Equality of Opportunity or of Outcome?

Let’s look some more at this piece by Jillian Bandes, on Obama’s new “Chief Diversity Officer,” Mark Lloyd.

I was a bit snarky yesterday when I wrote of this newly-created office:

Does it seem to you that the Obama administration makes up titles and offices the way Bluto made up new names for Animal House Pledges?

“You’ll be…the Chief Diversity Officer!”


“Why the hell not?”

It certainly does seem that the Obama administration is interested in creating a million little bureaucracies to follow-up on and enforce their million new little laws, and it does seem like every unaccountable-to-congress-or-the-people czar and every presidential crony needs some trumped-up and lofty title by which his enforcership is identified, but what struck me about Bandes’ piece was this line:

[Seton] Motley isn’t convinced. “They don’t want equality of opportunity, they want equality of outcomes – giving equal time for people who get listeners and people who don’t,” he said.

Equal opportunity is certainly a good and just notion. Everyone who wants to be able to follow a muse, explore an idea or dream a dream should have the opportunity to do so. Everyone should have the chance to try their idea and either succeed or fail by their own efforts (and the occasional act of God or “chance”)

But equality of outcome gets a bit dicey, don’t you think? If I have two kids who are both given every opportunity to study for the same math test, using the same materials, and with the same time allowances, but one scores an A and one scores a C, does that mean that both students should be given a B, so that their equal opportunity results in an equal outcome?

Wouldn’t that be a false outcome that is patently unfair to both students, devaluing the work and gifts of the A student and giving the C student a false sense of his own capabilities? Maybe the A student is supposed to be an engineer, and the C student is supposed to be an artist, or a cop – wouldn’t both of the students lose a sense of their own strengths and weaknesses (and lose track of their respective callings) because of the skewed perspective wrought by the manufactured “equal” outcomes?

If Air America has insipid programing and radio hosts who sneer, condescend and heap cynicism while discussing politics, and Clear Channel has entertaining programing and radio hosts who manage to be energetic and optimistic while discussing the same issues, why shouldn’t their respective listenerships determine who is worth valuable “prime” airtime and who is not, as reflected in ratings and (dare I mention it) ad revenues?

How is it just to suggest that inferior and superior products are in fact, “equal”?

How is it just to tell radio station owners that they cannot broadcast more popular programming unless they make room for less-popular (and less lucrative) fare as well?

How is it just tell people that they cannot listen to their preferred broadcasts, because something they don’t want to listen to has no audience, and so – for the sake of fairness – an audience will be manufactured by force?

We can champion equal opportunity loudly while declaring just as loudly that “equality of outcome smacks of something fundamentally false, and therefore negative. What good arises from lies, and how is best-served by them?

I think there is a basic confusion here, between justice and mercy. In today’s gospel reading, we looked at Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the landowner who went out at dawn to hire workers at the usual daily wage. Throughout the day he hired more and more workers, and at the close of work, he paid each the same. Those who had worked all day grumbled,

“These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat!”

The landowner said, “I am not cheating you; I have paid you the agreed-upon wage. If I choose to pay these others the same with my own money, is that not my right?”

This was an equality of outcome, and it is just and fair, in the sense that the landowner was faithful to his agreement with his earliest workers, and was also free to be as generous with the others as his instincts and his mercy bade him. But the thing is, the owner did not cheat anyone. He did not pay the early workers less than they had a right to. He did not tell them that they could not work, so that others would have a chance to work.

The landowner also paid from his own pocket; he did not take money from all of his neighbors and then arbitrarily decide on the pay scale. What we know of this landowner is that he is both just and merciful, so it is very unlikely that he would use his neighbor’s funds in such a way without their consent.

The objection made by those who had worked in the field all day certainly strikes all of us as a reasonable one. And the landowner does not tell them that they are unreasonable because he knows that he has trampled on “fairness” as it is humanly understood. He knows that fairness, justice and mercy are all very different things. The landowner chose to be merciful, and because of his mercy -and his singular omnipotence- his actions were just. But fair? Only in the subjective case.

