whether there is a great conflict: if people at the present time do not suffer great inequalities of wealth and power, because there is a mechanism to achieve and maintain that position, then all else being equal, those with great ability will be able to take many opportunities. The thing is that equality of outcomes is relatively easy to achieve, because we know how to redistribute wealth.


"if people at the present time do not suffer great inequalities of wealth and power, ... will be able to take many opportunities. The thing is that equality of outcomes is relatively easy to achieve, because we know how to redistribute wealth."

This point was addressed in chris's reply - equalizing outcomes will also equalize opportunity to the same degree. However, conventional income redistribution incurs huge costs by putting a burden on production and commerce, distorting the economic environment and generating perverse incentives.


"Peter - the problem with restricting equality to equality under the law is that some people come from worse backgrounds than others, and so face worse life-chances. For reasons I might go into later, I don't like this."

I'm not sure you can really achieve "equality of outcome" though. You're right - some people come from worse backgrounds than others - but the size of their parents' bank account is only one (possibly minor) factor.

I will grant for the moment that it may be possible to raise the standard of education in the whole of the state system to that of the best public schools.

Now consider two children, from families of roughly equal wealth and education. One child has loving + caring parents, whereas the other child has distant parents. How do you equalize their outcomes?

One child has strict parents, one child has permissive parents. One child has intelligent parents, one child has stupid parents. One child is attractive, the other is ugly. How do you equalize that?

One danger with your desire to equalize outcomes is that you end up treating children as members of a rich class, a middle-income class or a poor class rather than as individuals. This kind of categorization brings the differences in family income to the fore, but obscures all the other differences between families that also affect a child's future.


The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.

Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.

When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

Emotion ends.

Man becomes machine.

A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.





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