A Modern Debate: Equality Of Opportunity vs. Equality Of Outcome

A hotly contested political debate occurring is about the eternally powerful concept of equality. This debate conjures up many mental images. These images range from The Founding Fathers and their views on equality, to celebrities and athletes who espouse equality ideals, to modern Marxists who claim that the goal of a totally equal society is still possible and desirable. Yet…as with many philosophical ideas, equality lies within the eye of the beholder. This is why the current debate is so strong.

In a nutshell, a difference of opinion exists as to whether it’s better to have equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome. This is where the debate gets intense. Basically, those who believe in a strong market-based economy tend to favor building a society that has a certain measure of equality of opportunity. In line with this is the assumption that its not in society’s interest to dictate who succeeds the most in life. On the other end of the spectrum are those who say that creating equality of opportunity is difficult at best. They claim that systemic limitations place certain groups at a disadvantage and that government needs to work at creating equality of outcome for them. Basically, many Republicans and Libertarians are in favor of a society that works to maintain equality of opportunity. On the other side, many Democrats and Socialists are in favor of a society that works to create equality of outcome.

On a common sense level, its obvious that creating a society where everyone has equal opportunity to achieve equal outcomes is difficult to achieve. After all, even in communist societies there are powerful members of the communist party that have opportunities for success ordinary citizens don’t. As a result, the outcomes in a communist society are not as equal as leaders advertise. Therefore, even in countries that verbally place total equality as a goal, the actual attainment of the goal proves hard to achieve.

The end of the Cold War and breakup of the Soviet Union ushered in recognition that attaining total equality of both opportunity and outcome was no longer possible. This recognition influenced communist countries like China to adopt free-market ideas into their economy. As a result, China now has a dynamic economy. The abandonment by China of seeking total equality taps into the psychological belief that people are not as bothered by inequality as previously thought. This is because many people value having individual freedom instead of creating a totally equal society. 

One of the difficulties encountered in communist countries is that to achieve total equality they need tight control on most economic activity. As a result, economic production in communist countries is often weak due to the high level of control the government exerts. And subsequently, the low level of economic activity in these countries often has a detrimental impact on the lives of everyday citizens. The day-to-day struggles of those currently living in North Korea and Venezuela are examples of communist countries that have sacrificed economic progress in the name of creating total equality.

If total equality has been difficult to achieve, then why does it still have such a pull on the psyche? And in addition, why do so many in all walks of life talk about it in various ways? Part of the explanation for this is the fact that its been proven in many countries that having a certain amount of equality has created a more fair society. Therefore, human nature being what it is, the question of balancing out equality issues with other factors can sometimes be downplayed. The reasoning with equality is that if a moderate amount has been helpful, then increasing that amount will improve things more. Unfortunately, pushing for total equality often throws many things out of balance and can lead to tyranny.

In countries with a strong free-market such as America, many believe that equality of opportunity creates a dynamic society that benefits all in the long run. When this respect for equality of opportunity is coupled with the fact Americans enjoy a high amount of personal freedom, it explains how American history is full of stories of many who charted their own course and achieved much in their lifetimes.

As for the idea of trying to guarantee a certain amount of equality of outcome for those who’ve been at a disadvantage, it’s hard to say this is wrong. After all, it’s been shown that when judiciously applied, affirmative action has helped certain groups achieve a level of success they may not have achieved otherwise.

However…in fairness to those who now feel they’ve been victims of reverse discrimination, it’s important that qualifications for advancement be based on merit as much as possible. After all, many are concerned that a new kind of reverse discrimination could evolve unwittingly in the future out of the good intentions of trying to improve those discriminated against in the past.

Although the debate between the merits of equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome will endure, the concept of ensuring a basic level of equality and fairness has proven to be eternal. The nature of the equality debate mostly revolves around how much equality is practical economically, and whether a loss of personal freedom is worth creating a totally equal society.

Historically, America represented one of the strongest breaks from the monarchical form of government. In this sense, America’s respect for equality of opportunity, whereby the old class structures of the monarchy were swept away, helped inspire many other countries to find the strength to give democracy a try. For this, we all should be eternally grateful.