The thing is, our government is not the omnipotent landowner who need answer to no one. That they seem to think they are suggests that they have a very distorted view of what a representative democracy is about. Their selective disdain* for capitalism and free markets is obvious, but they are clearly working outside the scope of what our founders intended when they wrote the Bill of Rights.

Jesus’ parable was meant to explain the mercy of God, in much the same way as the parable of the Prodigal Son. The faithful, loyal workers in the field of the Lord will receive their reward, but the mercy of God may extend to whomever He wishes. That’s because mercy, in the end, has very little to do with fairness. If it was about fairness, it wouldn’t be called “mercy.”

But mercy is always tempered with justice. When the father of the Prodigal Son rejoiced in the return of his offspring, he took nothing at all away from his faithful son. The landowner does not simply toss out His earliest workers, or push them aside, for the subjects of his mercy.

The government, no matter what it thinks of itself, is not God
, and it proves this when it seems to suggest it can extend inclusive “mercy” to some by unjustly pushing out others, and that this action will somehow promote “equality.”

As we have said before:

[Monasticism]…the perfect manifestation of the socialist ideal only works if entered into freely, willingly, with open hearts and generous intentions. On a large scale, with less-than-willing subjects…[socialist] ideals…lead to stifling bureaucracy, the stagnation of creativity and no reason to excel beyond a standard of mediocrity.

In a monastic setting, it works, because the self-effacement, sacrifice and surrender of the will is all voluntary. In a public setting, these weird “mandatory sacrifices” use language of fairness and opportunity, but the notions are skewed, or redefined, and profit-taking is only evil for some. I don’t think Jesus would like it. No justice, no peace.

Speaking of which, Jesus did not tell us whether the generous landowner was able to find workers, the next day, who were willing to work all day in the sun for him, or if the workers all waited until late in the afternoon to finally offer their services, reasoning that the generous landowner would again pay them a day’s wage for an hour’s labor.

I wonder if they formed a union?

Related (and yes, it’s all related, since it’s all of a piece):
Will ACORN be monitoring lifestyle regulations under Obamacare?
AT: Megaphone Envy and Fairness Doctrine
The Banality of Evil: Health Care debate takes dangerous turn
Caroline Baum: Impromptu Obamanomics getting scarier
Rep Massa: You opponents are enemies and traitors
Althouse: Obama keeps saying the most disturbing things…
John Kass: Tossing Pink Slippers in the Health Care Debate (H/T)
James Lewis: Death Care and the Commodification of Life
Siggy: UK Medical records database a catastrophe
NY Car Dealers: Pull out of Clunkers program
Bookworm: Hold on to your teeth

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • software_engineer

    When I was a TA in graduate school in the 1970s, one of my fellow TA’s summarized the (then relatively low-level) equality of result demands by saying “if 90% of the students are stupid, then 90% of the A’s should go to stupid students.” A bit harsh, perhaps, but right on nonetheless.

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  • Joseph

    “but they are clearly working outside the scope of what our founders intended when they wrote the Bill of Rights.”

    I really hate to say this Anchoress, but you are talking nonsense.

    Neither you nor I nor anyone else can know what the “intention” of anyone from 200+ years ago was. We can only know what they actually said and what we have done with it.

    The general basis for an individual’s right to equality of opportunity subsists in just four words in that Bill of Rights: “equal protection of the law”.

    The general basis of an individual’s right to equality of outcomes subsists in the following four words: “due process of law”.

    Not “justice”, not “fairness”, not “mercy”, not “diversity”, not even [when undefined] “equality” itself–Due Process of Law, and Equal Protection of Law. Individuals have such rights only in matters where legal processes impact them directly in cases of fact that actually exist.

    If I have two kids who are both given every opportunity to study for the same math test, using the same materials, and with the same time allowances, but one scores an A and one scores a C, does that mean that both students should be given a B, so that their equal opportunity results in an equal outcome?

    Straw Man arguments like this really gripe my cookies. I defy you to point to any instance where the law in this country has imposed any such demand on any school in this country.

    Until somebody can show this, the entire example is something that somebody “just made up”. And nothing more.

