Equality of Opportunity No More Desirable Than Equality of Outcome

Equality of Opportunity No More Desirable Than Equality of Outcome February 24, 2008

When people talk about equality, they sometimes distinguish between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. Equality of outcome, it is said, is neither a possible nor desirable, and ought not be a goal of social policy. Rather, the state ought to focus on creating equality of opportunity, which, unlike equality of outcome, is supposed to be readily attainable without injustice. But if my reflections the other day on the nature of equality are correct, then equality of opportunity is no more desirable as a goal of social policy than is equality of outcome. The reason for this is explained quite eloquently by Theodore Dalrymple:

Equality of opportunity is a thoroughly nasty and totalitarian concept. It is the demand that no one should start (or continue) life with any advantages relative to another. But how could such a condition actually be achieved? Leaving aside genetic differences, which must persist until all hereditary endowments can be made precisely the same, and which for the time being must be accepted even though they are unfair (not unjust, although most people nowadays seem to have difficulty distinguishing between the two), the only way environmental factors affecting opportunities can be made equal is by social engineering on a scale that would make North Korea look like a paradise of laissez-faire.

Parents would have to be separated from their children at birth and re-united with them, if at all, only when the environment had had its lasting and irreversible effect; children would have all to be taught precisely the same things, in precisely the same fashion, by teachers of precisely the same level of competence (or more likely, incompetence). No parent would be permitted to leave anything to his children, and therefore one of the great motives for economic prudence would be vitiated. In short, equality of opportunity would mean, if it meant anything, equality of poverty, inhumanity and horror.

As with my comments about equality of material condition, the obvious question raised by Dalrymple’s arguments is: So what? Granting that absolute equality of opportunity could only be achieved through totalitarian means, given that no one proposes achieving this equality through such means, why should we be concerned about more modest efforts to reduce or eliminate unequal opportunities in our society? Dalrymple’s answer is that “[w]hile giving people equal opportunities is impossible, giving everyone, or at least the vast majority of people, a considerable level of opportunity is not impossible. And yet, often in the very name of equality of opportunity, we have created a society many of whose members have far fewer opportunities than they could and ought to have.”

The focus of social policy ought to be on increasing opportunity, not on increasing equality of opportunity, just as it should be focused on increasing the material conditions of the members of a society rather than simply the equality of material conditions. The goals of creating “more equality” and “more opportunity” may seem quite similar, but they are in fact sometimes diametrically opposed. The latter seeks to give to the poor the opportunities had by the rich, whereas the later can be achieved just as well holding the rich and middle classes back as by lifting the poor up. And if we forget this, we may find ourselves harming people in the name of a misguided ideal.

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  • Morning’s Minion

    You know, you seem to be slipping (consciously or not) into a Michael Novak-style attempt to justify an economic policy that either ignores redistrubution, or tilts it in the direction of the rich. That is more American than Catholic. As I said before, a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching is the universal destination of goods and the notion that material wealth must be shared between the classes– meaning, among other things, that the outcomes determined by a pure market system are not moral outcomes. One class is forbidden to exclude the other from sharing in the benefits- it’s simple. The Church speaks out in favor of distributive justice and the preferential option for the poor– which is not satisfied by telling the poor that they are better off than workers were 100 years ago, and that if they think it’s bad here, they should try North Korea. Read my posts on inequality to see what is really going on.

    I’ll leave the last word to John XXIII: “the economic prosperity of a nation is not so much its total assets in terms of wealth and property, as the equitable division and distribution of this wealth.”

  • We want to reward virtue, but at the same time there are things to which we are entitled because we are human persons. Simply increasing opportunity isn’t tantamount to improving the justice of our society.

  • Next you’ll be called a Calvinist 🙂

  • TeutonicTim

    “I’ll leave the last word to John XXIII: “the economic prosperity of a nation is not so much its total assets in terms of wealth and property, as the equitable division and distribution of this wealth.”

    I think the interpretation of equitable is where people differ. BlackAdder is right on. Don’t accuse him of not thinking this through because you think the Church calls us to be communists.

  • Policraticus

    I think the interpretation of equitable is where people differ. BlackAdder is right on. Don’t accuse him of not thinking this through because you think the Church calls us to be communists.