 

 

 

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51 thoughts on “A Modern Debate: Equality Of Opportunity vs. Equality Of Outcome

  1. Perry great topic, lots to talk about. As you well point out, the ideal of equality pulls at our collective psyche. However you are passing along the idea that outcomes are the ends themselves. Outcomes are merely a means of measure not the means to an end. E.g. you have two boys, one from This zip code one from That. This one has a trust fund, That one does not. This one gets into a good school, good job, health care and has a longer life expectancy, That one does not. The outcomes, inform us that there is a disparity of opportunities.
    It is an assumptive leap to presume both boys must have identical assets for them to have the same opportunities. But it is fair to control some environmental variables in order to make valid comparisons. So, let’s increase the taxes on This zip code to improve the schools, fund community policing or invest in economic development in That zip code, so they are both safe to inhabit and do business.
    By enforcing a progressive tax system, some will say you’re re-distributing wealth by taking This kids birthright inheritance and giving it to That kid.
    Others will say we are simply leveling the playing field by making That zip code as safe as This one. And you are right. This, re-distribution has been successful, in other countries, not ours. And still, the world views the U.S. as having more opportunities than these more egalitarian ones. We can argue the fairness of taxes and the promotion of equal environmental health and safety, but the ideal of equal opportunity gets impugned by such confabulations.
    This is a difficult subject as James Madison observes,
    “The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests”.
    The poor are poor because they lack thrift, not opportunity.
    Even with absolute equal opportunity, you’ll still have kids that lack the thrift and drive to get ahead. That should not be a pretext to bias against entire cultures and classes, create and enforce slums, let alone gerrymander districts or restrict voting rights.
    We should stay focused and ask how can we guarantee equal opportunity through equal representation? If money according to Citizens United ruling, is speech, then rich zip codes get heard, poor zip codes do not. That does not sound like equal opportunity and will no doubt lead to imbalanced outcomes.
    Love your work Keep at it!

    1. Thx again for the well-thought out comment Tom + I look forward to meeting up w ya soon!

      Yeah, this is a particularly difficult + in a sense, almost abstract concept. And yes, although total equality of outcomes has been shown to be almost totally impossible, it does behoove us as you say to pay attention to the fact that the deck may be stacked so strongly against some folks.

      Personally, I’m of the school that believes in offering a hand-up to others who sincerely are in need. Having said that, I am also a firm believer in the power of personal industry. These combination of traits are what cause some to label me a JFK Democrat-a liberal of the old school. 🙂

      In line with the hand up philosophy, I totally recognize that its extremely hard to pull oneself up from the bootstraps if one is without boots. Therefore, as you allude to, a moderate amount of energy needs to be given to making sure that equality of opportunity is attended to in ways that give fair outcomes.

      For example, many of us feel that the funding of public schools could be done in a bit more equitable way. And yes, a certain degree of affirmative action has been known to help.

      However, having said all that, I do believe that the power not only of American democracy, but many democracies, lies in the fact that each of us has a right + duty to develop our special talents to their greatest potential. And yes, although many of us will not achieve the dizzying level of success that others may, its up to each of us to try to enjoy the journey that we are on with our family, friends, community, + subcultures. Therefore, I also do recognize, as Republicans + Libertarians do, that pushing for total equality of outcomes is not as desirable as many think.

      Thx for the insights Tom + thx for bringing up the very powerful eternal concept that the poor are not always poor due to lack of thrift. Lets keep dialoguing on this!

  2. Those on the Left want equality of outcome, which sets us all at a state of equal misery. Those on the Right and people who identify as libertarian want equality of opportunity.

    1. Hi Ragnar,

      Yeah…seeking total equality of outcome seems to create a static society. Keeping an eye to a certain sense of fairness of outcome, when coupled w equality of opportunity, seems a more moderate + reasonable approach.

      I’m glad that I discovered your blog Ragnar!

      1. Hey Ragnar…I think the hottest peppers I’ve eaten would have to be serranno + jalapeño peppers in hot sauces + salsas. When I was younger I loved real hot food. 🙂

  3. Another great, intriguing post. It’s interesting that this subject came up at the men’s group at my church yesterday, when the topic was “justice.” At one point, I espoused my feeling that a focus on “equality of outcome” has created an overall work force that is much less effective than that which would developed had we not become so concerned with making the force “appear to be equal.” That is, had we been more concerned with simply placing the most qualified person in the appropriate position, rather than being concerned with distributing gender and race “equally” across the board, our industry would naturally be more effective. I even used the word “tokenism” when I made my statement (a word not often heard these days).