    I don’t think you can do it. I don’t think anyone else can. There are no facts in this example that are actually the case, so there are no legal “rights” which exist in the example either. Nor a Bill that talks about them, nor any founder who wrote it. It is a pure chimera.

    In a like manner, It certainly does seem that the Obama administration is interested in creating a million little bureaucracies to follow-up on and enforce their million new little laws is something that you have “just made up”.

    I defy you to show me the “millions of little new laws” anywhere that the Obama Administration has created out of nothing. Or any new “bureaucracies” it has created that have no prior support in the laws of this land. The only one who has created something out of nothing here is you.

    Now I know that certain examples are “hypothetical”, and that certain stories are “parables”.

    But in many, if not most cases, Conservatives appear to be unable to distinguish the difference between a hypothetical example and a real one. Nor can they seem to understand that a parable is not a narrative of established fact.

    In other words, they are incapable of arguing about anything but something that they’ve “just made up” or that someone else has just made up for them.

    Hence, in the original article: Conservative groups believe his installation is merely another way to impose the dangerous principles contained in the Fairness Doctrine.

    Well, gee. I believe I had a pleasant little lunch with the current King of France yesterday.

    So on what basis do we evaluate these parallel beliefs? Well, first, we can ask just who is it who has these beliefs.

    There I have the advantage. I have a name, an address, a social security number, a bank account, and a real existence. You could actually go to lunch with me if you were willing to risk my treating you like the current King of France.

    Unspecified “conservative groups” are another chimera that Jillian Bandes has “just made up” to avoid having to directly assert that she holds the beliefs and is willing to stand behind them. I really don’t know why Conservatives always are so coy about such things. But they usually are.

    Now Bandes actually has the advantage of me in that she has dug up some facts that might actually support such a belief if there were anyone present to hold it.

    But there isn’t. That’s the problem. A real argument could take the known facts and make a reasonable case that the belief was true. But to make it you have to be just as reckless as I am to put my name, address, and SSN on my belief in French Royalty.

    In other words, you have to open yourself up to the possibility that your beliefs might be wrong, foolish, and refutable. Bandes is not nearly so reckless. In that sense she is certainly an exemplary “conservative”.

    Words like “justice”, “fairness”, “equality”, “mercy”, “diversity” are part of the genuine coinage of thought about matters of fact and the laws imposed on those facts. We can test them against both fact and law and determine how much gold or silver they contain, and how much lead.

    Divorced from facts and left solely to drift in the nebulous world where there are only parables, hypothetical examples, and unlocatable groups of anonymous people who hold beliefs about things, there is no way to discern the difference between them and Monopoly money.

    Even worse, there is no particular reason to waste time trying. God is both just and merciful by definition, our landowner is both just and merciful only due to circumstance, and neither case, as you point out, applies to the problem of justice or fairness or mercy in the world of fact and Government.

    So why have you tried to apply them?

    Christ used the parable wisely and well by comparing the landowner to God who is “just” and “merciful” whether we believe He is so or not, and so is exempt from argument about it.

    And you have used it ill by trying to compare the abstract case where no argument is possible to the concrete cases where all is persuasion and argument attempting to reach true judgments about real things and thorny issues.

  • Brian English


    First, a mountain of books has been written regarding the intent of the Founding Fathers in their drafting of the foundation documents for this country. You appear to to equate “intent” with the inner thoughts of an individual, but in that case it doesn’t matter whether something was written or said 200 years ago or 200 seconds ago. We can only judge intent based upon outward manifestations.

    Based upon the outward manifestations of the Founding Fathers, I cannot think of one of them who would not be horrified by the power that the current administration seeks for the federal government. You should note that the Bill of Rights was included in the Constitution specifically to address fears regarding the power of the federal government. It is only through the application of the 14th Amendment that the Bill of Rights has been applied to the individual states.

    Second, I find it astonishing that you regard the example of the two students and their math grades as being a straw man argument. It illustrates the results of virtually every affirmative action program ever enacted. Real lives and real dreams have been devastated by application of those programs, so we are not just talking about hypotheticals.

    Third, do you really believe that the Energy and Health Care legislation being promoted by the Obama Administration will not require the creation of massive federal bureaucracies? How would the legislation ever be implemented? If you are asserting that we cannot express our opposition to those bureaucracies because they do not exist yet, you are just engaging in sophistry. They will have to exist if the legislation is passed.

