Why equality of opportunity is neither possible nor desirable

Most of us can’t bend it like Beckham, for various reasons. But is that necessarily the worst thing? Reuters/Ben Nelms

The dominant Western idea of equality opposes caste systems but not hierarchy. As American political philosopher Richard Arneson says:

When equality of opportunity prevails, the assignment of places in the hierarchy is determined by some form of competitive process, and all members of society are eligible to compete on equal terms.

This idea is supported by Australia’s Labor and Liberal parties and captured by the beloved “fair go” slogan.

But this ideal is not possible – nor is it desirable.

Formal equality of opportunity

One understanding of equality of opportunity is that it only requires legal equality, which is realised when everyone is treated equally before the law. This is referred to as formal equality of opportunity.

British philosopher Bernard Williams offered a useful rejoinder to this claim. He asks us to think of a society comprised of two groups, A and B. Group A has enjoyed long-standing unfair advantages and consequently its members hold most positions of power and prestige. Thankfully, egalitarian reformers see the injustice of this and change the law to ensure open competition for all positions of influence.

Williams suggests that members of group A will continue to dominate because they still have massive advantages due to their previous legal – and current social and economic – privileges. Formal equality of opportunity might solve one problem – if we assume financial clout does not provide any legal advantage – but it leaves many others unaddressed.

As Arneson says:

The ideal of formal equality of opportunity has limited scope. Its sphere of application is public life, not private life.

Substantive equality of opportunity

It seems, therefore, that equality of opportunity requires state intervention in our private lives to make sure that the children of our most disadvantaged citizens have the same opportunities as the children of Kerry Packer.

The chances of achieving this look grim. There is relatively little long-range intergenerational mobility in many countries. So, we have a fair way to go to get to a “fair go”.

To fully achieve equality of opportunity would require something along the lines of Plato’s Republic, where children are removed from their parents and raised communally. Such a system provides the same conditions for all to ensure a true meritocracy.

One reason to oppose this is the likely psychological damage to children. Another reason is that too much personal liberty would have to be sacrificed to the requirements of equality of opportunity. One might argue, as famed political philosopher John Rawls did, that equality of opportunity can only take place once liberty is secured against such procedures. But this amendment seems to give up on the idea that each person really will have the same set of opportunities.

Rather than hold on to the idea of equality of opportunity, it might be more accurate to say that we don’t really support it because it comes at too high a price.

But let’s put these difficulties aside and assume that it is possible to have a society where each person has the same opportunities without having to undertake such drastic measures. We will still need a drastic rethink on how we distribute housing, education, health care, recreational activities and many other things to get close to the ideal.

Such a dialogue would be welcome, but would equality of opportunity then be desirable?

Natural endowments

Equality of opportunity necessarily leads to inequality once everyone has the same set of opportunities. These inequalities are supposedly justified because they arise solely from the talent and hard work of the individual.

This raises a different and intractable problem. What do we do about many of our talents being just as arbitrary as our class, race and gender – which are rightly deemed to be unacceptable sources of inequality? There seems no good reason why a person should benefit from the natural lottery rather than the social lottery.

Perhaps inequality is permissible if it results purely from hard work. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to parse out what is the result of environmental and genetic luck and what is the result of a healthy work ethic – which is also, in part, a feature of the natural lottery. Most of us will never bend it like Beckham no matter how hard we try.

And as for making large amounts of money playing football, Beckham was very lucky to have been born male.

We would be unable to decide what people deserve in Plato’s community, where each child starts from the same position, let alone in our own society where children begin from very different starting points. When an idea asks for the impossible it might be time to reconsider and start thinking of equality in terms of outcomes rather than opportunities.