    At that, it seemed to me that a few of the men looked at me as though I were an unenlightened, uninformed reactionary. What ensued was a discussion involving all kinds of terminology, statistics, and other forms of detail that got me to thinking that some in the group were failing to see the forest for the trees.

    Not being a particularly politically savvy individual, it is possible that I oversimplify matters. But I can’t help but feel, as a Christian, that each of us has been granted a specific, divinely drafted design that should logically lead to our finding out own niche in society if given the opportunity to do so. I also believe in God’s soveriegnty, and that He will engage the fulfillment of our individual destinies if we seek His will, and put Him first. Having those beliefs, it would not be consistent of me to favor equality of outcome over equality of opportunity.

    1. Hi A.P. + thx for the insights that you bring to the table! Also, I credit you for holding your ground + stating your case w the mens group the other day. 🙂

      I agree with you that each of us have particular gifts. That cannot be denied. After all, although its great to look out for the basic needs of all, we cannot guarantee that we all turn out the same. For example, even if 2 athletes are given the same opportunity thru their early lives, its a given that each athlete’s skills will develop along their own individual trajectory. Therefore, each athlete’s career outcome will be different + there’s a chance that one will be considered better than the other. And as you say A.P., this variance in each of us is what gives much of life its flavor. If we try to control the variables too much, the variety in life can be taken away.

      And yes, although a certain amount of affirmative action + equalizing for basic needs has proven beneficial, I agree that if we look to fill jobs mostly from the angle of equality vs merit, there will not only be many jobs that are filled with potentially unsuccessful candidates, there are gonna be people who give up on truly pushing themselves in the direction of their natural gifts.

      Take Care A.P. + good luck w your music + I look forward to staying in touch!

    1. Hi Ragnar! Great to hear from you + I look forward to following your blog.

      Yeah…there is certain truth to the fact that when one pushes for total equality of outcome, they usually create a non-dynamic society. A balance between the two equality concepts seems best.

      Take Care!

  4. Thanks for the great insight. Love this: “In this sense, America’s respect for equality of opportunity, whereby the old class structures of the monarchy were swept away, helped inspire many other countries to find the strength to give democracy a try. For this, we all should be eternally grateful.”

    I am grateful.

    Blessings.

  5. So as not to be misconstrued here, I do not equate equality of opportunity with equality of privilege. A person in abject poverty may indeed be offered the same opportunities as a person in the upper middle class. But the latter has the means to access those opportunities much more readily than the former. So I don’t think, as someone else suggested, that it is accurate to characterize a poor person’s failure to respond to equal opportunity as simply a matter of their “lacking thrift.” They may or may not lack thrift, but what they*definitely* lack — the thing that keeps them from responding to opportunity as readily as one who is better off – is *privilege.*

    So I’m in agreement with you, Perry, that we ought to be offering a hand-up to those in need. (Whether or not that classifies me as a JFK old-school liberal remains to be seen). And thank you for wishing me well with the music. I need to get a few more ducks in line before I’m in the position to land a regular gig that I can “readily access” by automobile. But I’m working on it. Wishing you well, as well.

    1. Great to hear from you again A.P.!

      You make a very good point here that its incorrect to characterize those that are poor as lacking the thrift to pull themselves up. Unfortunately, that used to be a stereotype that was held in the past. And yes, the ability to access opportunities does appear to be more readily available to some that are better off.

      As for offering a judicious hand-up to those that want to help themselves, that to me is always a great feature of a just + compassionate society.

      Take Care A.P. + good luck w the music!

  6. The issues of equality as considered herein are somewhat muddled and poorly defined, probably inherent. True and absolute equality of opportunity is a logical impossibility. Even if all individuals were identical in physical and mental characteristics plus identical socio-economic backgrounds and starting points, since no two persons can be at the same place at the same time, outcomes will inevitably vary. The only way to absolute equality of outcomes would be for the production of those who produce more to be redistributed to those who produce less. But, since those who produce less would not actually have produced that which made their outcomes materially equal to those who produced more, can this truly be said to equality of outcome, and what might be the effects of that redistribution? Since individuals are never identical in mental and physical attributes, to say nothing of their individual histories and backgrounds the the physical space they occupy on the planet, opportunities and outcomes will vary.

