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Equality of Opportunity:  A Goal or Problem?

An article donated by Alton C. Thompson

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Equality of opportunity is a state of fairness in which job applicants are treated similarly, unhampered by artificial barriers or prejudices or preferences, except when particular distinctions can be explicitly justified. The intent is that the important jobs in an organization should go to the people who are most qualified – persons most likely to perform ably in a given task – and not go to persons for reasons deemed arbitrary or irrelevant, such as circumstances of birth, upbringing, having well-connected relatives or friends, 1 religion, sex,[3] ethnicity,[3] race, caste,[4] or involuntary personal attributes such as disability, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation.[4][5].

Although this seems to be a desirable goal, a case has been made against it:

Everyone wants equality of opportunity.  It is not a subject of political debate, but the precondition of political debate.  Promises to achieve equality of opportunity, like promises to create jobs or protect America abroad, are the white noise of campaign season, drawing neither notice nor challenge.  Respected think tanks like the Brookings Institution establish entire projects devoted to figuring out how to advance equality of opportunity.  Raj Chetty and Emmanuel Saez, two of the best microeconomists of their generation, have joined forces to start the Equality of Opportunity Project, which is meant to produce hard numbers about opportunity across time and across regions.  Huge amounts of time, money, and intellectual effort are devoted to this idea, that a just world is one in which opportunity is equal, even if outcomes aren't.

The article continues:

The only problem?  No one really wants equality of opportunity, nor anything close to it.  Nor should they.  Pursuing true equality of opportunity would require turning America into a dystopian, totalitarian nightmare — and even then, it would still prove impossible.

Moreover, equality of opportunity is simply a bad goal.  It assumes that life is a zero-sum competition for wealth and status, that the most important thing is ensuring that only the smartest and hardest-working among us end up the victors.  It assumes there will always be an underclass; it just wants to reserve membership for those who truly deserve it.

What I would add to the above is that belief in equality of opportunity not only “assumes there will always be an underclass,” but tacitly assumes that inequality must exist in any society.  This shows ignorance about hunter-gatherer groups, our ancestors, but ignorance about the problems created by inequality.  The Cato Institute, with its fixation on “freedom,” may claim that “many of the most common beliefs about the issue [of inequality] are based on misperceptions and falsehoods,” but its arguments are of an ideological nature, rather than empiricalKate Pickett and Richard G. Wilkinson, in contrast, have presented empirical evidence regarding the harms that can be attributed to inequality in their Unhealthy Societies:  The Afflictions of Unequal Societies ( 1996, authored just by Wilkinson),  The Spirit Level:  Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better , published in 2010; and their more recent (2019) The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone's Well-Being.   

The Inner Level examines a society that has dealt with 10 years of austerity, and seen almost every family impacted by stagnant wages, increased job insecurity, swingeing cuts and changes to the benefits system and public services nationally and locally, as well as a surge in problems with mental health across society.  “It takes a whole argument and evidence about the effects of inequality to a deeper and more intimate level.  In The Spirit Level we were dealing with things about society ‘out there’ – the size of the prison population, homicide rates, obesity rates and so on.  But this takes it into the sphere of our social fears and anxieties,” Wilkinson says.  “Worries about self worth: all the things that make social contact sometimes seem rather awkward and stressful.  Your fears about self presentation and so on are all exacerbated by inequality.”

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As one who is concerned about the global warming now occurring, I find it of interest that global warming is increasing inequality.  Of more relevance for this essay, however, is this statement:

Global warming is all about inequality, both in who will suffer most its effects and in who created the problem in the first place. 

The article continues:

Regarding bargaining positions in the Kyoto round of negotiations, two factions among rich nations and at least five distinct bargaining positions among poor nations are described and explained.  The factional divisions are attributable to the differential influence of "polluting elites" across nations.  The article concludes that the only way out of the conundrum of inequity and warming is by both addressing inequality and delinking carbon and development. 

That article is concerned with inter-societal comparison, but I suspect that at the intra-societal level it’s also the case that that existing inequality acts as a cause of global warming!  I haven’t been able to find any articles that argue that point, but the historical developments that have occurred since our “worst mistake,” during the Neolithic, have “featured” hierarchy and inequality, and it’s those “features” of society that have enabled those developments—the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation activities, and growth of a huge world population—that have caused global warming, and are now causing it.  

Given that fact, an “obvious” way to fight global warming would be to start moving our society in a more egalitarian direction.  That won’t happen, of course!  So that our species is likely to soon join the 1,000,000 other species on the verge of extinction!

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Originally added to this web site on 2020-JUN-28.
Alton C. Thompson

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