deBoer disses “equal opportunity”

July 26, 2023 • 12:00 pm

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:

The problem:

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).

1. Finland

2. Denmark

3. Iceland

4. Israel

5. Netherlands

6. Sweden

7. Norway

8. Switzerland

9. Luxembourg

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!

h/t: Mike

31 thoughts on “deBoer disses “equal opportunity”

  1. I think that deBoer self-describes as a Marxist, so wants to veer more towards equality of outcome in standard of living, rather than equality of opportunity.

      1. “And that’s a worldview inspired purely by envy”.Really? That’s an oversimplified take, which we should not rationally endorse. I am NO fan of Marxism, but I think there’s a little bit more to it than that.

  2. If you favor the Scandinavian model, you’re already going beyond equality of opportunity. So you haven’t identified a point of disagreement with deBoer. deBoer also says that “the concept of equality as a political goal, writ large, is nonsensical,” so he’s not arguing for some other standard of equality in place of equal opportunity.

  3. 1) Scandinavia comprises only four countries: Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. Finland is Nordic but not Scandinavian; it’s ethnically and linguistically distinct. I’m not sure what the sixth Scandinavian country was supposed to be.

    2) Health care in the Netherlands is not free. Insurance is compulsory, although you can choose, within limits, how much to self-insure.

    3) Hospital care in New Zealand is theoretically free, but many Kiwis take out private insurance to avoid very long waiting times for assessment and treatment. GP care in New Zealand is partially subsidised but most people still have to pay a portion.

    “Free”, of course, isn’t free, just tax-paid.

    1. Yes but tax paid ends up being a lot cheaper for better health care outcomes than a system like the US.
      I don’t know about NZ but in Australia we also have people take up private insurance. Why? Not because of long waiting times generally but because conservative governments have introduced various tax benefits if you take up private insurance.
      Their friends and donors would like health to be privatised but whenever any politician is silly enough to say that out loud they are savaged in the press. I think it’s the one thing Australians would riot over.
      The other reason people take up private insurance in Australia is to get coverage for glasses and dental, the two things not covered in the public health system. To me this is an argument for getting glasses and dental covered in universal healthcare rather than continuing to have people be the prey of insurance companies and private providers.

    2. If we are going to nitpick about what is Scandinavian, then Iceland would be out even before Finland. Scandinavia is foremost a Geographical term and the ethno-cultural aspects are derivates/extensions of it. Iceland is not in Scandinavia. Strictly speaking neither Finland, but it is at least directly adjacent. So a good example of a Nordic country that is _not_ Scandinavian is Iceland.

      Encyclopedia Britannica says this: “Scandinavia, historically Scandia, part of northern Europe, generally held to consist of the two countries of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Norway and Sweden, with the addition of Denmark. Some authorities argue for the inclusion of Finland on geologic and economic grounds and of Iceland and the Faroe Islands on the grounds that their inhabitants speak North Germanic (or Scandinavian) languages related to those of Norway and Sweden.”

  4. The problem of incentives was the fatal defect of the USSR, memorably summarized in that saying “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us“. Of course, a system of class privilege within the society was reconstructed, in the form of the special privileges for the nomenklatura. But that stratum was selected as much on the basis of ideological correctness as on any sort of competence. The result was the way Soviet society functioned during the period of Brezhnev and his successors. We seem to be re-enacting an arrangement like that in the US, with DEI correctness increasingly placed ahead of competence. Thus, to get a sense of where the US is heading, just review what life in the Soviet Union was like during the last decades of its existence.

  5. As Professor Coyne says: ” 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 is the key to a humane, equal opportunity society. A floor is created by government whereby every person, no matter how undeserving or “untalented a person may be, will be able to live in a non-poverty situation. Sure, some people would be identified as not working for any good reason (although work requirements could be part of the government program), but that is a small price to pay to help those that can’t earn enough income to get out of poverty because of lack of ability. Again, the idea is to guarantee a way to live out of poverty; it would hardly mean a life of luxury. By the way, the philosophy behind social security, medicare, and medicaid is to assure that seniors and the very poor have a minimal income and/or access to healthcare. The enactment of an equal opportunity society would not be one where the untalented would perish in a social darwinian jungle. We are not living in the 19th century.

