Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Equality of Outcome and of Opportunity

These two terms are much bandied about. The first demands some questions, particularly, "Equality of what outcome?". It often refers to wealth or income (which are not the same), but also to health and other measures of a good life. Absolute equality of outcome would require that if you and I were born on the same day, we would die on the same day with the same amount in our bank balances. That's a reductio ad absurdum: obviously if you aim at equality of outcome, you try to reduce income differentials and things like big differences in life expectancy between different parts of the country (or world?). You'll never eliminate the differences.

It would have surprised early American politicians like Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln that many Americans today assume that any move towards greater equality of outcome must be at the expense of freedom. To shift the burden of taxes away from low-income people towards high-income people, for example, does not diminish freedom. To give someone who would have died through poverty the chance to live through medical treatment is to increase freedom. Whether the measures needed to reduce inequality of outcome would damage the economy to the disbenefit of all, is a question of economic management and not of freedom.

Despite these questions, equality of outcome, once you've clarified what the outcome is, should be easy to measure, and we do it all the time. Go to a government statistics site and you can see how much average incomes in the South-east of England are higher than in the North-east, or how much longer people can expect to live in London than in Glasgow. In the UK, differentials of income and wealth have been increasing for some thirty years (the gap between rich and poor getting proportionately larger) while reducing health inequalities has proved hard and often unrewarding work. Of course, the simplest, quickest, most reliable way of reducing health inequalities between social classes or localities would be to go and make life really miserable for the rich people, but this has not yet been attempted.

Now to come clean. I've chosen not to be particularly up-front about either my religious or my political commitments on this blog, since the very subjects would turn some people off, and knowing the name of my commitment would turn others off, whereas we might otherwise have communicated. But here goes on one of those points: I'm a Liberal in terms of political philosophy and heart, and a Liberal Democrat member. WARNING: this does not mean what it means either in the US, or in Australia, or in most of continental Europe (not quite). "Liberal" in the US means what we would call "left-wing". In Australia it's the name of the main right-wing party. In much of continental Europe, it indicates support for unrestricted capitalism and individualism, plus civil rights. Here it indicates a commitment to individual freedom (but how that's understood is a big issue), to empowering individuals and communities, and to a concept of individual self-realisation through community and relationships. Of course, some people would disagree with that. Socialist, Conservative and Nationalist aren't easy to define, either.

Some people on the right of the UK Liberal Democrats state that Liberals believe in equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. This is stated as if it was incontrovertible fact on the website of the right-Liberal think-tank "Reform".

Well, historically Liberals fought discrimination and barriers that debarred some people from some opportunities, for example Catholics from Oxford and Cambridge or low-income people from voting. They believed that if these barriers were removed, a more equal society would result. There were plenty of barriers and perks to fight, so the focus was not on inequality that survived removing discrimination. By the late 19th century, though, many Liberals were pointing out the dangers of widening inequality of outcome, and the Liberal government of 1905-14 introduced the first national measures of social insurance.

I pointed out some queries and difficulties around the concept of equality of outcome, but those around the concept of equality of opportunity are far, far, greater.

The concept works very well when applied to clearly defined and limited circumstances, for example in working out whether illegal discrimination has taken place. Ravinder, who is ethnic Indian, and Paul, who is ethnic white UK, have applied for the same job. Ravinder had better qualifications, wrote a clearer and more comprehensive application, and wasn't recorded as making any mistakes at interview. Some jotted notes from the interview show Paul slipped up on important points, and yet he got the job. An industrial tribunal would almost certainly find illegal discrimination had occurred on grounds of race (or maybe gender if Ravinder is female: the name is unisex). What we're doing here is taking the two applicants as they were at the start of the application process and comparing fate with demonstrable strengths.

But equality of opportunity as preached in politics wouldn't start there. If one of these people had gained an advantage from living in a prosperous area with good schools, and the other lived in a depressed area with poor schools, for example, that would be inequality of opportunity. But if you include that, why not the quality of parental care or even the advantages and disadvantages conferred by your genes? If we take measures to counteract the disadvantage Ravinder experiences through being blind or dyslexic, it is a disputable decision to leave aside less clearcut disadvantages experienced by Paul: perhaps he thinks rather slowly or struggles with abstract concepts. In practice we may resolve this by a practical test of whether the disadvantage could be overcome so the person could do a good job. If we want to take action to reduce the disadvantage Ravinder suffered through having poor parents and living in Salford, what about the disadvantage Paul suffered through having parents who were uncaring or locked in battle in Surrey? It's pretty obvious that such a start will have made it harder for him to take full advantage of opportunities offered.

In other words, it seems to me that equality of opportunity is a useful concept applied in a limited way, but as a political ideal, slips through your fingers. While equality of outcome as an ideal ignores the impact of free decisions (for example, some people are prepared to make big sacrifices to be rich and others aren't; I may freely choose to eat some unhealthy food because I enjoy it), ignoring it or abandoning it leads to widening inequalities which make equality of opportunity in any sense harder to achieve and lead to more divided, disorderly, unsafe societies.

Liberals (UK meaning) have historically been more concerned with inequalities of power than of wealth, while socialists have been the other way around; but great inequalities of wealth increase inequalities of power. Similarly, trying to reduce inequalities of wealth by planning and command without involving local communities increases inequalities of power and often thereby of wealth.

There is of course a third equality, of esteem (which I think is what "created equal" means). But if you appear to be poor, are you treated with the same esteem by most people as if you appear to be rich? Try it.

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