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Equality of Outcome, Equality of Opportunity

October 27th, 2011 · 13 Comments

Citing Robert Nozick, Matt Yglesias argues that it’s incoherent to oppose redistribution for the purpose of equalizing people’s outcomes, while at the same time touting tax-supported efforts to ensure “equality of opportunity.” If the objection to redistribution is that people have strong claims over their own assets, then it should make no difference whether they are taken to equalize the welfare of adults or the life prospects of children. It’s debatable whether this necessarily follows from the best reading of Nozick’s view, but in any event, I think it’s mistaken.

On any non-anarchist view, people may be legitimately expropriated for some purposes, even if those purposes are limited to funding the “night watchman” functions of a minimal libertarian state, compensating people for the imposition of negative externalities, and so on. We can agree with Nozick that “No one has a right to something whose realization requires certain uses of things and activities that other people have right and entitlements over,” in the sense that it will not do to talk in abstract terms about people having a “right to” whatever seems good for people to have, as though these goods were just manna from heaven. We need to speak clearly about what we think other people are obligated to provide those we’re asserting have a right, and which of those obligations may be coercively enforced.

Many people who say we have a “right to healthcare,” for instance, mean that they think we are all obligated to contribute—and if necessary may be compelled to contribute—to some public scheme for the universal provision of healthcare. Most of those people do not mean—I hope—that retired doctors are under a coercively-enforceable obligation to help provide that care, such that they may be conscripted into service, or that healthy people may be compelled to serve as unwilling kidney donors. Rights do not float free from enforceable duties, and we ought to take care in asserting a purported “right” that it does not conflict with other rights, including just claims over assets.

But the same holds in the opposite direction.  I may have a just claim against anyone who would seek to compel me to cough up $20… unless they are the agent of someone to whom I promised that $20 in return for some service, and are demanding it for the purpose of making good on my pledge. Ditto for an agent of someone whose property I damaged in a way that will cost $20 to repair. Whether I have a right against someone seeking to expropriate me will often depend upon what they want the money for.

Suppose, counterfactually, that we did live in a society where some intergenerational scheme of transfers and provision of certain goods, such as public education, did substantially achieve equality of opportunity, within realistic limits. Assuming the persistence of something recognizably like current family structure, there would be no getting around the vagaries of upbringing, or of our basic biological endowments, but without gross disparities in things like educational opportunity, childhood nutrition, and so on. Despite this  basic equality, there would nevertheless be significant disparities in outcomes—and in particular in wealth—owing to all sorts of remaining differences between people, including their talents, determination or worth ethic, preference for income over leisure, and a healthy dollop of simple dumb luck.

Eventually, the taxman cometh to each adult member of this society, and suggests that they are obligated to contribute some percentage of their income for each of two distinct purposes.  One is the preservation of the system of equal opportunity in which each was raised. The second is a system of transfers to equalize the differential outcomes of the adults who have come out of that system.  The better off among these adults object that they’ve fairly earned their wealth, and should not be coercively deprived of it. The taxman, it seems to me, has a stronger response in the former case than the latter.

In the former case, the taxman can say: What you have now, you have in no small part because of this intergenerational system of goods provision.  Even if your parents would have been able to give you a decent start without public assistance, you have earned your income by engaging in productive cooperation with people who may not have been as fortunate. You cannot reasonably complain about being asked to pay back into this system at least the amount by which your position is better than what it would have been in the absence of that system. Moreover, your claim that you have fairly earned your holdings may depend, in part, on your having started out under conditions of rough equality with others. They cannot object that it is unfair of you to command so much wealth when they had as much opportunity to earn it as you did, but did not.

Nozick, to be sure, would not have been much moved by these arguments at the time he wrote Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but they are, at any rate, facially somewhat plausible answers to the property owner’s objection, provided the underlying empirical claim turns out to be true. In many ways, this answer would parallel the answer the taxman might give to justify taxation in order to support provision of police and courts: You could not have earned your wealth, or nearly as much of it, absent the stable institutional background that enables market cooperation.  You cannot now turn around and deny your support, by means of the same resources you have earned on the market, to the perpetuation of the system that made it possible.

