Freddie deBoer has written a commentary on equal opportunity, a situation that I’d much like to obtain in America. Sure, it’s got problems, but isn’t it better than what we have now? What if every kid had access to a good school, and the chance to take music, algebra, and a culture that didn’t discourage education?
For reasons I can’t understand, deBoer doesn’t like it. Why? Because if there is equal opportunity, there would be losers as well as winners! Read for yourself by clicking:
I’m also particularly not a fan of the concept of equality of opportunity. This has always been the standard liberal saw against socialism and other kinds of radically egalitarian politics – we don’t want everyone to end up summatively equal in all respects, but we want everyone to have an equal chance to be all that they might be thanks to their abilities and work ethic. I think that the equality of opportunity/equality of outcomes distinction actually falls apart with a moment’s inspection, as I’ll get to. But even if we accept the concept on its own terms, it has a remarkably dark side that nobody ever wants to engage with.
And what’s the dark side?
The part that never gets discussed is the obverse: what happens if someone reaches their potential by becoming a D+ student who just barely graduates from high school and ends up a ditch digger making $24,000 a year? What if a life spent in material deprivation and constant financial insecurity is the outcome of a genuinely equal opportunity? What if someone’s potential is correctly fulfilled when they end up in a life that’s barren of wealth, stability, and success? If equality of opportunity means anything, then it must include such outcomes. I constantly have to make this point when discussing education, a field where failure is seen as inherently a matter of injustice and yet one where there will always be a distribution of performance – a distribution with a bottom as well as a top. What if someone faces a completely equal playing field and, through the full expression of their talent and hard work, ends up totally ill-equipped for the job market?
There’s more, but one more bit:
But the person who gets all of the required opportunity and still struggles his way to a life of destitution is just as much a story of equal opportunity as that one.
As I said, even beyond that, there’s basic problems. Core to that whole conception of justice is the notion that talent and hard work are something inherent to the individual or under the control of the individual. But if we accept that there’s any sort of genetic component to talent at all, and we certainly should, it’s hard to see how rewarding talent falls under a rubric of distributing resources to people based on that which they can control. Talent, however defined, has always looked like just another fickle gift of nature, to me, and thus using it to hand out scarce goods is no more just than hereditary nobility. If someone suffers from complications during their birth such that they have a severe cognitive disability that prevents them from flourishing, few people would see their impoverishment as a just example of equal opportunity. But if someone is born with a genetic makeup that predisposes them to do very poorly in school and meritocracy, how is that any different?
deBoer doesn’t discuss “equity” (representation of all groups by their proportion in the population), but I have a few things to say about deBoer’s piece.
First, what would he replace “equality of opportunity” with? Sure, some people would fail, and others succeed, and in the end that all depends on the laws of physics. But rewarding success and talent, even if it be through no “will” of the person alone, manages to rewire the brains of other people who also want rewards, so rewarding merit is a rising tide that lifts all boats. The person born with a bad genetic makeup or cognitive disability may not do that well, but there’s a solution for that (see below). And, of course, our desire to “do better” is a product of natural selection, assuming that status and “stuff” are proxies for reproductive success.
Second, no society that functions well will ensure that everyone gets exactly equal amounts of goods and services. Those are limited, and if you can’t strive to do better than you’re doing, you now only lose incentive, but also lose incentive to invent something that you think might be popular. But in the main, what about a society in which you afford people not only equal opportunity, but guarantee them a minimal amount of income, housing, and healthcare so that they don’t suffer. This, I think, is the Scandinavian model. It combines equality of opportunity with just enough “equity” to ensure that nobody starves to death or has a useless life. Except for the severely disabled, there’s a job for nearly everyone, though yes, not all those jobs are satisfying.
Here are the world’s ten happiest countries for 2023. I don’t know about social welfare in all of these places, but six of them are in Scandinavia. All of them, as far as I know, have a free and open economy with lots of opportunity, but also good social welfare systems. And all of them, also as far as I know, have free government healthcare (correct me if I’m wrong).
10. New Zealand
The big problem with this article, unusual for a piece by the thoughtful deBoer, is that he makes the perfect the enemy of the good. What is his alternative to equal opportunity? Strict communism? Hasn’t worked!