The whole left-right political spectrum breaks down to near meaninglessness on any inspection. If, however, you hold your gaze from a restrained angle for an extended period of time you may be able to see an occasional pattern that holds for some, but not all, circumstances. One such pattern that I have been able to discern concerns the attitudes surrounding quality of opportunity and Meritocracy.
It seems these days that the Right fully advocates for Meritocracy but has the curious impression that we already have it. The Left, on the other hand, abhors the very idea of it.
If you doubt this consider the fact that a central tenet of Meritocracy is “Equal opportunities with unequal outcomes.” I grew up hearing that phrase from avowed Republicans. This was their mantra. The only trouble was that they assumed equal opportunity was already the situation.
Apparently, this worked a form of reverse psychology on the Left. Rather than demonstrating how opportunities were not equal, the Left has often taken the toxic route of disavowing the concept altogether. This was made explicit in an article written in Vox last year.
Dylan’s Case against Equality of Opportunity
The article’s title was decidedly click-bait: “The case against equality of opportunity”. Written by Dylan Matthew (one of Vox’s founders), the article argues that equality of opportunity is an impossible ideal and that it needs to be abandoned if we are to address real problems in our world. It lays out the following arguments. I will refute each in turn.
Equality of Opportunity = Totalitarianism
First, Dylan claims that a full implementation of equality of opportunity would require the use of totalitarian methods aimed to reduce everyone to the same level.
He presents the case of Megan Ellison (daughter of Oracle CEO, Larry Ellison) who inherited $2 billion and used it to finance her career. He mentions inheritance taxes as being the intuitive way to level the playing field and then dismisses them.
“. . . even if doing so would be politically impossible, and probably undesirable.”
Yes. That is all he had to say about the inheritance tax. He doesn’t even make the slightest attempt to demonstrate why this is “undesirable” or “dystopian” as he implies. He just takes it as a given. Here is a place that deserves a full attack, but I must resist because we haven’t even gotten to the meat of Dylan’s argument.
It turns out that the mentioning of Ms. Ellison was rather off-handed and only casually related to Dylan’s real argument. He sums it up as follows:
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“Equality of opportunity promises not just sufficient opportunities to all families, but equivalent ones.”
He then goes on to talk about how things like violin lessons, private schooling, nannies etc. would all have to go. Leaving aside the fact that some of these things do have to go, Dylan is taking equality of opportunity to the utmost extreme. Two can play at this game. Dylan Matthews is making the left-leaning case for equality of outcomes. With this in mind, consider the previous sentence with a slight difference:
“Equality of outcomes promises not just sufficient outcomes to all families, but equivalent ones.”
So, if they eat pork, you eat pork. If they live in a tent, you live in a tent. If they wear Nikes, you wear Nikes. If they bench 50 kg, you bench 50 kg. Examined from this angle, Dylan’s argument employs a double standard. Equality of opportunity must be examined in its most extreme form, but equality of outcomes gets a pass.
In all seriousness, no one is arguing that we level the playing field with laboratory precision. At least, not in the short-term. What is being argued is that the grossest manifestations of inequality be dealt with in the most expedient manner possible. Some obvious short-term targets are providing children with lousy parents opportunities away from the home, bettering the public school system, removing the profitability of dubious enterprises and, yes, taxing inheritance.
In any case, if we are going to take things to the utmost extreme the way Dylan does, equality of opportunity has no disadvantages relative to equality of outcome.
Equality of Opportunity = Regulated Parenting
Dylan’s second argument is more specific than his first. Here he argues that the “totalitarianism” discussed earlier would need to be applied to parenting practices.
He gives the example of two sets of parents. One couple is a pair of professional musicians, the others are computer programmers. The first teach their children violin, the second C++. According to Dylan, leveling the playing field would entail banning the teaching of both the violin and C++ because the violin children would be less employable relative to the programming children.
This argument fails on three counts. First, it assumes the most extreme form of equality. As mentioned earlier, if this standard were applied to his own camp, we’d run into a far worse problem. Second, it assumes that in a true Meritocracy, family would hold the same relevance as it does today. Third, by giving the family this relevance, it places the wishes of parents above the wishes of their children.
In regard to all three of these points, we look to a future in which families no longer hold the same relevance as they do today. This is a long-term goal, which is going to require enormous cultural changes. In the meantime, there are clear solutions for our current world. First, it should not be controversial to start moving children out of the homes of obviously lousy parents. Of course, institutions are very imperfect nowadays, but it shouldn’t be hard to find parents that are far worse than any institution. What we lack now is the will to criticise parents that are objectively awful. It is our quasi-religious attachment to negative liberty that holds us back.
