In which I ask, How Can We Know If Equality of Opportunity Has Been Obtained?

I have been embroiled in a debate lately about Equality of Opportunity versus Equality of Outcome.

The basic form of the controversy has been that, on one side, Equality of Outcome has been presented as a kind-hearted flaw that ultimately descends into totalitarianism. Instead, so the claim goes, we should endeavour to ensure Equality of Opportunity.

My consistent opposition to this is that the myth of Equality of Opportunity is simply a justification for the economically privileged to maintain their power over society.

Now, for those that can only imagine the worst possible ills arising from Equality of Outcome you might need a stiff drink, for I am going to present to you the following unassailable fact:

Striving for Equality of Outcome is the only way to ensure Equality of Opportunity.

The reasoning arises from the basic premise that people are generally equal. I am not talking about simply in rights, but in abilities, skills, intelligence. People, regardless of race, gender, geographical location, and so, generally fall close to the mean. This is not to say that they aren’t spectacular individuals who deviate, one way or the other, from the mean, only that, for the most part, people aren’t that different. As Oscar Wilde pointed out, the brotherhood of man “is a most depressing and humiliating reality.”

Whether we take average height, average IQ, or whatever, in any group of randomly selected people the characteristics of the individuals are going to fall pretty closely to whatever point of comparison we choose.

It is to be expected, then, that when of equality of opportunity is established, equality of outcome will more or less follow. There will be, of course, individuals that are either exceptional or have had exceptional circumstances, but even those will be balanced out, to some extent, by the inverse instances.

It is only by studying outcomes that we can truly determine exactly how close our society comes to equality of opportunity. It is only by striving for equality of outcome that we can achieve equality of opportunity. Any thought about equality of opportunity which does not take into account outcomes is operating in a vacuum and will never fully grasp its goal.

For an example, Aboriginals have significantly shorter lifespans than others in Australia, face higher rates of incarceration, face higher rates of medical problems, and so on. The list is a shameful indictment on Australia, and its refusal to help its own people.

But of course, racial discrimination is now outlawed, Aboriginals have the same basic rights as others, and have had legal recognition of their prior claim to Australia. By all accounts, under the theory of Equality of Opportunity, Aboriginals are as well off as anybody else.

Except they aren’t. At this point the theory of Equality of Opportunity must now place the failure to obtain equal outcomes squarely at their own feet. That is, Aboriginal people must be inherently inferior to others who, given the same access to opportunity, have obtained more positive outcomes.

Which is of course bollocks. Racist bollocks.

Faced with this, proponents of Equality of Opportunity have two options. They can either deny that this accurately represents Equality of Opportunity, or they can deny that Aboriginals have equality of opportunity.

In both cases, my response is the same: How do you know?

In the first case, by not striving for Equality of Outcome, by what basis can you guarantee that the conditions set in place to engender equality of opportunity are not re-enforcing unconscious bias?

In the second case, what evidence, if not regarding outcomes, could possibly be presented that proves equality of opportunity has not been obtained?

In both cases, the success of Equality of Opportunity can only be measured in terms of Equality of Outcome.

In summary, Equality of Opportunity divorced from Equality of Outcome is a myth designed to make the success of certain individuals seem natural and deserved–even God-given. By completely ignoring that poverty, domestic abuse, and so on, are cycles whose natural condition is to continue, the myth of Equality of Opportunity enshrines the status quo.

Blindly and uncritically promoting Equality of Opportunity, and disavowing Equality of Outcome, simply lands us in an already existent process without any possible means of investigating anything. Without striving for equality of outcome, Equality of Opportunity is a mantra which is, at worst, endlessly oppressive, or, at best, blind to the point of meaninglessness.

Footnote: Of course I recognise that Equality of Outcome is a problematic principle. Working from my example above, Aboriginal people–or anybody– should not be pushed into an outcome which they themselves do not desire simply because the numbers are needed to achieve “Equality of Outcome.” However, I feel comfortable with the ideal at the level which requires that Aboriginal people do not die younger than the general population and are not incarcerated at levels higher than the general population. Not only should this stand for all groups of people, but it should also stand for any random cross-section.

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29 May, 2012 · 9:16 pm

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