QOTD: John Roemer on Equality of Opportunity

Unrelated note:  I am not around too much atm, so as you may have noticed I am not replying to comments at the moment.  I intend to catch up on the comments I missed later in the week, so please still comment.  Things are a tad busy is all 😉

From the start of his book “Equality of Opportunity” comes the following quote from John Roemer.  Note that the two poles, non-discrimination and leveling the playing field, are described earlier in the book.  Also, equality of opportunity isn’t necessarily the only principle of distributive justice.  However, taking these as given we have:

Among citizens of any advanced democracy, we find individuals who hold a spectrum of views with respect to what is required for equal opportunity, from the nondiscrimination view at one pole to pervasive social provision to correct for all manner of disadvantage at the other.

Common to all these views, however, is the precept that the equal-opportunity principle, at some point, holds the individual accountable for the achievement of the advantage in question, whether that advantage be a level of educational achievement, health, employment status, income, or the economist’s utility or welfare.

Thus there is, in the notion of equality of opportunity, a “before” and an “after”: before the competition starts opportunities must be equalized, by social intervention if need be, but after it begins, individuals are on their own.  The different views of equality of opportunity can be categorized according to where they place the starting gate which separates “before” from “after”.

Given both NZ’s left and right discuss equality of opportunity a lot, the true difference between them is likely about where they place this “starting gate”.  This is a relevant conversation to have, and implies neither side is trying to restrict opportunities (something we often hear about the “other” party), but instead has a different conception about what needs intervention/equalization in order to create equal opportunities in the game of life!

It also helps to indicate the difference between targeting opportunity, and targeting outcomes.  Outcomes are a noisy signal of the opportunities people may have had before making choices.  The aggregates, and distributions, of data we observe don’t tell us whether people had opportunities unless we also apply a theory to them (note, there will be multiple theories that fit a single set of data – that is part of the issue).  It this way, targeting “outputs” as if they provide a direct correspondence to individual wellbeing is fraught – whether those outputs involve GDP, productivity, inequality of income, obesity, or employment.  In truth, we need to consider a multidimensional view of policy (eg one based on trade-offs) defined on a clear conception of what the drivers (theory) are and the value judgments (ethics) involved in the policy.

In this book Roemer’s aim is to make opportunity itself an operationalizable – a noble aim.  Once I finally get around to reading the book, I’ll tell you whether he’s persuaded me that his specific target offers a better framework for policy making than the current arbitrary tying together of economic aggregates that policy makers generally rely upon 😉


3 replies
  1. lalitha
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