After we develop the will to reproach abusive households, we can, over-time, make massive improvements in how institutions function. They can be improved. To what degree they improve can determine to what degree they are utilised. At the end of the day, we should have institutions raise children in a manner specifically tailored to the needs of the children and not the needs of the parents. That would be true freedom, where the child (within certain parameters) would be able to determine the future for which they would be best suited. As it currently stands, parents have that choice.
In presenting his argument, Dylan had the following to say:
“Equality of opportunity would make parenting choice a matter of public policy, to be regulated accordingly. It’s a deeply, deeply illiberal ideal.”
So, what about the child? What about their choice? If mommy has kids simply to use them as a welfare and child-support magnet, what say do the kids have in that? Are they merely cash cows if that’s what she regards them as? If they are raised by polygamous Mormons, should they be compelled to isolation in a cult merely on account of their parents’ choices?
Clearly, parenting choice should be a matter of public policy in some circumstances. To say otherwise would be to endorse the actions of the worst parents humanity has created. The trick is to decide what those circumstances are. I think an easy litmus test would be the following: Parenting choice ought to be a matter of public policy in any circumstance that public policy proves superior to parenting choice. That simple. As we perfect the state, parents slowly lose their influence. In the meantime, parents keep that influence so long as they are capable of doing a better job.
The way this plays out does not need to be all that frightening and heart-wrenching. We simply wait until we can get the institutionalised kids to out-perform the healthy suburban kids. At that point, the latter can start being given the same treatment as the institutionalised children. Parents, of course, maintain contact. They just lose their god-like influence over their children.
Equality of Opportunity = Unethical
In his third argument, Dylan argues that equality of opportunity would be unethical because it would necessarily cut out those people who lacked sufficient merit to pursue opportunities. He presents a clip from the film Good Will Hunting and talks about how the highly intelligent Will would be saved by equality of opportunity whilst his less gifted friend, Chuckie, would be left to rot.
What this argument misses is how much opportunity Will and Chuckie are already lacking. Living as members of the underclass, they have already missed out on opportunities to express their respective gifts. This is apparent in the fact that Will is only recently being allowed to use his talents. What might have Chuckie missed out on?
In any case, being a member of the underclass is not simply an outcome but a set of opportunities, in itself. Anyone who has been genuinely poor knows that poverty is not just a measure of how comfortable your life is. Poverty places restrictions on earning opportunities. For example, poverty often entails making tough choices between transportation, rent and utilities. Given how all three of these things are necessary to function, poverty can severely restrict your opportunity to acquire and maintain a decent job.
In Dylan’s defence, he is probably most familiar with the “equality of opportunity” championed by the Right, which has an enormous blind spot in this area. In any case, it is impossible to have any genuine equality of opportunity in circumstances where some people are forced to live as members of the underclass. It is situations like these where outcomes and opportunities get mixed up or unfairly relegated to one camp or the other. This causes some confusion. As it stands, not everyone who espouses equality of opportunity understands it in the way espoused by the Right.
If we were to take an extreme equality of outcome approach, on the other hand, Will Hunting would have no incentive to use his enormous gifts. It would be just the same for him to go on working menial jobs. This would be a disservice to society and his own potential. In the long run, this hurts everybody. To advocate Meritocracy is to make no bones about competition. People should be striving to be all they can be. It should be shocking that this is even considered controversial.
Equality of Opportunity doesn’t Work for Dumb People
One of Dylan’s more bizarre arguments points to inequalities in individual talent. He talks about lead poisoning, genetic differences and circumstantial impediments. All of this essentially amounts to “What if people just suck? What if they lack the ability to succeed?” Well, what do you think happens? They fail.
In all seriousness, failure does not have to be awful. You simply do the best you can and get something reasonable in return. As mentioned earlier, genuine poverty represents an impediment to opportunity, so some minimum standard of living is already called for. The Right does not always recognise this concept (sometimes they do), but it is fully understood in other quarters. The problem lies more in a no-questions asked system that makes no demands on people. I’m sorry Liberals, demands are necessary. They, of course, ought be imposed in proportion to the ability of the State to sensibly impose them. This is an art that ought to be perfected rather than dismissed on account of its imperfections.
