Against Equality of Opportunity, Part II

by John Quiggin on April 16, 2004

When I first posted on Matt Cavanagh’s Against Equality of Opportunity, a lot of the discussion focussed on the way Cavanagh’s views on race and gender discrimination were being used by The Guardian as a stick with which to beat UK Home Secretary David Blunkett, who had recently hired Cavanagh. Unlike Chris, I wasn’t sufficiently closely attuned to UK politics to pick up on this, and, in any case was most interested in the general issue raised by the book’s title.

It took me a while to get hold of the book from our library, but I’ve finally been able to read it. Having done so, I agree with Chris and others that the Guardian story was a dreadful beat-up. Cavanagh’s views on anti-discrimination policy are unexceptionable, and his main concern is on working through the reasons why we might support laws prohibiting racial and gender-based discrimination while opposing a general principle of meritocracy.

On the other hand, I see no reason to change the (pre)judgement I made, based on the reviews I had read, that,

Cavanagh seems to take the naturalness of capitalist property relations as a given, and argue against equality from there, in the manner of Nozick, though not with the same commitment to pushing premises to their logical conclusions.
Given that he is dealing with issues that have been debated for well over a century, the extent to which Cavanagh’s analysis takes for granted assumptions that (on the left at least) have been widely accepted only in the past fifteen years or so, is truly striking. The main change I’d make is to substitute “employment relations” for “property relations”.

Almost throughout, Cavanagh takes it for granted that the problem setting is one where there is a person called an employer who has a right to allocate a job and the question is to what extent the state should interfere with that right. As I observed above, Cavanagh rejects extreme libertarian views, but he’s openly on the libertarian side of the argument on most issues. The kinds of questions one might expect from a left-wing analysis of the issues[1], such as the justice of an allocation of ownership rights over capital that make some people employers and others (potential) employees, or the long-run implications of giving more rights to employers, are not even asked.

As I’ve said previously, if you accept inequality of outcomes (as Cavanagh explicitly does) and have liberal concerns about detailed and intrusive state intervention in people’s lives, the idea of equality of opportunity is essentially unsustainable. So my natural concern was with the arguments Cavanagh presents against equality in general, and the way he relates this to equality of opportunity.

I found this part of the book by far the weakest. Cavanagh certainly shows that many supporters of equality are confused in their views, and that there are counter-arguments to most of the standard arguments in favour of equality, but goes nowhere near demonstrating that its reasonable to abandon equality as an objective. Rather, he shows that, if you start with the usual market-liberal premises, and put a high burden of proof on your opponents to justify any shift, you’ll come up with market-liberal conclusions.

Since I favor a “diminishing claims” argument for equality, I’ll respond to Cavanagh on this ground, leaving supporters of Rawls and others to fight their own battles. The basis of the diminishing claims argument is most easily seen in relation to money, and the resources that it can buy. The benefit of additional resources is greater for a person who is initially poor than for one who is already rich. Hence, other things [such as incentive effects, etc] being equal, society is better off, on average, if resources are transferred from the rich to the poor. This was the kind of argument that converted many of the classical utilitarians (initially strong supporters of the free-market) to socialism.

Cavanagh has two counter-arguments. The first is that this isn’t the “right” sort of argument for equality, since it isn’t inherently about relative relationships between people. The second is that, in some contexts, it may not lead to decisions to equalise the distribution of resources. In health care triage problems, for example, it implies allocating health care resources to those who can gain most benefit from them, not to those whose health is initially worst.

Something like the first argument is also made by Rawls, in criticising the utilitarians. I didn’t find it convincing then, but at least Rawls was an egalitarian arguing that the utilitarian position was not egalitarian enough. For an opponent of egalitarianism to reject arguments because they don’t meet an arbitrary standard of egalitarian purity seems nonsensical to me.

Much the same comments apply on the second point. Perhaps the diminishing efficiency argument doesn’t always imply greater equality. Perhaps some other considerations may be relevant in the cases mentioned by Cavanagh. But regardless, Cavanagh has given no reason for disregarding diminishing claims arguments and no reason for supposing that, as far as employment issues are concerned, they won’t favour greater equality of both opportunities and outcomes.

I’ve seen plenty of critiques of the idea of equality starting from more or less the same premises as Cavanagh and reaching more or less the same conclusion. The main lesson is that capitalism and inequality are a package deal. The more capitalism you want, the more inequality (of both outcomes and opportunity) you have to accept along with it. Cavanagh sees this, and accepts it, while Blair and Blunkett do not.

fn1. I’m not trying to impose some sort of orthodoxy test here, but responding to the earlier discussion. Cavanagh’s viewpoint was specifically advertised as left-wing, for example, in the letter from Edward Lucas printed by the Guardian. I was led by this advertising to expect more from the book than it actually delivered.