Nozick explicitly rejects the tacit principle of reciprocity invoked here: We do not (he observes) normally think people can be unilaterally obligated to pay for supposed benefits they’ve been provided with unasked. You cannot weed someone’s garden while they sleep, then demand a fee for the service. But in this case, the taxman can point out that it would not have been possible to ask each child whether they wanted to agree to take part in this sort of system, leaving us with little alternative but to fall back on some kind of principle of reciprocity, or to forego a system of benefits we genuinely think makes everyone—including those asked to do more to fund it—better off in terms of the very wealth they’re asked to pay back. Each may be better off economically with a system of opportunity-plus-taxation than each would be without either the system or the taxes that fund it, and for obvious reasons, it may simply not have been possible to let each person decide in advance whether they want to accept this package deal. But if you say you would have rejected it, all you’re being asked to return is the same funds you would have implicitly rejected at the same time.

Perhaps the taxpayer relents in response to these arguments. Can something similar be said about taxation for equalization of economic outcomes? This, too, might be a partly empirical question. It’s conceivable that at a given time, it’s less costly to provide some minimum standard of living to the worst off than to pay for more cops and prisons when the worst off become desperate. But against a background of rough equality of opportunity, it will generally be much less plausible to argue on grounds of reciprocity that each taxpayer—each actual taxpayer, including those who pay in without drawing on the system—is made better off on net by the existence of a system of compulsory contributions and transfers.

Here, the taxpayer may say: “I have recognized several exceptions to my general claim to have a right to my holdings. When you pointed out that my business creates various environmental externalities, I recognized my obligation to surrender certain funds to support programs that mitigate those harms or compensate those adversely affected. When you pointed out that my holdings depend on a system of courts and law, and upon a system of education that prepares my fellow citizens (in childhood) for social cooperation as adults, I acknowledged that I couldn’t coherently invoke my right to my holdings against a demand to help support the very systems that are its preconditions.  But these exceptions do not plausibly apply to a system of redistributive transfers to other adults, at least above whatever level is necessary to ensure basic social stability.  These transfers are not part of an intergenerational system from which I myself benefit; this system of transfers merely imposes a cost on me for the benefit of others. It might be morally better for me to voluntarily contribute to help my fellow citizens, but absent some such special justification, there’s no exception to my general right to my holdings that would permit compulsory expropriation for this purpose. Moreover, as an adult, I am perfectly capable of joining in a system of mutual social insurance with others if I do think it’s likely to be in my interest to do so.”

There are a number of familiar answers to this sort of argument, and there’s little purpose to my rehearsing “Theories of Social Justice 101” here by elaborating on them. But there’s at least a facially plausible argument for treating public provision of “opportunity” programs as justifying an exception to people’s generally valid claims on their fairly-earned holdings, in a way that is not available for straightforward redistributive programs.  This may, of course, be wrong. It may be wrong because a parallel argument is available for those programs, or it may be wrong because the type of justification I have sketched very roughly above will not actually work even in the case of opportunity-providing programs. Even if my proposed distinction is right insofar as it goes, there may be other arguments supporting compulsory funding for redistributive outcome-equalizing programs that render this distinction moot. It may be that I am not obligated to cough up the funds for such programs on the basis of this sort of justification, but some other better one that applies equally to “opportunity” and “outcome” programs. But it is not, it seems to me, an obviously wrong distinction to draw, or a clear sign of theoretical incoherence to treat these cases differently.

Tags: Libertarian Theory



13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 john // Oct 27, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    So basically Matt’s playing the role of “Princeton Debater X” ?

    I say that with love, of course. 🙂

  • 2 K. Chen // Oct 27, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    So, presupposing a background of equal enough opportunity, a society member owes some amount of payment into the next generation, based on the gain they had against the gain they received from the previous generation.

    How do immigrants fit into this? My parents, for example, have paid into the American inter-generational system, but gained from their home nation-state’s inter-generational system. Certainly they owe the United States some amount for the present tense effects of the system of opportunity (the night watchmen and contract enforcers et al.) but what do they owe the next generation here, and what about there?

    Really, the only way to deal with that is to rethink the pay-foward reciprocity as owed against the present sense effects of the intergenerational system. Paying for a child’s education now, increases that child’s prospects for the future, and that expectation of a better future immediately pays dividends in our society in preventing social instability caused by despair, among other things. All of which in turn sustains increased opportunity for everyone right now.

    It seems to me then, that the real issue is whether “opportunity” is distinguishable from other benefits collectively gained by the taxpayer, and if so, how.