    1. How one defines poverty varies considerably over time and geographic area. When the general standard of living rises, poverty gets redefined. In the US, Obesity is a much more serious problem among the poor than starvation.

    2. “By the way, the philosophy behind social security, medicare, and medicaid is to assure that seniors and the very poor have a minimal income and/or access to healthcare.”

      If this were the objective of social security in its current form–as an insurance against poverty–then I could gladly support it. As it is, we refuse to do any means testing before paying benefits. We thus end up with well-off people using social security checks for European vacations and other upper-middle class essentials. And those well-off people generally get far bigger monthly checks from social security than do the Americans who use it as their sole source of financial support.

  6. Jerry,
    The link isn’t working. It opens a png screen capture only.
    What would deBoer think of Vincent van Gogh, one of the world’s greatest artists, who couldn’t make a living from his art?
    It seems to me deBoer sees human potential as limited.

  7. It’s quite true that equality of opportunity produces losers as well as winners. The solution is to provide a floor so that persons of low accomplishment still get to live a life free of deprivation—a social safety net or, perhaps, a guaranteed sustainable income. (Nothing new in what I say, and nothing new in what deBoer says. It’s all been said before and the debate goes on… .)

    1. The metaphor of a safety net requires that all people will do their darnedest to stay on the scaffold or the high wire or whatever. Only if they inadvertently slip and fall off will they need the safety net, and once rescued, they will scramble out of the net and clamber back to resume their self-reliant stations in life. Only if they were permanently injured in their fall will they be allowed, or want to remain comfortable in the net, now more like a couch.

      The debate you refer to is between those who profess to believe that the modern welfare state actually works this way and it is cruel and heartless to resist making it ever more indulgent and accommodating, and those who scoff at the very idea that any public welfare scheme with incentives to climb into the safety net and stay there can ever be viable except as a vote-buyer of the client classes.

      It’s true that unemployable young men who are of no interest to women are a danger to social cohesion. They may have to be bought off to keep them from disorder and rebellion. But cash alone won’t do it. They have to be corralled as well so their amusements don’t threaten the earning classes. The recent riots in France show how precarious this deal can be.

  8. I wonder if deBoer is speaking to an unspeakable concept, people who are not genetically endowed with the capability of intelligence?

  9. I’m not sure that you and DeBoer are saying very different things. He’s critical of focusing on equality, but as he writes in his opening paragraph,

    « If you told me that I could have a magic wand and shake it to increase the equality in our society, I would do so, because that society would be materially better in many ways. But equality is at best epiphenomenal of what we really want – everybody to be healthy and happy and to enjoy a certain minimal threshold of material comfort, free from unfair impositions on their efforts to achieve in various ways, without any group having undue influence over politics and government by dint of their resources, with everyone able to meet on truly level playing fields in a courtroom or at the ballot box. »

    In the strictest meritocracy, DeBoer implies, the minimum threshold etc. would not be guaranteed. The emphasis is different, but you seem to call for something very similar.

    « 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. … It combines equality of opportunity with just enough “equity” to ensure that nobody starves to death or has a useless life. »

  10. There is also a dark side associated with equality of outcome or misjudged affirmative action. *Some* of the people who ‘lose’ under those schemes might have been ‘winners’ under equality of opportunity, and feel discriminated against. *Some* of the people who ‘gain’ under those schemes might have been ‘losers’ under equality of opportunity, and feel guilty or inadequate.

    I suspect that no scheme will be fully functional, but we should debate what our expectations *should* be. And then monitor against those expectations.