  • badsede

    There is one thing that I think is important to remember with the parable of the landowner .. its a bit of a trick. It is easy to see it as a lesson to Christians to not be too hard on the late-comers, or our more sin-full and less Christlike brothers and sisters. And I think most Christians view it that way, picturing themselves as the workers hired in the morning, or at least earlier in the day.

    But there is the trick. Most parables have multiple layers of meaning, so that I think the interpretation above is valid. But I think the more direct point is that we are actually the ones hired in the afternoon, that we are the ones undeserving of a full days wage, of heaven, and the ones receiving God’s mercy.

    Not sure if that has any bearing on the larger conversation at hand, but this made me think of it…

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  • Rick


    The “intent” of the Constitution’s Framers (mostly the Founding Fathers, but some of them were otherwise busy at the time – see for example, Ambassador T. Jefferson in Paris) is not some grand mystery. It is in fact is laid out in the Federalist Papers. There was no guarantee when the Framers were devising the OS for our government system that it would be ratified – each State held a vote on the matter. And to influence the voters, a series of “pamphlets” (each of which could be considered a major book now) were written, by the Framers themselves, explaining the Constitution at length, including the Bill of Rights, and how it did not reduce the natural rights of the individual listed in the Declaration of Independence. Together, these pamphlets are known as the Federalist Papers. Different “Federalist #X” pamphlets were written by different Framers, and not all of them were written in support of the Constitution – several important Framers were staunchly opposed to the Bill of Rights because they feared we citizens would see them as “our rights,” and would give over the rest of our liberties to an all-consuming Federal government (sound familliar? It’s the same debate we’re having even now). These Framers were known as the Anti-Federalists. Their opponents, the Federalists (who wrote most of the Papers, and counted among their number Washington, John Adams, and Hamilton), pointed directly to Amendments 9 and 10, stating that any right not expressly delegated to the Federal Government by the Constitution, were held by the States or Citizens as appropriate (which is WHY we’re still having this debate, “even now”).

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  • Joseph Marshall

    The “intent” of the Constitution’s Framers (mostly the Founding Fathers, but some of them were otherwise busy at the time – see for example, Ambassador T. Jefferson in Paris) is not some grand mystery. It is in fact is laid out in the Federalist Papers.

    I am writing away from books and after two days off line with my provider’s foolishness. But, if memory serves, the Bill of Rights was, in fact, a compromise to mollify the opposition to what Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were proposing, which was a strong federal government rather than a weak one. And I see no reason why Hamilton, at least, would be shocked by and disapprove of the current range of Federal power. I believe Hamilton actually argued against a Bill of Rights in Federalist 84.

    Insofar as it has not come from modification by Constitutional amendments, most extension of Federal power derives from the interstate commerce clause and, largely, derives from it logically and plausibly. It is very easy to trace the link in most cases of Federal jurisdiction.

    Moreover, it should be pointed out, that until the 1860′s nothing in the Bill of Rights applied directly to the States. There was absolutely no basis for anyone to claim constitutional sanction against the states for forced confessions, “official” state churches, suppression of the press, the “right to bear arms”, or any of the rest of it. Until the 14th Amendment none of it was binding on State Governments.

    And the legal standards for equality of opportunity and/or equality of outcomes remain due process of law and equal protection of the law. None of the rest of the Bill of Rights is legally relevant to the issue.

    This is why the Anchoress’ “hypothetical” example is pernicious. No one has proposed any such extension of the Due Process or Equal Protection clauses. Nor has there been any indication that such an extension would be likely to stand in court. And, until someone does, the example has nothing to do with the principles involved. It is simply a made up red herring. The results of virtually every affirmative action program ever enacted. do not in any way match what this example is talking about–a class in school with grades and a test. And I repeat my call for you or anyone else to give a concrete and specific example of where any such thing has been forced by law on any school anywhere.

    So are the examples of Air America and [presumably] Rush Limbaugh also red herrings. Taste in these matters aside, it should be pointed out that the individual listener has no legal standing whatever in the example. Nothing in any regulation of broadcasting directly abridges either due process or equal protection for any citizen listener.

