Stop claiming you believe in equality of opportunity, you probably don’t

I am sick unto death of people saying that they “believe in equality of opportunity, not outcome” often in a smug tone, as if they had just delivered some bon mot, proven a difficult theorem or made a subtle but crucial conceptual distinction. A neat dichotomy between equality of outcome and opportunity doesn’t work. The argument I’m going to make here is fairly obvious, but I’ve seen enough people ignore or miss it that it’s worth spelling out.

Your opportunities are conditioned by your parents financial status- through networking, education and financial support. The wealthier they are, the more opportunities you get.

Thus, to the extent that different parents have differing degrees of financial success, different kids have differing opportunities in life.

Hence, there can’t be any real equality of opportunity so long as there isn’t equality of outcome- at least between parents.

What you really mean when you say you believe in “equality of opportunity” is that you believe in a kind of thin equality of judgement. If a poor kid comes to you with exactly the same CV as a rich kid, you’d want him to have the same chance of getting the job. Call that formal equality. Formal equality is a nice start, but it is not equality of opportunity. The kid who had time to build his CV and take extra-credit classes had a lot more opportunity than the kid who needed to work to support his family.

This isn’t just conceptually obvious, it’s empirically demonstrable too. A variety of research has demonstrated that the greater the level of inequality, the greater the effect parents have on their children’s incomes. In other words, more inequality of outcome equals more inequality of opportunity. This is sometimes called the Great Gatsby curve and there was a big hullabaloo about it a few years ago:

Maybe equality of opportunity is an impossible or undesirable dream, but don’t flatter yourself by pretending your ideology aims at it when it doesn’t.

EDIT: One learned commenter has suggested that this article goes wrong because “equality of opportunity” is not to be taken literally, but is effectively a term of art meaning “formal equality”. I take their point, but my response would be that this is a very bad phrase to let stand as a term of art, because it overstates the good qualities of a society which has only only achieved merely formal equality- presenting it as fairer on everyone than it really is. In that sense it has a propagandistic quality. It also has the flavour of a motte and bailey argument, because it is strategically ambiguous between two different senses of equality, one much stronger than the other.

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4 thoughts on “Stop claiming you believe in equality of opportunity, you probably don’t

  1. It sounds like you’re trying to redefine a commonly understood term. Most native English speakers would use “equality of opportunity” to mean what you’re trying to call formal equality. Would you agree?


    1. Hrrrmmm, I tbh I never really thought of the term as a term of art- I just took its meaning to be the standard meaning of those words, composed in that way, but assumed most people didn’t really full process it. Let me go check Wikipedia to see if you’re right.


  2. To get equality of opportunity you could break the link between parent’s financial outcomes and their children’s opportunities. Sparta-legend style.
    I don’t think equality of opportunity is all that important in general, but getting kids opportunities they would have gotten if their parents were wealthier seems like a good idea


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