What if Equality of Opportunity is a Bad Idea?

by Tim Sommers

In the first scene of the first episode of “The Wire”, McNulty asks the Corner Boy who witnessed the murder of his friend “Snotboogie”, for stealing the money from the pot in a crap game, why they let Snotboogie play, since he always tried to steal the money. The Corner Boy replies, “Got to. This is America, Man.”

This is America. Everybody gets to play. More than that, everybody gets an equal, or at least a fair, shot. Everybody deserves equal opportunity. Justice itself demands that we strive for equality of fair opportunity. Right?

I’m not sure. But I think not. I think equality of opportunity is a bad idea – all the worse because it seems so obviously like a good idea.

But how can one deny that we should strive for equality of fair opportunity? Here’s one way. If you think property rights override everything else, and you always have the right to do what you will with your property no matter what; then it follows that you don’t have to hire gay people if you don’t want to and you don’t have to serve people of color at your restaurant if you don’t want to. This is how Rand Paul, who fancies himself a libertarian, got in trouble – questioning the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I have no sympathy for this way of being against equal opportunity. Of course, nondiscrimination, what is often called “formal” equality of opportunity, is a requirement of justice. I just don’t think we should call that equal opportunity. I would prefer that we treat the right not to be discriminated against as a basic liberty on par with free speech or the right to vote – maybe, even as part of, or an extension, of equality before the law.

What I’m against is what is often called “substantive” equality of opportunity, the idea that people have, not just a right not to be discriminated against, but a right to an equal chance to occupy any social role in the basic social structure of a just society. Again, it seems like a good idea – until you try to pin it down. I don’t have any single, knockdown argument to offer here. Anyway, as Robert Nozick, once said no argument breaks down your front door and slaps the glasses off your face. But I will enumerate some of the problems with equal opportunity that are increasingly pushing me towards the idea that equality of opportunity is not, after all, something we should think of as essential to justice. I will try to keep these short and (I hope) sharp.

(1.) Equality of opportunity is inherently conservative.

As John Scharr has written, “No policy formula is better designed to fortify the dominant institutions, values, and end of the American social order than the formula of equality of opportunity, for it offers everyone a fair an equal chance to find a place within that order.” Giving everyone an equal shot at filling existing social roles means that, to some extent, we must hold these roles constant. If we think that the social order needs a substantial overhaul, how do we square that with giving everybody the same shot at filling the already existing roles?

(2) Equality of opportunity is impossible.

Even while defending “fair equality of opportunity”, John Rawls acknowledged, in his seminal theory of contemporary, liberal justice that the existence of the family made equal opportunity literally impossible. This was not news to people in the know. Plato had argued in “The Republic” that the family should be abolished for the sake of justice. But, of course, contemporary liberals don’t want to argue that we should abolish the family. They say that even if equal opportunity is impossible, we should still strive for it. After all, even if you can’t achieve a desirable goal you should still just try to come as close as possible to it, right?

But that’s not obvious. Suppose you coach a little league team and initially all the participants agree that what they want most is to win the local little league championship – even if that means some players get to play a lot more than others. Suppose then you are presented an utterly convincing reason to believe that it is literally impossible for your team to win that championship. It’s not obvious that you should then just proceed to try and come as close as possible to winning it. In fact, one might conclude that, given that that goal is impossible, you should adopt some other goal entirely; for example, maybe, you should try to let everyone have as much playing time as possible. In other words, if we all acknowledge that equal opportunity is impossible, maybe, we ought to be looking for an alternative.

(3) Equal opportunity is ill-defined.

As Nozick put it, life is not a race. There’s no single starting place and no single finish line. Life is not even a bunch of races that we can aggregate into one race. In “Bottlenecks”, Joseph Fishkin rejects what he calls the “starting gate” theory of equal opportunity. He’s against prioritizing certain starting points (for example, college admission) over others and then trying to look backwards to whether everyone in that particular race had the same start. What people want is opportunities, and lots of them, and they don’t necessarily need every particular opportunity to be equal. The starting gate theory creates bottlenecks, or choke points, where so many people get stuck. We should stop putting all our effort into judging who gets through the bottlenecks and focus instead on offering alternative routes and bridges for people to get what they want. Why? Because…

(4) People want more opportunities – not necessarily equal ones.

Alexis de Tocqueville thought that the key to America’s self-definition, to its obsession with opportunity for all, was with “the charm of anticipated success”. After all, the one thing people want more than an opportunity is whatever the opportunity is an opportunity to get. But…

(5.) Asking for equality of opportunity is a bad political strategy.