    Whether or not Blackadder is “right on,” I think you indirectly (and perhaps unintentionally) bring something important to the fore: the Church does not call us to “be communists.” Indeed, the very fabric of communism, no matter how it is cut, is indisputably at odds with the Catholic ethos. However, it does not follow that the Church is calling us to “be capitalists.” There are many, many socio-economic models that fall in between and outside the communist/capitalist divide, and with the imminent death of practical communism on the horizon, it is high time we begin to investigate these other models.

    One model that I find increasingly interesting and, perhaps, even hopeful is democratic socialism, which Pope Benedict XVI praises in his book Europe. Whatever may be the verdict on this model, we must remember that the capitalist/communist binomial that fueled popular American political thought from the 1960’s through the 1980’s is no more (though if you read anything by Michael Novak, you’d swear the Cold War is still going). I think those of us Catholics who really want responsible, rational discourse need to forego this binomial and think a bit harder and clearer.

    And many thanks to Blackadder for promoting a return to the Church’s social encyclicals. As many know, we have a whole host of them linked in our sidebar to the right…let’s get reading!

  • The Church calls us to community.

  • One class is forbidden to exclude the other from sharing in the benefits- it’s simple. The Church speaks out in favor of distributive justice and the preferential option for the poor– which is not satisfied by telling the poor that they are better off than workers were 100 years ago,

    Indeed. One class is forbidden from excluding the other from the benefits that result from its contribution to society. However, Blackadder did not write anything about a “preferentian option for the rich” in which the poor are excluded from their rightful benefits in society. Instead, the wrote about a leveling principle in which equality is seen as most easily reached by reducing the opportunities of those who are “more fortunate” in order to achieve a sort of forced “equality”.

    I recall about two years into my first job out of college driving off to a lunch with the head of the company (it was a 30 person, family-owned business) while said company president described to me how he believed that homeschooling and private schools were a bad idea. “Going to public school is one of those great American things,” he told me. “Everyone does it, rich and poor. I think it makes people distant from reality to not have to go to public school.”

    To which I thought: I’m riding in your BMW M5 riding to a lunch for the company which you inherited from your father and you’re telling me that I, the homeschool graduate, am the one with the unfair edge on the world?

    Now, it may well be that none of the resident re-distributors on this blog support that line of thinking, if only because they understand the religious value that homeschooling and religious schooling often have, but do not for a moment imagine that it not a view held by not a few in our society.

    There is a difference between arguing that lack of advantage or lack of economic means is a good thing and arguing that the state sponsored means for correcting said inequalities cause more harm than good. I have no difference with MM that reducing poverty and lack of opportunity is a great good. I do, however, have passionate differences with his embrace of the state as a means of correcting that good. And given the Church’s general preference for subsidiarity, I think one is on very good ground doing so.

  • Matt

    Politiliar,

    how many time are you going to trot out that single ambiguous line from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger? It holds no authority and it makes no declaration about the goodness of that system only identifies that it is closest in many respects. On the other hand many have posted numerous authoritative citations declaring that socialism (without qualification) is opposed to Catholic teaching because of it’s deification of the state. You’re just putting lipstick on the pig.

    God Bless,

    Matt

  • Policraticus

    Matt,

    Until you read the essay, which is marked by Ratzinger’s typical clarity and precision, I don’t think a response to your knee-jerk objection is worth my time. When you have read the essay, perhaps then we can pick up the conversation once more.

  • Is Ratzinger talking about the same democratic socialism that has effectively secularized Europe since its arrival during the French revolution?

    Another book I need to buy, Policraticus.

  • Policraticus

    Is Ratzinger talking about the same democratic socialism that has effectively secularized Europe since its arrival during the French revolution?

    No. He is speaking of democratic socialism in Europe as it developed after WWI. In the same essay, he actually mentions the secularization caused by the “free church” development in the United States and the problems caused by totalitarian socialism and its respective anthrolopology. Of all socio-economic models, democratic socialism is the only one that I have read Ratzinger speak of only in a positive manner. Captialism, marxism and totalitarian socialism have all received their fair share of criticism from the Pope. Hence, I’m interested in exploring democratic socialism (which Matt confuses with dehumanizing totalitarian socialism) more in light of Catholic social thought

  • T. Shaw

    Is “calvinist” a swear word among philosopher kings?