    Clear Channel or Sinclair Broadcasting are not “citizens of the United States” and , as corporate “persons” only, doing business in multiple states there is no way of arguing that the Federal power to regulate interstate commerce does not or should not apply to them. The protections of citizens in the Bill of Rights are irrelevant to the issue.

    Now it may be that the Obama administration will propose reviving the Fairness Doctrine. And I hold the same opinion as most here that this would be a bad idea. Moreover, had Jillian Bandes bothered to make the case for it, I would probably agree that the Obama administration is likely to propose this bad idea.

    But she didn’t. Nobody has. Everybody is all tangled up with stuff that is both made up and irrelevant. Applying the Fairness Doctrine to broadcasters is not a bad idea because some never specified set of “conservative groups” believe it so. Nor is it a bad idea because schoolchildren should not have their grades monkeyed with. Nor is it a bad idea because you or I or anyone else find Air America to be both boring and offensive. Nor is it a bad idea because the rights of citizens in the Bill of Rights have been abridged–they haven’t.

    Why is it a bad idea? Good question. But under the circumstances I see no reason why I should share my answer. Straight thinking begins at home.

    Third, do you really believe that the Energy and Health Care legislation being promoted by the Obama Administration will not require the creation of massive federal bureaucracies?

    Yes, I do believe this. We already have the bureaucracies in place, though we may have to hire some more people to keep up with the work load.

    People understand so little about how government actually works. Particularly the fact that the government pays far more to the private sector to have work done for it than it spends on trying to do the work by itself. For example, most of the real work of Medicare is actually contracted out to private insurance carriers.

    There is good reason for this. The only thing that different about the program is that tax dollars underwrite it. The office work required to make it run is no different than private insurance and it is far more cost effective to hire the private sector expertise that is already in place.

    There is no serious reason to expect the Obama administration to try to run an expanded health care program any differently. The contracts will be bigger and more comprehensive but not different. And they will be contracts with private carriers.

    The bureaucracy will expand only insofar as it will take more work to draw up, advertise, and award the contracts. And that is largely what the Federal bureaucracy does already.

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  • Traci


    I have never written a comment in a chat room or a blog, but the state of my country and this administration has left me no choice. I am not a socialist, communist, democrat or republican I am an American. I was born with unalienable rights given to me by my founding fathers, who would be appalled at this administration and their misuse of power.

    How is it that when Cap and Trade was being reviewed by the House that 300 pages were added in the middle of the night? I watched that session and could not believe what I witnessed. How is it that now reporters are being screened and refused access to press conferences based on past questions and stories written about this President and administration? How is it that when the elderly and everyday folks, like myself complain about the Health Care Reform Bill, Bail Out Money, or anyone who does not agree with this administrations policies or proposals are called by the Democrats “Un-American or “Just Special Interest Groups”.

    You wanted to know about bureaucracies, in Cap and Trade there is a stipulation that all homes built must be up to California standards. That means that when someone wants to build a house it must comply with California’s building codes. There will be a government employed inspector to ensure that these standards are met. Also, if you go to sell your home a government inspector will come to your home and access weather it is energy efficient, and if not you will have to pay to bring it to this administrations standards and if not you cannot sell your home. You should perhaps read Cap and Trade and Health Care reform to obtain this information for yourself.

    I agree that this administration is making up positions as it goes along, to suit its’ agenda. Has there ever been a Diversity whatever before? How many Czars does this administration have?

    I think we are all missing one very important point. With big government comes bureaucracy and the more power and interference into our daily lives. Mark Lloyd has used the Venezuelan revolution as a great example of how to stifle the media and crate the desired outcome of the revolutionist. Is this who we want controlling our airways? If you do not like a show or what a reporter is saying change the channel. Do not take away the rights of American’s, do not take my liberty of free speech, which Mr. Lloyd deems as an over exaggerated right. This is not about equal opportunity or outcomes, but about taking away a right that was given to all Americans at the birth of this country. Remember the road to hell was paved with good intentions, but it was the road to hell none the less.