    Now, I am politically progressive and consider social justice to be an important goal and feature of government and society. So, the question is whether there is or should be social safety nets to prevent individuals from falling below some baseline while facilitating means of advancement through education, health care, and minimizing social and institutional barriers to the extent possible. The reasons for doing so are not those of misty eyed liberalism, but a recognition of what happens if that is not achieved and what kind of world it is that we wish to live. Piketty’s book on the inevitable concentration of capital is indicative. The unmediated outcome is either a permanent extreme feudal state or cycles of revolution and war, or both. History is a guide. An important question is whether human intelligence is ultimately a guide or a slave to our underlying nature.

  7. Hi Charlton + welcome back!

    Yes, the famous philosophical debate over whether its better to strive for equality of outcome vs. equality of opportunity, is inherently muddled at best. However, since it exists as a starting point for much of the political-economic debate that exists to this day, it has a certain relevance.

    After all, there are countless politicians, economists, pundits, + ordinary citizens that to this day talk about equality in all its various forms. In addition, the simple fact that our Founding Fathers stated that men were created equal, was an incredibly powerful idea for a new nation to state in the era of monarchies.

    Interestingly + as you may know, although many that lean socialist + Marxist may talk of equality, its not really true that Marx was interested in a totally equal society. The main thing he seemed interested in was the ability to change the dynamic between the bourgeoisie + the proletariat. If the dynamic with the means of production were able to be changed, Marx believed that more equality would ensue.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you regarding a social safety net. And in particular I found your last sentence fascinating: “An important question is whether human intelligence is ultimately a guide or a slave to our underlying nature.”

    What I find so fascinating with the last sentence in your comment is that you invoke principles that hearken back to some of the eternal themes about mankind’s better nature that the Enlightenment often alluded to. To me, your sentence doesn’t convey misty eyed liberalism, but a recognition of the fact that the brutish Hobbesian world that seemed to exist in the pre-Enlightenment era, was perpetually self-defeating. And yes, as Piketty made clear, the concentration of capital in all forms, including debt, would on a periodic basis increase to the point that instability would occur. As you know, finance deregulation that was pushed by both sides of the political aisle has now led to what some call a “financialization” of our economy. And yes, this “financialization” has led to an increase in wealth inequality.

    Interestingly, although total equality is not really doable, there is a point at which wealth inequality can become unstable. This is why your important question resonates with me. After all, if our human intelligence is a guide for us in dealing with our underlying nature, instead of a slave to it, we’ll then be able to reinvigorate certain ideas from The Enlightenment that’ve served us well.

    1. Perry Thank you for maintaining such thoughtful discussion and addressing the more salient topics of our time .
      Charlton Bryant and A.P. repeat the difficulties of even defining equality. As Maddison puts it “Not less an insuperable (impossible to overcome) obstacle to a uniformity of interests”. I’ll repeat, outcomes are a measure, not the ends we seek. Equality of outcome, as Charlton Bryant notes, is impossible even if they were identical twins in the same household. As most respondents note, a measure of compassion seems warranted and this all we agree. To do this, equality in representation is essential and not just in the legislative process but also equal treatment under the laws once written. Our founders provided rights to legal representation, protection from false imprisonment, double indemnity and self-incrimination. Equal treatment under the law is very important. A.C. and Charlton both note, a rich person can still have better access to these protections than a poor person. Add in implicit and overt biases and the inequities of legal outcomes are startling. Measures that assure equality of representation and application of legislation are the best ways to assure equal opportunity. Where outcomes appear to be the ends is when one compares environments. If only a few people enjoy a healthy, safe environment, access to high quality education and health care, then we can see the disparity right away and it seems unfair. Deciding that the outcomes of health, safety, the environment and education, should be equal, seems just and fair. As our preamble states, “To provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”. I think equal representation and equal treatment is the fairest way.

      1. p.s. following your comments and responses is taking a course in theology. BTW, that is a complement.

      2. Hey Tom…thx so much for pointing out that my attempt to promote thoughtful discussion resonates! And I also appreciate your steady + thoughtful input to these discussions too!

        Yes, this has been an interesting, although slightly abstract discussion. After all, one of the most commonly used terms in the political-economic sphere is equality. And yet, equality is also one of the most difficult concepts to totally pin down.