    Socialist justice teaching of the Church sounds to me like marxism.

    Forget about morality for a moment. Which economic theory/system has proven best at fostering economic development, growth and prosperity? It’s not any brand of socialism. You can have your beliefs and opinions, you cannot have your facts. Facts are facts.

    And, the democratic socialist of Western Europe are moving to free market capitalism. Most of their corporate and individual income tax rates are lower than in the avaricious US.

    I was praying this morning as I do each day. Then, I check my net worth, which I intend to redistribute to my children and grandchildren. Wished I owned more gold! Anyhow, this was revealed to me this morning in prayer: I am called to do charitable works (ME not we) and that is what I do.

  • Policraticus

    Forget about morality for a moment. Which economic theory/system has proven best at fostering economic development, growth and prosperity? It’s not any brand of socialism. You can have your beliefs and opinions, you cannot have your facts. Facts are facts.

    If you want to take a purely empirical approach to economics, jettisoning all ethics and focusing only on “development, growth and prosperity,” most historians and economists would tell you that 19th century slave America exhibited the most promise in these areas.

    And, by the way, the adaptation of “free market capitalism” contributed to the slipping from second world to third world for many of the Eastern European countries.

    Like in morality and religion, there is much more than meets the empirical eye in economics.

  • Blackadder

    Actually, I think most historians and economists would say that slavery is ultimately an economically retardant, not a vehicle for development (which is one of the reasons why the South tended to lag behind the rest of the country economically for so long). In fact, ironically enough the term “the dismal science” referring to economics stems from the fact that the classical economists opposed slavery and other sorts of racially discriminatory laws. I get your point, though, that one cannot judge an economic system purely from a technical point of view. Moral considerations have to be a part of the analysis.

    I’ve read the Ratzinger book in question. It is quite good, though the bit about democratic socialism is more of an aside than part of an extended analysis. For anyone who is interested, the essay in question was published in First Things, and is well worth people’s time:

    http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=70

  • Blackadder

    Oh, and Matt, stop calling Policraticus “Politiliar.” It’s childish and rude.

  • Blackadder

    Morning’s Minion,

    I actually haven’t read much of Novak, so if I’m saying something similar to him, it is unintentional (not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld might say). I assure you that the inspiration for these posts is not Novak but Anscombe.

  • Policraticus

    Blackadder,

    Thanks for the link! I’m glad it is available online. Having read all of the Pope’s socio-political books/essays available in English, I can say without hesitation that he holds a very positive view of democratic socialism. Other works that can give a good background on this specific question are:

    Truth and Tolerance
    Spe Salvi
    Values in a Time of Upheaval
    Turning Point for Europe?

    There are a number of other works in English where the Pope explores political issues, but these that I have mentioned directly address the question of capitalism, Marxism and socialism.

  • Politi-liar?

    That’s a cool name for politicians 🙂

  • Blackadder

    Policraticus,

    Pope Benedict definitely has a positive opinion of democratic socialism, on that there is no doubt. I wouldn’t dream of saying that democratic socialism isn’t a legitimate option for Catholics to take, any more than I would say that capitalism isn’t a legitimate option. The central question is which system actually does a better job of delivering on its promises to serve the common good.

  • Blackadder, that’s a great way to put the question.

  • Policraticus

    The central question is which system actually does a better job of delivering on its promises to serve the common good.

    Blackadder, that’s a great way to put the question.

    This is exactly right. A complex question, no doubt, and one that will need to be investigated with more than a merely empirical methodology. I think we can all agree that the ideologies also must be analyzed, critiqued, completed and, if necessary, banished.

    This why I love reading Ratzinger’s social thought. His analysis is always a very balanced empirical/ideological critique.

  • Eddie

    I thought the ‘dismal science’ moniker came about due to the influence of Malthus, but I’m open to correction on the point.

  • Eddie

    Update: Looks BA was right about the origin of the term: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dismal_Science