The Charm of Anticipated Success

by Tim Sommers

When people say they want equal opportunity, what do they really want? If what they want is whatever it is that the opportunity is an opportunity for, are they really interested in the opportunity at all? Or are they motivated by what de Tocqueville called “the charm of anticipated success”?

Well, there is at least one, quite profound thing, that people want when they say they want equal opportunity. They want to not be discriminated against. Of course, a theory of justice that was silent on all forms of discrimination would be, to use a technical term, bad. Kant defended nondiscrimination two-hundred twenty-nine years ago like this. “Every member of the commonwealth must be permitted to attain any degree of status…to which his talents, his industry, and his luck may bring him; and his fellows may not block his way by [appealing to] hereditary prerogatives.” (One problem is the way Kant keeps saying “his.” It raises the question what counts as a “prerogative.”) Believe it or not, Napoleon endorsed roughly the same idea and popularized this phrase for it: “La carrier est ouvérte aux talents” (careers open to talents).

For the sake of argument, I will assume that a plausible theory of justice says that everyone should have certain (i) basic liberties, the (ii) right to not be discriminated against or equal opportunity, and that in a just society (iii) the distribution of wealth should not be too unequal. Now let’s distinguish between formal equality of opportunity and substantive equality of opportunity.

Formal equality just means “treat like cases alike.” Formal equality of opportunity, as in U.S. Equal Protection law, works by forbidding the use of certain categorizations (prerogatives), mostly, race and gender, though it should include more. So, formal equality of opportunity, in practice, is formal equality plus a list of verboten categories. Personally, I think it makes more sense to include a “right not to be discriminated against” as a basic liberty called “freedom of opportunity” and drop equal opportunity altogether.

But this is precisely where the question of substantive equality of opportunity, or as John Rawls calls it, “fair equality of opportunity,” comes in. Fair equality of opportunity “tries to correct for [the defects of formal equality of opportunity] by adding the further condition…that positions are to be not only open in a formal sense, but [also] that all should have a fair chance to attain them.”

But what do we do to give everyone “a fair chance to attain them” beyond just forbidding certain kinds of discrimination? I think it becomes largely a matter of, what I will call, “institutional supports.” Education and health care are the big ones. But once we see the role of education and health care in opportunity, I think, there’s a natural tendency to want to expand the list of institutional supports necessary for equality of opportunity. What about child care, elder care, and provisioning for care in general? What about reproductive freedom? Rawls’ specifically mentions “freedom of movement” as a basic liberty and part of equality of opportunity. What about the infrastructure that provides for that mobility? Information is also a prerequisite for political liberty and equality of opportunity. What about the information infrastructure – from post offices and public libraries to the internet?

I think there’s a problem with the institutional part of substantive equality of opportunity – understood as formal equality of opportunity + forbidden categorizations + institutional supports. I call it this problem the “institutional support trap.”


(a) The institutional supports for fair equality of opportunity require the investment of social resources, including income and wealth.

(b) If the goal is equalizing opportunity, or making opportunity more and more fair, then every new investment of income and wealth will likely bring us at least marginally closer to the ideal.

(c) If fair equality of opportunity has priority over investing in other equality enhancing measures, then, as Richard Arenson puts it, “society is obligated to expend no resources at all to improve the holdings…of the worst-off members of society so long as these resources could be used instead to improve, even by the tiniest fraction” equality of opportunity.

Therefore, (d) (by b and c) We should always prefer to invest more in fair equality of opportunity, rather than in decreasing economic inequality overall.

Thus, (e) fair equality of opportunity will consume all our social resources and undermines any attempt for a more economically equal society.

This institutional support trap shows that equality of opportunity is the political equivalent of, what Robert Nozick called, a utility monster. Just as ““Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater gain in utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose”, since this implies “unacceptably…that we all be sacrificed in the monster’s maw,” so too, substantive equality of opportunity, consistently applied, is a monster that will limitlessly consume all of our resources.

One might take issue with (b). But consider what it means to deny that “every new investment of income and wealth will likely bring us at least marginally closer to the ideal.” That would commit you to the idea that there is some point after which further investments in education, health care, or other institutional supports for equal opportunity will no longer improve opportunity at all, even very marginally. I can’t see that. Still, here’s a weaker version of the principle. If the goal is equalizing opportunity, or making opportunity more and more fair, then new investments of income and wealth – well past the point of exhausting the social resources available – would likely still have brought us even closer to the ideal. The institutional trap is not literally sprung only where spending demands are unlimited, but where they are very likely to exceed the resources that we actually have to spend. Still, I haven’t proved this, so this is a good way to reject the argument.

Another issue is that the same sorts of investments as those that improve opportunity are often investments that improve economic equality overall, anyway. In that case, there’s no need to choose between equalizing opportunity and equalizing welfare. Again, I just assume that these two goals start to come apart when spending on opportunity exceeds a certain range. I could be wrong. I’ll leave it to you.

The issue I am more concerned about is that this might just seem like a pretentious version of the conservative argument that we can’t afford to spend so much on giving people opportunities. But that’s not my point, at all. I am assuming that we want a more equal society. It’s fair equality of opportunity that’s conservative, on my view.

What we should want is to make outcomes more equal – not opportunity. Antiegalitarians resist calls for equality via the ideology that if people have equal opportunity, then the outcome, whatever it is, is justified. For example, Jay Gould, a robber baron from the first gilded age, 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.” Egalitarians like Rawls say, people don’t really have opportunities fair in this sense, so let’s try and fix up opportunity to really make it more equal – and offer an egalitarian principle on the back end.* My point is that this fair opportunity is going to compete for resources with any substantive egalitarian principle. Instead, forget about trying to make equality equal. Make society more equal. Fight discrimination. And give everyone as large and diverse a set of opportunities as possible. What we really want when we want opportunity is whatever it is that the opportunity is an opportunity for. If we want an egalitarian society, we should be outcome egalitarians not opportunity egalitarians. The charm of anticipated success is a trap.


For more worries about equality of opportunity, see my, “What If Equality of Opportunity is a Bad Idea?”

*In fairness, I should mention that Rawls, in his last published work, expressed doubts that seem to have been along similar lines. “Some think,” he said, “that the lexical priority of fair equality of opportunity over the difference principle is too strong, and that either a weaker priority or a weaker form of the opportunity principle would be better, and indeed more in accord with fundamental ideas of justice as fairness itself. At present I do not know what is best here and simply register my uncertainty.”