        Maybe the fact that we can’t totally pin it down is why equality resonates. After all as you point out, ever since the Founding Fathers did the radical thing by talking of how our creator created all of us equally, mankind has been aware of the need for a certain amount of equality in treatment for us all. And although an attempt to break it down totally numerically eludes us, the spirit of equality, at least as understood by our Founding Fathers, resonates with many from both sides of the political aisle.

        As opposed to looking at equality as something that needs to be achieved totally + numerically, we need to keep the flavor of it alive. This way, we can stay on course, as Charlton said, with being able to use our intelligence to guide us away from the harsher parts of our nature. A question of balance is always at play.

  8. Interesting points on this subject which I have been pondering over. I certainly look forward to your article on financialization of our economy. Thanks.

    1. Nice to hear from you again AOC! 🙂

      Yeah, this has been a most interesting post. Like you said…the consensus seems to be that equality of opportunity, instead of outcome, is a much more do-able + flexible option.

  9. Equality of opportunity is a founding principle of America, but one that is difficult to provide, since everyone is inherently different and naturally starting from a different place. While we can attempt to achieve such with concepts of fairness and justice for all, it will always be imperfect. But still an ideal to strive for.

    Equality of outcome is an impossibility based on the concepts of differentiation noted above. It most likely isn’t even desirable. After all, should our recognized great art be like DaVinci or should it be like a kindergartener’s scribbles? It’s obvious that each and everyone of us have innate distinctions that make us totally unique individuals.

    The goal of American society is to allow the individual to flourish to the best and greatest of his or her capacity. This necessitates as much a degree of fairness and justice in opportunity that society can provide. But the outcome is up to the individual.

    To expand the topic, where we really need to focus is on “equality of value” where dignity and respect is afforded all. As unique individuals we all offer a contribution to society. Is the billionaire’s or celebrity’s contribution of greater value than the working man (or even the failure’s as a cautionary tale!)? Above it was noted that outcomes were only a measurement, but not necessarily the end in itself.

    What is that end?

    1. Excellent comment PJ + thx again for adding a new level of insight to the discussion!

      This has been such an interesting topic to try + tackle. Although equality comes up as a topic in countless ways everyday, it somehow takes on a whole new meaning when one attempts to analyze it. And yes, its apparent that there seems to be almost universal agreement that equality of outcome is not only impossible…it borders on something only possible in an almost totalitarian society where every aspect of life is tightly controlled. Obviously, not many of us would like to live like that.

      PJ…you hit upon an eternal kernel of truth in your statement about equality of value. The endearing concept of equality does not necessarily have much to do with equality of outcome. It has more to do as you say with equality of value.

      Clearly, many of us like the adventurous aspect of life that looks somewhat upon a certain level of inequality as almost a challenge. After all, if all of us had a Red Ferrari + an identical mansion would we be truly happy? Probably not…

      What some people say creates happiness for them is the search, the process, + the dream. That’s why you hit upon the fact that a certain level of equality of opportunity is very important for civil society. Once we make sure that we all have on our metaphorical boots to pull ourselves up with, we then become ready to apply ourselves with the talents, energy, + time that’s necessary to try to achieve both our immediate + more elusive long-term goals.

      And yes…equality of value is perhaps the most important trait to think of in the equality realm. Undoubtedly, some religions have tapped into the concept of equality of value for all. And this is part of the reason these religions endure.

      Thx PJ!

      1. If you believe your fate is driven by random chance rather than by free will (a very difficult proposition to disprove) then one might feel *it isn’t fair* that some people should be crushed by an accident of fate while others luck out into happiness and prosperity. If fairness is your highest value, equality of outcome inevitably becomes your objective.

      2. Whether you go to college X or are offered career Y are heavily dependent on being at the right place at the right time, having parents that supported you, being born with the right genes, meeting good teachers instead of bad, living in an area that actually had opportunity for a particular course of action, etc. It is *possible* to go anywhere from any part of society but having the *opportunity* to do so is random chance based on a lot of factors beyond your control.

        Equality of opportunity is as illusory as equality of outcome.

        The path to happiness is to do the best you can with what you have. Any person who does that should be as proud of their accomplishments whether they collect garbage or fly to the moon. It is an attitude that I don’t believe will ever catch on.

  10. Perry Casilio, I will be sure to keep my blog updated as often as possible. There will be plenty of material related to peppers, hot sauces and the like. Feel free to tell as many people as you want to about my blog.

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