Appeals to "Equality of Opportunity" Are Non-Responsive

Jared Bernstein and Ben Spielberg have a piece in The Atlantic about equal opportunity. In it, they answer back those who respond to arguments about outcome inequality by saying it's opportunity that matters. Their answer skillfully rehearses the point that outcome inequality undermines equal opportunity and so you can't talk about one without talking about the other.

Although I like the piece, it lets people who use this move off way too easy. In fact, not only can you talk about outcome inequality and opportunity separately, but conceptually you must do so. That is, you must both have a position on equal opportunity and a position on how unequally we should structure our economy. Talking about opportunity in response to discussions about inequality is just entirely non-responsive.

Equal opportunity refers to a situation where the economic positions in society are equally accessible to all. Saying that you think equal opportunity is important tells us that you think it's important that everyone have an equal chance at the various economic positions. But, crucially, it does not tell us what economic positions should exist and what their income characteristics should be. That is necessarily a separate inquiry that cannot be dealt with by waving your hand about equal opportunity.

To see what I mean, consider this matrix:

Someone who comes up to you and says "you know I just really care about equal opportunity" has indicated that they are against (3) and (4). But they have not actually answered whether they prefer (1) or (2). You can have equal opportunity and an egalitarian distribution or you can have equal opportunity and an inegalitarian distribution (conceptually, if not in practice). Thus, no matter how many times someone says "equal opportunity" at you, that doesn't actually answer the question: (1) or (2)?

When we are having to invent economic rules and institutions, should we pick the ones that distribute the national income relatively evenly between the various economic positions or should we pick the ones that distribute it relatively unevenly? You have to choose one or the other because economic laws must be written one way or the other and courts and police must be mobilized to enforce them. So which will it be and why?

Obviously, people who try to distract from inequality discussions by talking about equal opportunity are likely people who don't want egalitarian distributions. That's a position you can hold, of course. But their interlocutors must force them to articulate a separate reason for that position. Saying one is just concerned about equal opportunity doesn't register an argument in the inequality debate, but instead dodges it altogether. It doesn't explain one's position on egalitarian distributions. It just departs on to a totally different topic.

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