  11. I agree with Norman: It’s all been said before and the debate goes on.

    deBoer is a Marxist who seems attached to the “real communism was never tried in Russia or China” sentiment. I understand that; who would want to tie their ideas to those 20th-century exemplars of “wealth, stability, and success”? But I don’t want to get into that bit (see Norman’s comment above).

    The fundamental problem I find in deBoer’s perspective is not in his view of economics or his support of various government programs. It is not in his stance on equality. It is his mindset—one he shares with many of the purveyors of critical social justice in all its forms. The below is from his Substack post “You Don’t Have to be a Marxist”:

    “The left pursues the new, and if the new is moral and uncompromising and wise, that will be enough.”

    This cult of the new, when coupled with an uncompromising stance of supposed moral superiority and wisdom, creates the bastard children who have destabilized and destroyed so much in the past century. That holds whether they find inspiration for the “new” in either abstract ideologies or an idealized past; it is a mindset neither Right nor Left. “If” they are moral; “if” they are wise. Yes, “if.” And how many people disposed to political action ever doubt the morality and wisdom of their course? If only . . .

    But, alas, none of this is new, either. So, an old question confronts us again: At what point and to what degree must debate give way to action?

  12. I did not find deBoer’s essay very convincing. It rests upon a couple of rather profound misunderstandings.

    Measures of merits (i.e., grades) serve two functions: they provide information (how well one performed on a particular task) and sometimes (mistakenly) are used as a form of control or coercion (i.e., good grades as a reward and bad grades as punishment). The latter function never seems to work very well, but as a source of information, despite many imperfections, grades provide useful information.

    Grades can only provide information about task-specific performance – they seldom provide reliable information about overall competence or potential. Not doing well is not a condemnation to digging ditches – there are many alternatives (perhaps higher education administration ;D)

    Also, poor grades may be an indication that the individual needs other experiences or enrichment or simply time to mature to a point where s/he will increase motivation (or focus) through greater awareness or insight.

    Might the question “How well did you do?” be replaced by “How did you do well?”

  13. Society involves many face-saving customs that make life more pleasant, especially for the less fortunate. A society that is perfectly just would be perceived as oppressive because it would constantly remind people of their inherent inequality*, without plausible denial.

    For example, a meritocratic school system might entail listing the IQs of the students on their transcripts, never giving a C out of compassion and not allowing them to graduate without having mastered the material. That would doubtlessly be more fair, but probably also deeply unpopular because it is understood how humiliating that would be for some students (a couple might just give up on education altogether).

    Among the worse-off would be the disabled. The few carefree years they enjoy as children with affectionate parents are contingent on ignoring of their future prospects. If it was understood that they will probably never be as well-liked as the most infamous criminals, fail to make any productive contribution to society etc. they might just be despised from the moment they are born until they expire.

    In summary, I am more sympathetic to DeBoer since I perceive that a more efficient society will probably also entail more social darwinism.

    * Since non-neutral mutations are usually deleterious, the more more intelligent also tend to be richer, healthier, better-looking, longer-lived, more musical etc. while conversely disabled people tend to combine all undesirable traits.

  14. So if we looked forward fifty to one hundred years and the weather is significantly warmer, the oceans have acidified, and land available for food production has shifted due to shifting weather patterns, all causing massive migrations of humanity, how are the currently wealthiest and the happiest nations going to provide a generous minimum floor of resources to their current residents and to the millions or more people flooding into their countries from more challenged countries around the world? If the world’s wealthiest nations all create cultures of abundance for all residents, how will their citizens cope with a future of intense weather and migration and resultant conflict challenges? If I was describing factors facing a world in a science fiction story, I don’t think the equal outcomes for all construct would be the way that world would be designed. If it was, it would be a very short story indeed.

  15. DeBoer is right that the universe isn’t fair. Traits like intelligence and height are normally distributed, which means there will always be people at the low and high ends. But this leftist attack against reality itself will lead to nothing, it’s just a pathetic cry for cosmic justice. And this discomfort with unequal outcomes seems to me to be motivated by envy, not compassion.