  • 3 E.D. Kain // Oct 28, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    Julian – I’m not sure you can so easily delineate between outcome and opportunity here. It strikes me that the two are pretty closely bound together. Equality of opportunity is heavily dependent on previous generation’s equality of outcome and equality of outcome is heavily dependent on equality of opportunity. The one doesn’t really exist without the other.

  • 4 DivisionByZero // Oct 28, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Could someone explain what is meant by equality of outcome? Because superficially it seems like a stupid and impossible idea. I can understand a minimal outcome. But equal outcome sounds like hardcore socialism or communism. Does anyone actual act in accordance with such beliefs? I know some countries claim to be “communist” or “socialist” but aren’t really.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Oct 28, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    If you mean *perfect* equality of opportunity, that’s right, but of course, even if you artificially equalized economic outcomes across the board, that wouldn’t ever be achievable. (Nor would equality of outcomes.) That said, I think you can roughly differentiate between interventions aimed primarily at equalizing the life prospects of children and those aimed at improving the quality of life of adults, whether or not they have children. Obviously there will be overlap, but (say) robust public education affects the former without doing an enormous amount for the latter, and there are plenty of transfers that would achieve the latter without doing much for the former.

  • 6 E.D. Kain // Oct 29, 2011 at 1:31 am

    Julian – sure, that’s true enough. But it’s all tied together no matter what. The one leads to the other which leads to the other and so on and so forth. That’s why I think it’s important to define goals without necessarily hewing too closely to strict ideals. Basic universal services, for instance, should be guaranteed to provide equal opportunity at a base level. So, for instance, no child should go uninsured due to lack of means. 7 million children currently do not have health insurance. I really do follow you through most of this post, and I really do care more about opportunity equality than outcome equality, but at some point you have to hit the reset button. Maybe making universalism a priority for childhood programs is that reset button.

  • 7 DivisionByZero // Oct 29, 2011 at 9:28 am

    Ok, so, I did some research and apparently people actually do believe that equality of economic outcome is desirable. I just don’t see any justification for it even one based on justice. Scarcity (artificial and natural) are relative but unavoidable aspects of the real world. Those who are able to provide what is scarce should be rewarded more than those who provide what is common. That’s not to say we shouldn’t put a floor to value to the extent we believe each person has intrinsic value but it’s the floor that expresses how much we as a society absolutely value people, not the idea that we are equally valuable. Some of us are more valuable in a relative sense and our society should recognize such. So, I’m no opponent of government programs that provide basic services to the poorest (or laziest) of people but ideally that base shouldn’t be better than what’s provided to those that work for a living. I’m not arguing for a downward shift for government services but an upward shift in wages and a commensurate increase in basic services to the extent that we feel people have absolute value. I think most Americans would agree with this assessment even though it’s naive, simple, and idealistic.

  • 8 Adrian Ratnapala // Oct 30, 2011 at 11:05 am

    E.D. if I understand the topic, then your point is not quite relevant. It seems to me we are discussing the claim “That if transfers are justifiable for the *purpose* of equalising opportunity then then it is also justifiable for the *purpose* of equalising outcome”.

    But in fact these purposes can be very distinct, even if though peoples actual opportunity is dependent on past outcomes. Practical policies might therefore be the same or similar for both purposes.

    We can now see why both libertarians and progressives can support in this case educational subsidies for the poor without either side being incoherent. Grand! It’s by finding such accidental bits of common ground that we can take the poison out of politics.

  • 9 E.D. Kain // Nov 2, 2011 at 1:36 am

    I agree, Adrian, except for that last bit. You cannot take the poison out of poison.

  • 10 Economic Inequality of Various Shapes and Sizes | Up2dateNews // Nov 2, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    […] Will Wilkinson attempts to moderate a New York Times columnist dispute between messieurs Brooks and Krugman on the timely subject of income inequality. Before we move on much further let me interject that I somewhat despise the subject of income inequality or wealth inequality. What we are actually talking about or what we ought to be talking about is economic inequality, which encapsulates both these things, as well as equality of opportunity and outcome. […]

  • 11 Woodchuck // Nov 13, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    What is the metric of equal opportunity? I tell you it is equal outcome, at least in the minds of the people and their government. Separating the two is simply impossible, and a dirty rhetorical trick. Mr Sanchez has us playing in the land of unicorns, where hypotheses are truths.

  • 12 ティンバーランド // Dec 22, 2011 at 8:29 am

    Does anyone actual act in accordance with such beliefs? I know some countries claim to be “communist” or “socialist” but aren’t really.

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