In Claire Goldstene’s “The Struggle for America’s Promise: Equal Opportunity at the Dawn of Corporate Capital”, she surveys the social role of equal opportunity in the gilded age from Booker T. Washington, to the Knights of labor, and beyond, and discovers that equality of opportunity is a political loser. Why? Railroad tycoon Jay Gould said that “generally if men are temperate and industrious they are pretty sure of success…every man has to stand here on his own individual merits.” Asked if a coal miner has such an aspiration, he replied “Is he a man?”

Equal opportunity is a double-edged sword. If the socially disadvantaged build a political program around demanding equal opportunity, it’s always possible for the social winners to argue that, really, they already have it – they’re just lazy.

As preposterous as it is for a tycoon to compare himself to a miner, this has always been the straight-faced reply of economic power to any political program built on the sand of a demand for opportunity. In politics, you should demand what you want, not an opportunity to get what you want.

(6.) Equal opportunity has a merit problem.

Equal opportunity may, or may not, be, in practice, the same thing as “meritocracy”. In either case, it has many of the same problems. I’ll just mention two.

The significance of “merit” stands or falls with the scarcity of talent. If you don’t think the average CEO in America is 361 times more talented and industrious than his or her average employee, then we already have a problem.

Add to that “the iron law of meritocracy”: inevitably and eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will be large enough to subvert the social mechanisms that make equality of opportunity possible. In practice, meritocracy leads to oligarchy. Even if you don’t mind, the tyranny of the talented, just wait, it will become the tyranny of the talented’s children.

(7.) Equal opportunity is a conspiracy by HR departments to take over the world.

“Not a single sentence remains from the corporate personnel manual of 1960. Firms have changed how they recruit, hire, discipline, evaluate, compensate, and fire workers”, Frank Dobbin says in “Inventing Equal Opportunity”. This is not because of the civil rights or feminist movements, its not because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, nor is it because of the reaction of the Courts or Congress to any of that. Dobbin shows that it’s corporations, and more specifically, the HR departments of American largest corporations and defense contractors, that invented equal opportunity, such as it actually is, in America. Because the equal opportunity agenda was left so ill-defined in law and public policy “personnel experts . . . concocted equal opportunity programs and later diversity management programs . . . ” to fit their own agenda and expand the power (and staff) of HR departments everywhere and to “rationalize” changes they had aimed at already and for other reasons.

Don’t get me wrong. Much of this may be, or may have been, for the good. And HR departments are probably not really trying to take over the world. But I suspect it will dampen your enthusiasm for equal opportunity as it is currently, actually practiced, once you know where much of it really comes from.

(8.) Equality of opportunity inevitably competes with other concerns of justice.

It’s not as flashy, but here’s my real beef with equality of opportunity. I am an egalitarian liberal. I think that the present distribution of income and wealth is incompatible with justice. Forget, just for the sake of argument, what precisely the just distribution of income and wealth would be or how we would achieve it without violating people’s rights and liberties. Just accept, for the moment, that we are after a fairer distribution of wealth, whatever that is, and that we want to achieve it without violating other principles of justice. Policies that attempt to do so inevitably come into conflict with equal opportunity. Maybe, so much the worse for such policies. But, maybe, so much the worse for equal opportunity.

But why should there be a conflict at all? Let’s just look at one example. One thing that almost everyone thinks is required to achieve substantive equal opportunity is expending more resources to send everyone to college. But what if I don’t want to go to college? Assuming that colleges should and will always play the role they play now is an example of (1) – how equal opportunity is conservative. More to the point, though, how much money are we supposed to spend on this goal (that I don’t necessarily share)? If you are going to continue to spend money until you achieve equal opportunity for all, you are still never going to get there. Remember, (2) equal opportunity is impossible. There is always going to be more that you could spend to help people be better educated to better complete for existing social roles. And equal opportunity is not just impossible, but (3) ill-defined. How do we know how much of the social surplus we should divert from a fair distribution of wealth to continuously trying to achieve exactly how much of what kind of fair opportunity.? Especially since (4) what people want is what the opportunity is an opportunity for and (5) a political program that asks for less is a loser – as is, (6) meritocracy.

To the extent that equal opportunity competes with other egalitarian social and political goals, I say, forget about equal opportunity. Better a society with more equal outcomes, than a society with more equal opportunities.