Friday, 11 April 2014

Equality of opportunity not equality of outcome

Recently when I was trying to avoid actually doing work I was wasting a fair bit of time on Facebook.  I have a strangely diverse group of friends on Facebook some of whom are right wing and some of whom are very left wing and it is always interesting to see the articles that people are sharing.

Recently one of the more right wing people put up a video from a US talk show (I think it was on Fox News) where they were espousing the view that in a fair and equitable society that we should all have equality of opportunity and that equality of outcome is actually inequitable because it does not reward effort and hard work.

I have to admit that at one basic level this is an incredibly tempting point of view - who of us has not hated paying taxes, especially when we see how some of it is wasted?  Especially when we see people mooching of the system and then wanting to tax us more even though we are working stupidly long hours and not really getting to where we want to get to.

However equality of opportunity is not as basic as you may think

The problem with the 'equality of opportunity' mantra that is often spouted by right wing pundits is that if you were truly interested in the 'fairness' of the system and making hard work and effort the primary determiner of outcomes and success you would be most interested in making sure that people started at the same point.

People start at different points and have different advantages and disadvantages due to not fault or skill of their own.  If you live in a first world country you already have so many advantages that others around the world do not have.  Then if you are lucky enough to be within a social structure that allows you all the possible opportunities you are most able to make your effort count.

If you are outside such social structures you are not
at the same starting point.  People who grow up in poverty, who have parents who are not interested in education, who are not exposed to opportunities and possibilities are not at the same starting point as those who have all these advantages.

Creating equality of opportunity requires far more intervention than you may think

People who typically espouse the equality of outcome are arguing for less intervention by governments and organisations.  They hate the idea of free education and health care.  They hate the idea of quotas and targeted scholarships because these are purportedly trying to create equalities of outcome rather than giving everyone the 'same chance'.

However this is illogical.  If the best education is reserved only for those who can afford it then the playing field is tilted from the start.  If a health complication can totally sideline one's life rather than just being a bump in the road the playing field is tilted. Government programs and single payer systems for things such as education and health care help level the playing field although the poverty cycle is really hard to break.

Money is not the only barrier to a 'fair playing field.  I confess that I have long been against the idea of quotas or preferential treatment for a sub-class of people - it makes it that much harder to compete if you are not in that sub class.  However upon further reflection, soft barriers are so much harder to break.  When there is a bias in things like hiring policies or glass ceilings for certain classes of people - we are tilting the playing field away from equality of opportunity.

I saw this first hand when I was involved in hiring for the investment bank that I worked for.  People were hired to fit a certain mould.  This mould was incredibly hard to fit if you weren't from a private school and then went to the best university.  People who typically didn't fit the mould (like me) tended to know in advance what the mould was that they had to pretend to fit into.

I do believe in equality of opportunity...but in its true form

In the end I agree with the statement that we should be striving to create equal opportunities not equal outcomes.  However this typically requires the type of intervention that right wing pundits hate.  A 'fair go' is one where your chances are not hampered or improved by your gender, race or sexual orientation.  Where it doesn't make a difference whether your parents did the best the could or didn't do anything at all.

Perhaps that's an idealistic world but it is one I wish we could live in.  I am a capitalist at heart but I don't mind a little government intervention to ensure that everyone has the chances and opportunities to make it in this world.

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