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Forum: Is "Equal Opportunity" the Wrong Goal?

The last decade has delivered increasingly bleak portraits of vast inequalities in income, wealth, health, and other measures of well-being in many rich capitalist countries, from the United States to the United Kingdom. What should we do about them?

One common response is to argue that inequalities are only a problem to the extent that they reflect unequal opportunities. Economist Jared Bernstein—a longtime advisor to Joe Biden, now a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers—expressed this view clearly in 2014 when he stated, “Opportunity and mobility are the right things to be talking about. . . . We always have inequality, and in America we’re not that upset about inequality of outcomes. But we are upset about inequality of opportunity.” Accordingly, in his first executive order as president, Biden proclaimed that “equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy.” For his part, British Labour leader Keir Starmer has stated his party’s aim should be to “pull down obstacles that limit opportunities and talent.” And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has intoned that in Canada, where I live, “no matter who you are . . . you have every opportunity to live your life to its fullest potential.”

These statements are typical. In much of the West the tendency is to see equality as a matter of fairly distributed opportunities and to view an interest in outcomes as unreasonable, naïve, or even authoritarian. A similar focus on equality of opportunity is evident in the dominant strain of political philosophy in the Anglo-American world, liberal egalitarianism. In short, the prevailing political common sense tends to converge on the assumption that our egalitarian aspirations are realized once we have ensured equality of opportunity.

I think this view is seriously mistaken. Opportunity talk—and a host of ideas associated with it, including flawed conceptions of freedom, choice, and personal responsibility—plays far too central a role in our discussions of equality, poorly serving the egalitarian ideal and leaving a lot of inequality untouched. An egalitarian society should not shy away from a concern with outcomes, I will argue. Its goal must be that people live equally flourishing lives, not merely that they have the opportunity to do so.

The concept of flourishing, prominent in the socialist tradition, directs us to a more generous, substantive, and far-reaching egalitarianism. We care about inequality, this perspective stresses, because of its effects on people—not, or not only, because it violates an abstract principle of justice—and we lose interest in problems of inequality if the putatively unequal are doing equally well in their quality of life. Amartya Sen asked the classic question “equality of what?”—what is it, exactly, that egalitarians seek to equalize? The answer is flourishing, since whatever policies or principles we adopt, it is flourishing that we hope will be made more equal as a result of our endeavors.

At a moment of broad awareness of grave inequalities in our societies and eagerness to do something about it, it is essential to recognize that equality requires a focus on outcomes, not mere opportunities.

The idea of equality of opportunity has played an important though complex role in progressive thought. As British historian Ben Jackson has noted, the notion “has a consensual and uncontroversial connotation” yet it is also “an exceptionally malleable concept, susceptible to an extraordinary range of interpretations.” The radical left has often harbored an antipathy to the idea, viewing it as empty rhetoric in the face of persisting class inequality. Liberalism, by contrast, has long been dominated by a focus on equality of opportunity, though its meaning has evolved over time.

On one interpretation, the idea simply means that social barriers—racism or sexism, for example—should be eliminated in the competition for scarce and desirable positions. This is the meaning of equal opportunity instantiated in charters of rights that outlaw discrimination by the state and in a range of human rights policies that prohibit discrimination on the part of employers, landlords, and colleagues. From this perspective, the paradigmatic expression of equality of opportunity is something like the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964. Hence the well-known American expression “we are an equal opportunity employer.”

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Read entire article at Boston Review