{ 11 comments }

1

Walt Pohl 04.16.04 at 7:59 am

If you wrote down a utility function that represented your notion of “diminishing claims”, what would it be? A sum of everyone’s individual utility functions?

2

John Quiggin 04.16.04 at 8:30 am

A sum of individual utility functions is the traditional utilitarian way of doing things. But any social welfare function that’s concave in income will provide a case for equality.

3

Bill Carone 04.16.04 at 4:15 pm

“Rather, he shows that, if you start with the usual market-liberal premises, and put a high burden of proof on your opponents to justify any shift, you’ll come up with market-liberal conclusions.”

I thought this was the social democratic method as well. “As much liberty as justice allows, as much equality as justice demands.” Equality has a higher burden of proof than liberty.

4

Charles Copeland 04.16.04 at 9:35 pm

Mr Quiggin,

I’ve just ploughed my way through the introductory chapter of ‘Against Equality of Opportunity’. It strikes me (so far) almost as a parody of moral philosophy, chiefly because of its dearth of empirical data and instrumental reasoning — just like non-consequentialist libertarians at their worst (‘taxation is theft’).

Are you familiar with Richard Posner’s ‘The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory’? I can find no reference under Crooked Timber. It’s a brilliant defence of moral relativism and I’m sure would be of great interest to the CT community. On page 7 Posner writes: “As a result of its analytical, rhetorical and factual deficiencies, academic moralism is helpless when intuitions clash or self-interest opposes, and otiose when they line up.” Cavanagh seems to be a sterling instantiation – but perhaps I’m being unfair since I’ve only got to page 40 or thereabout so far. I soldier on …

5

Sebastian Holsclaw 04.16.04 at 10:50 pm

“The basis of the diminishing claims argument is most easily seen in relation to money, and the resources that it can buy. The benefit of additional resources is greater for a person who is initially poor than for one who is already rich. Hence, other things [such as incentive effects, etc] being equal, society is better off, on average, if resources are transferred from the rich to the poor.”

The problem is that ‘other things’ aren’t equal, and that once you add multiple resource variables you have to prioritize among them. The problem with that is that you will find no general agreement on the proper prioritization scheme.

An additional problem is that ‘money’ isn’t anything in and of itself. It is a proxy for being able to purchase things. The purchase price of these things varies according to such things as ‘demand’ and ‘supply’. Spreading the ‘money’ around doesn’t change the fact that some things are more scarce than others and that some things are in more demand than others. If all the money in the world were equalized amongst the people in the world tomorrow, it would do little to help things in the long run. Some people would still have better skills than others. Some people would still be more motivated than others. Some people would have more natural ability than others. Unless you destroyed the whole capitalist system you would then have these people quite quickly amassing more wealth than others.

And then your whole equality project is shot to hell again.

Sounds like you need an authoritarian structure to keep those people down…

6

MQ 04.16.04 at 11:44 pm

John: do you really think that on the left today capitalist employment and property relations are indeed “widely accepted” as natural and not in need of justification? I hope that’s not true. If it is, then there is not much of a left, it seems to me.

Sebastian: nothing in your post says anything about the “diminishing claims” argument that I can see. There is nothing at all in the diminishing claims argument that requires perfect equality. Libertarians always jump to ascribe a motivation of perfect equality of outcomes to their opponents, simply because that motivation is A) clearly ridiculous, and B) would clearly require authoritarianism. So one is saved the trouble of arguing against a strong position.

7

John Quiggin 04.16.04 at 11:56 pm

mq, in this context, I meant the left in a broad sense including, in particular, the British Labour Party and its current leadership. As you say it’s not much of a left, but these are not good times. I have previously discussed the ambiguity of the term “left” and made a bit of a mess of it, so i won’t try to repeat that.

Another way of restating my point would be to say

“The premises Cavanagh treats as self-evident would have been rejected by any Labour leader prior to Tony Blair”.

8

Brian Weatherson 04.16.04 at 11:57 pm

I agree with mq’s second point – it’s hard to see exactly what Sebastian’s argument is. As far as I can tell, it looks like this.

P1. Arranging for perfect equality will require costs that are greater than the benefits of equality even by egalitarian lights.
C. So we shouldn’t transfer resources from the rich to the not-rich.

What could possibly make the conclusion follow from the premise here? It would follow (more or less) if we added something like the following premise.

P2. Equality is an ‘all-or-nothing’ value – there’s no egalitarian value in having greater equality between members of society unless it amounts to perfect equality.

It’s not logical validity, but from P1 and P2 I think we’d grant the conclusion. The problem is that no one believes P2. And John argued for something more or less completely opposed to it.

