post by Paul Kelleher
As a coda to Bill's post on equality of outcomes vs. equality of opportunity, I want to make two points about the ideal of equality of opportunity.
First, strictly speaking, a principle of equality of opportunity says only that opportunities must be equal; it does not and cannot evaluate the outcomes among which opportunity is to be equal. But many of us would not tolerate an "opportunity society" wherein every child had the same chances of either ending up in an obscenely affluent minority or in a very poorly off majority. If it is right to prefer greater equality of outcomes than this, then equality of opportunity cannot be the sole or the primary principle of distributive justice.
Second---and here I am just repeating Richard Arneson's insight---a principle of equality of opportunity presupposes a hierarchy of outcomes, access to which is to be equalized by giving everyone the same chances of achieving them. But if equality of opportunity presupposes a hierarchy of outcomes, what justifies allowing the hierarchy in the first place? Arneson's answer is that a hierarchy of outcomes is permitted on efficiency grounds: people will work hard to end up on top, and this makes everyone better off by improving productivity. Assume this is true. Arneson then asks: if the hierarchy is permitted for reasons of efficiency, what should we do if equalizing opportunity has costs in terms of efficiency? This could occur if equalizing opportunity required greater equality of outcomes (since unequal outcomes among parents can lead to unequal opportunities among children).
Arneson doubts that equality of opportunity has intrinsic value, since implementing it might well require policies that make everyone's lives worse (by reducing effort and productivity). An alternative position is that equality of opportunity has intrinsic value, but that its value must be traded off against the value of making the worst off in society as well off as possible. I have expressed related doubts about equality of opportunity and social mobility here.