  16. Equal opportunity already exists. Kids can learn as much they want, and it’s free. It’s called “the internet”. Is there anything that a kid needs to learn that is not free online?

  17. Yes, equality of opportunity is a good (if not perfect) solution to the problem of unequal life outcomes. As long as there is an adequate social safety net so that those who are unable to take advantage of their opportunities aren’t subjected to extreme suffering like today’s victims of automation and off-shoring have to endure, the outcomes are probably as good as we flawed humans can get. The policies which place countries in the top 10 places to live seem to do a pretty good job both in terms of equal opportunity and in providing a floor below which the quality of life of the country’s “failures” is not allowed to fall. The penalty for coming in near last in life’s contests should not be starvation, slavery, prison, drug addiction, suicide, or all of those calamities. But we still need to enable the contests to proceed in order to provide incentives for people to strive for greatness. That striving is what has given us the modern world.

  18. deBoer is very uneven. He has a strange view of what he owes to subscribers: when I chided him for the frequency of reader-submitted articles as I did not like paying him to read stuff written by other people, he informed me that I was “a f*cking loser” and could go elsewhere. Needless to say, I did.
    It’s sad when a grown man, living on the fruits of his capitalist enterprise, still thinks that communism is the answer to all ills. Equality of opportunity is an ideal, very hard to achieve, and probably cannot be truly attained without holding back the best and the brightest (see today’s article at the FreePress—where I spent my subscription money instead at deBoer’s place— ). Nonetheless, we should try to make a good fist of it. He is right to say there will be ditch diggers, but we do need ditch diggers. If ditch diggers don’t earn large wages, at least we contribute to a social safety net, as we should, so basic needs are met. There is fairness and compassion in that. If ditch diggers are to be paid the same as neurosurgeons, well, you all know what will happen.

  19. Jeez, what an arsehole! In my experience, ruffling the feathers of of a Marxist can often result in a disagreeable response. I’m glad you exercised your rights as a consumer and told him to bugger off too!

    1. Damn, that was meant as a reply to Christopher’s comment. I must have been so vexed by deBoer’s unpleasantness that I clicked on the wrong thing!

  20. Equality of opportunity is necessary but not sufficient for social justice. The question is what other kind(s) of equality ought to be added to it, so as to realize social justice.

    “A society that satisfied the ideal of formal equality of opportunity might provide grim conditions of life for those who are unsuccessful in competitions for positions of advantage. Even a perfect meritocracy that satisfies the stringent Rawlsian fair equality of opportunity principle might impose the same grim conditions of life on those who lack marketable merit and skill. The class of competitive losers might include some who have adequate native talents but fail to make good use of them, but some of the losers will be those with the bad luck to be born without much by way of native talent. The question then arises whether any further substantive ideals of equality, beyond meritocratic ideals, should be affirmed.”


  21. Is it both equal rights, opportunity, dignity aka respect for whatever vocation you have found yourself. A sewage worker is a valued member of society and no more so than a doctor. Image the disease and misery without a full functioning sewage system. This is a generalization but I feel holds from the bottom up to the top down. The human needs to understand none has anything without another.
    You are a prof (not personal Prof E) what of your pleasure in life if you can’t travel and see and converse with others in your field. You need a pilot to a baggage handler. Instil human dignity to all, decided with appropriate educational goals, let the genetic variation have its say while maintaining dignity and rescue status from being the leader. Cooperation and understanding that you are not here without those on every working scale occupation and hard work of others.
    Those who do not, or have drifted may have help at hand ( there is always cost in society for shattered lives) or if criminal minded, threat to body of innocent others, simply, get removed just as we do now. Some day with science we may be able to adjust social behaviour by and with better treatments. Holding all this to free speech and reason. This I feel would be a necessity and self productive and natural follow on.
    As someone told me when encountering a homeless begging on the street, if giving or not giving, make eye contact and greet with a simple acknowledgement. An equal as a human can be, not an embarrassment as if we personally failed them, it is a collective failure.

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