Equality of Opportunity or of Outcome?

Equality of Opportunity or of Outcome? August 19, 2009

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

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