The only people who’d think P2 is true are those who (a) believe that equality is intrinsically valuable – like say Cohen but clearly unlike John who is giving an instrumentalist defence of egalitarianism, and (b) are stark raving mad.

Those of us who agree with P1 but think equality is an instrumental value, or a value that comes in degrees, can perfectly well endorse steeply progressive taxation, equal opportunity laws, publicly funded education and all the other things that make for a more equal society without the (genuine) costs of authoritarian states. Unless the hidden premise in Sebastian’s argument is very different to what I think it is, I can’t see a reason why he’s shown otherwise.

9

john c. halasz 04.17.04 at 12:09 am

Briefly, since I’m due at work now, but I always thought, simplistically, of course, that the normative core of the notion of equality derived from the reversibility of speaker and hearer in natural language, that equality of consideration is the right to speak for oneself, which, obversely is the obligation to hear and listen. I would question on this ground Mr. Carone’s insistence that liberty takes priority over equality, as I don’t see how the two can be clearly dissociated or separated in terms of the speech situation.

Just to add a further twist to the argument from diminishing claims, the outcomes of a market system are in some considerable measure based on a play of contingencies, that is, successful ventures are due in some part to chance or luck. So, if one extends the market game through the playing of numerous hands or rounds, it is unlikely that the same players would come out ahead overall, that is, that winning players would optimally utilize resources in the subsequent rounds, ceteris paribus. So a partial redistribution of resources with each round would likely enhance the optimalization of the utilization of resources in collective, aggregated terms.

10

msg 04.17.04 at 10:39 am

First there was natural selection, pretty much, which forced us to develop large brains and social complexity, which then allowed us to subvert, co-opt, defer, and eliminate that same force of natural selection on us; and then out of that artificial ecology rises this clot of dismal scientists, arguing amongst themselves as to whether or not we should recommence the natural selection thing, only of course without ever leaving the matrix of human artifice. Making it a kind of artificial natural selection, eh?
You can see some of them champing at the bit for the return of the rule of tooth and claw, now that they’re the ones so endowed.
You can see them responding with a fatalistic shrug to the elimination of the unfit from a system we control.
But we were shaped first by a system over which we had no control.
There’s a quote from a ‘Bushman’ elder, to the effect that if he were to enter a Prime Minister’s home and tell him to get out, and go live somehwere else, he would be considered mad.

The world’s on fire, and this fecal-hearted economy, the exchange of the real for the unreal, is what did it.

11

matt cavanagh 04.18.04 at 9:17 pm

I am grateful to John Q for his thoughtful and serious criticism – a happy change from the recent past. Here are a few thoughts in reply.

John is surprised by ‘the extent to which Cavanagh’s analysis takes for granted assumptions that (on the left at least) have been widely accepted only in the past fifteen years or so… almost throughout, Cavanagh takes it for granted that the problem setting is one where there is a person called an employer who has a right to allocate a job and the question is to what extent the state should interfere with that right.’

I think it is a little unfair to say that I ‘take [this] for granted’. I set out my position early in the book [p.10]:

‘So long as we intend to persist with anything resembling a market economy (and the equal opportunity debate better had make this assumption, if it wants to keep people interested), the owners of private sector companies must be in some kind of privileged position when it comes to deciding who gets jobs in those companies – even if ultimately we decide that they do not have the right to hire just whoever they want.’

So – if I take anything for granted, it is not specifically employers’ rights, but the free market right to spend your money how you wish. My point is that if we take this for granted elsewhere – if we accept at least as a starting point that people have the prima facie right to spend their money as they wish – then we have to explain why we don’t accept it as the starting point here too. We have to explain how a private sector employer’s decision of who to hire is different from anyone else’s decision of how to spend their money.

This is not to say that this is difficult to do; indeed I go on to spend some pages doing it. My point is that many on the left don’t seem to think they have to do it – that is, don’t have to explain why they don’t accept the free market as a starting point in this area, even though they accept it elsewhere.

As for the wider question of whether we should accept the free market as the starting point anywhere – here too I think it is unfair to say that I take this for granted. At least, rather than ‘taking it for granted’ in the sense of failing to see either its significance or contestability or both, I take it for granted in the sense of accepting it as one of the parameters of the equal opportunity debate, at least in the way most people outside academic philosophy think about the debate.

That doesn’t mean I’m uninterested in having the argument about whether it is sensible to regard it as a parameter; it’s just that I saw this as lying outside the scope of the book. Moreover, given that it is accepted as a parameter by most left-wing politicians, even if not most left-wing political philosophers, I still think that was a reasonable view to take.

