Equality and equality of opportunity

A lot of people say they don’t believe in equality as such.

Instead they believe in equality of opportunity.

But you can’t have equality of opportunity without equality of starting points.

Nor can you have equality of bargaining power, nor equality of political power.


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An American with growing up in a poor neighborhood in a big city, or in a poor, isolated rural area, with parents who are unemployed and poorly educated, does not have the same opportunity to rise in the world as I did, as a boy born to middle-class, college-educated parents in a small town.

Nor did I myself have the same opportunities as the sons of millionaires, such as George W. Bush, Mitt Romney or Donald Trump.

I don’t think that this is something you can change, at least not in a fundamental way within our existing system.

There are things that can be done to increase equality of opportunity without changing cash income.  These include services—help to pregnant mothers, public schools, nutritious school lunches, public libraries, higher education—that are equally available to everyone.


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They also include laws to protect people from being denied opportunities because of race, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation.

But the completely level playing field does not exist.  A certain degree of inequality of opportunity is inevitable in a free enterprise society, as is a certain degree of inequality of political power.

How do you strike the balance between rewarding people for what they actually accomplish, and judging their accomplishments based on the obstacles they have had to overcome?

I don’t have a good answer for this.  What is reasonable to expect is that (1) a smart ambitious person starting out at the bottom of the income scale should do better than a lazy ignorant person starting out at the top of the income scale and (2) all hard-working, honest people should be able earn enough to provide a decent material standard of living.


Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong by Matt O’Brien for the Washington Post.

Unpacking education and teacher impact by P.J. Thomas for the National Education Policy Center.


Actually, while there is less social mobility in the USA than in some of the egalitarian countries of western Europe, I think that we have a more opportunity to rise than many societies of the past.

I’ve been reading novels by the Victorian writer Anthony Trollope and, in his world, there is a 90 percent chance or maybe even 99 percent chance that you’ll spend your life in the economic and social into which you were born.

The main way that a Trollope character could rise into a higher economic and social class was by marrying into it, and I’m sure that was true in real life as well.  People in Trollope novels could improve their economic condition incrementally, or they could lose everything by incurring debts they couldn’t pay, but lower-class upstarts were regarded as suspicious.

The question for me is not whether things could be worse than they are in the present-day USA, or the world as a whole.   The question is whether they have to be as bad as they are.


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One Response to “Equality and equality of opportunity”

  1. John Pennington Says:

    There are even more factors of equality, some of which begin before birth. I’ll post my thoughts this week.


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