Dylan expresses this argument partially in the following:
“This matters in practice. When specific parts of the government try to pursue equality of opportunity, they not only disadvantage people due to genetics, they also disadvantage them based on inequalities between families and neighbourhoods that the opportunity egalitarians haven’t stamped out yet.”
No kidding. What’s your solution? Our solution is to get to work on those inequalities between families and neighbourhoods (more by compensation than by “stamping out”). What’s yours? Would you instead be OK with having a lead poisoned individual operate on your heart? Perhaps nothing that extreme. Maybe just give them the same salary of a heart surgeon. In all seriousness, it is not enough to simply help people out. We also need to be ensuring we are getting the best we can from people.
What if Equal Opportunities are Squandered?
I’m following the headings given in Dylan’s article. He makes the same errors over and over again, so this rather forces some repetition. This next argument considers that someone may squander their opportunities. What then? Do we cut them lose?
Some of the more extreme members of the Right may say “yes”. I say “no”, and I already stated why. The goal is to maximise people’s potential. You give them all the best possible chance to succeed. This entails keeping the door open to the extant if it is feasible.
Incidentally, Dylan brings up basic income. As it happens, many on the Right (that he so despises) advocate for exactly this. Milton Friedman (a prominent free-market economist) supported a scheme he termed “negative income tax” for exactly this reason. You miss out on opportunities if you have serious financial impediments. Meritocracy is less inclined to this solution, but the principle remains.
Whatever the solution chosen to deal with the failures, Dylan is presenting a straw man. People are well-aware of this problem. This is not some problem that was overlooked until Dylan Matthews stepped in to enlighten us on what was missed.
How would you measure Equality of Opportunity?
Dylan’s next argument concerns how we would be able to determine if we were on the right track.
“Even if equality of opportunity were possible and desirable, we’d need a way to know if we were getting closer to it. As of 2015, we don’t have one.”
Yes, we do!
Apparently, Dylan is concerning himself with figures of the sort that would look good when presented by economists and would make good graphs on the evening news. We don’t need any of that.
We may or may not be able to measure equality in an absolute sense, but we certainly can measure it in a relative sense. Consider the following question: Was there greater or lesser equality of opportunity in Europe during the Middle Ages than today?
If you hesitated on that one, you are lost.
Of course, the Middle Ages were worse! The peasantry was bound to the land. State authorities achieved their posts by birthright. We don’t need charts and graphs to make that determination. We just need a little bit of sense. Certain practices and situations necessarily mean that opportunities are unequal. The trick is simply to identify these and eliminate them.
Inheritance is one such practice. Ditto abusive families. It is as simple as fixing these problems. We don’t need measures and goal posts, as such. We simply need to check if there is anything untoward in our society. This doesn’t need to be perfect. We simply target the issues that can be sensibly dealt with and deal with them. We don’t need to wait for laboratory precision to address those items which we know are problems. We simply deal with them as we identify them.
Equality of Opportunity is Missing the Boat
Dylan waits until the end of the article to make clear where his sympathies lie. According to him, equality of opportunity distracts us from the true goal. The true goal, according to Dylan, is humanitarian relief.
“I don’t want more job opportunities available to people without high school diplomas because it’s fairer . . . I want more opportunities . . . because I want their lives to be better.”
This clears things up enormously. All respect is due to this sentiment, but it should be noted that he appears to have some double-think going on here. In some places he refers to himself as an “outcome egalitarian” whilst here he makes it clear that egalitarianism is not his aim at all.
“Equality of opportunity is not the goal. The goal is a good life for all. We should settle for nothing less.”
On the surface, that is a laudable goal, but it misses a huge point.
A motivating factor behind equality of opportunity is that it gives people the incentive to exert themselves. When opportunity is capricious, this has a demoralising effect. Those lucky to receive more of it might “check their privilege” and feel guilt that impedes effort. Similarly, the unlucky ones may feel resentment or despair, neither of which are conducive to effort.
We want people to self-actualise. We don’t merely want them to achieve material well-being. We want them to have a sense of accomplishment. Equality of opportunity is very important in reaching this goal. It is not enough to simply make people comfortable. That is a perfect recipe for creating a race of pathetic human beings. We don’t want peevish, well-fed cattle living in air-conditioned homes with no ambitions to speak of. That’s a world of stasis, and it would be Hell on Earth. Look beyond that and seek more.
Jason Calhoughney writing for the Apollo Institute of Reason AIR Review©