Of course, I would be being disingenuous if I pretended to utter neutrality on this wider argument. It is pretty clear from the book that I have a deal of sympathy with the libertarian position. I criticise what I call the ‘top-down approach’ for

‘encourag[ing] us to think of jobs as if they are sitting there in a big pile waiting to be distributed, [and encouraging] a tendency to see decisions about jobs exclusively from the point of view of the applicants, and to forget about employers altogether.’

Against this, I suggest that

‘in a liberal state, there has to be a general presumption in favour of leaving people free to make their own decisions, and this presumption doesn’t simply disappear when we switch from, for example, thinking about an applicant making a decision about which jobs to apply for, to thinking about an employer making a decision about who to hire. In both cases people will sometimes make decisions in the wrong way, or simply make the wrong decisions, but none the less there are good reasons why we should leave them free to make these mistakes. It is true that in the applicant’s case there is more of a sense that the decision affects him alone; but that doesn’t mean the argument for freedom is completely absent in the other case.’

But – without being disingenuous – in saying this I was trying to acknowledge the power of the libertarian argument, rather than its truth. Ten years ago, I used to go to Jerry Cohen’s seminars, and he used to say there were two kinds of left-wingers: those who are bothered by libertarianism and those who aren’t. I was probably already in the first camp – though he helped me see that more clearly than before. These days I oscillate between having no problem with those who are in the second camp, so long as they don’t have a problem with me (for example, so long as they don’t argue that anyone who claims to be in the first camp can’t really be a left-winger at all); and feeling that those in the second camp must be missing something.

The second (and separate) point I want to make concerns John’s criticisms of my treatment of the ‘diminishing claims’ argument. John says I reject this in part because it ‘isn’t the “right” sort of argument for equality, since it isn’t inherently about relative relationships between people’. John then comments that ‘for an opponent of egalitarianism to reject arguments because they don’t meet an arbitrary standard of egalitarian purity seems nonsensical to me.’

Again, I think this is a little unfair. What I say in the book [p. 128-131] is that

‘the power and usefulness of this idea, of diminishing claims, creates a strategic problem for egalitarians. [Egalitarians] need to explain why we should give everyone an equal amount of money, rather than giving everyone an equal chance of becoming a millionaire. They can explain this by invoking the idea of diminishing claims, which implies that inequality of shares is worse than inequality of chances. But this risks undermining their whole position [because it implies that] in the kind of case where it is impossible to equalize shares, and we can only equalize chances, we no longer have any reason to favour equality. We no longer have any reason to favour equality because people’s claims on chances, as distinct from their claims on goods themselves, are not diminishing.’ [I then go on to say why.]

And of course many (though not all) supporters of equal opportunity believe precisely that this is one of those cases where it is impossible to equalize shares and we can only equalize chances. This is precisely what is involved in shifting from equality of outcome to equality of opportunity – perhaps the most significant shift in mainstream left-wing thought over the last few years. Again, I myself do not believe this shift is inevitable, either logically or politically. I am merely pointing out that many of those who argue for equality of opportunity have themselves made this shift, as a matter of personal intellectual history; and indeed they often include it as a specific step in their argument – saying that since equality of outcome is impossible (or would have unacceptable costs), we should go for the next best thing, equality of opportunity. My point is that this kind of egalitarian needs to think hard before they invoke the idea of diminishing claims to support their position.

John also notes a subsidiary argument against the idea of diminishing claims, that

[John’s quote] ‘In some contexts, it may not lead to decisions to equalise the distribution of resources. In health care triage problems, for example, it implies allocating health care resources to those who can gain most benefit from them, not to those whose health is initially worst.’

Or, as I put it,

‘the neediest cases are sometimes also those in which we would make the least difference’.

John complains that I have given no reason for supposing that this also applies to the context of equal opportunity. True, and this is a regrettable omission. But not too difficult to rectify – whether we are talking about education or employment (the two areas in which the idea of equal opportunity is still most readily deployed). In education, what are now termed ‘special needs’ cases are both the most in need of our help (certainly from an equal opportunity perspective) and also the most resource-intensive. In employment, the same is true of the long-term unemployed, and may also be true of many of the millions of people in the UK on incapacity benefit.

That seems to cover the main points. I hope not in a way that seems overly defensive – but for reasons of space and time I felt I should concentrate on the areas of disagreement. Again, I want to thank John and others who have commented for their interest. I think what characterises all the contributions is that these are ideas that need thinking and talking about – rather than blithely carrying on with the assumption that they must be right, even if we don’t know exactly why. Trying to challenge this assumption, and to get the debate going, was a large part of why I wrote the book. If it has made some small contribution to that, that makes me think it was worthwhile – as well as making it easier to retain a sense of perspective on the other kind of attention the book has lately attracted, for which I am grateful.

Matt

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