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The “Equality of Opportunity” Fallacy

Summary:
Many people argue in this way: The 1964 Civil Rights Act was fine. No one should be discriminated against because of his race or sex. Because blacks and women have suffered such discrimination in the past, it may be that programs like affirmative action are justified, at least temporarily. However, the purpose of these programs should be to promote equality of opportunity. Everybody deserves an equal chance to live a good life or, at any rate, a fair chance.The problem that has arisen since the passage of the 1964 act, it is further alleged, is that “equality of outcomes or results” has come to replace “equality of opportunity.” This is a socialistic measure that is incompatible with the free market. In short—equality of opportunity, good; equality of results,

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Many people argue in this way: The 1964 Civil Rights Act was fine. No one should be discriminated against because of his race or sex. Because blacks and women have suffered such discrimination in the past, it may be that programs like affirmative action are justified, at least temporarily. However, the purpose of these programs should be to promote equality of opportunity. Everybody deserves an equal chance to live a good life or, at any rate, a fair chance.

The problem that has arisen since the passage of the 1964 act, it is further alleged, is that “equality of outcomes or results” has come to replace “equality of opportunity.” This is a socialistic measure that is incompatible with the free market. In short—equality of opportunity, good; equality of results, bad. People who say this differ in the extent to which government intervention is needed to bring about equality of opportunity, with “conservatives” favoring much less intervention than “liberals.” Libertarians, from this perspective, would be those who think that little or no such intervention is needed.

In a column published by the Hoover Institution, David Davenport gives a good statement of this position:

One end of the spectrum is traditional equality of opportunity as envisioned and embraced by the founders. In this view, men and women are created equal and therefore have equal rights, especially political and legal rights. From that starting point, people are free to make their own choices on how, as the Declaration of Independence put it, to pursue happiness. Guaranteeing individual rights, so that people are free to choose, is the primary role of government in this traditional view of equality of opportunity. Paring back the role of government regulation in people’s lives, reducing taxes, and promoting individual freedom was President Reagan’s path back toward this more traditional view and many conservatives still advocate this today.

From a Rothbardian standpoint, it must be said that this way of looking at things is entirely mistaken. People in a libertarian society own themselves and their legitimately acquired property, no more and no less. Everyone has these rights, and in this sense, it is permissible to say that people have equal rights, but to avoid confusion, it is better to say that everyone has the same rights. These rights emphatically do not include the “rights” to equal opportunity or equal results. They emphatically include the right to discriminate against others on grounds of race or sex.

We can go further. One criticism that is often made of equality of opportunity concerns the difficulties of putting this into practice. Everyone faces different opportunities: How are these to be measured? As Murray Rothbard observes with characteristic insight:

Many people believe that, though equality of income is an absurd ideal, it can be replaced by the ideal of equality of opportunity. Yet this, too, is as meaningless as the former concept. How can the New Yorker’s opportunity and the Indian’s opportunity to sail around Manhattan, or to swim in the Ganges, be “equalized”? Man’s inevitable diversity of location effectively eliminates any possibility of equalizing “opportunity.”

And if we could specify some rough notion of equality, putting it into practice would require drastic upheavals in people’s way of living that most of us would find unacceptable. For example, wouldn’t children have to be raised in common to avoid the influence of their families? Would the beautiful and intelligent need to be subjected to operations so that they would not excel over the rest? Related to this is the great economist Thomas Sowell’s point that we cannot achieve “cosmic justice.” We must do the best we can, accepting the limitations of human beings as we find them, rather than attempt to remedy all wrongs.

These criticisms are valid, but they do not strike to the root of the matter. They suggest, though they do not strictly imply, that the real failing of equality of opportunity is on the practical level. It’s a nice idea, but we just can’t do it. What we need to ask, instead, is why equality is supposed to be good at all? Suppose, as seems very likely, that in a libertarian society some people have vastly better “life prospects” than others. Is this better than a libertarian society in which people have roughly the same “life prospects”? Why should we assume this? We are never offered an argument that equality as such is good. We ought not to “accept the enemy’s premise” and then claim that we can better achieve equality, given its various risks and costs, than socialists and left liberals can do. I hasten to add that Rothbard himself was well aware of the point at issue and rejected the “ideal” of equality altogether.

The matter is of more than merely theoretical importance, as once we accept equality of opportunity, we will be subjected to disputes before biased judges that we cannot win. David Davenport has explained the arguments:

But liberals argue that the government must engage in programs to increase equality of opportunity for the poor and disadvantaged, and also for ethnic groups that have been left behind in society. Johnson’s Great Society sought to move the federal government strongly in this direction, but history suggests that it is very difficult for government to move the needles on opportunity and equality. Government keeps adding to the social safety net and building out the welfare state in the hope of creating greater equality. Do we need to add universal health care to the social and economic agenda? Should we pay off everyone’s college debt? Conservatives argue that this is not the proper role of government and such programs do not work, but the debate and policy implementation continue.

We need to repeal the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and subsequent laws that extend this act, rather than work with the framework of the act, endeavoring to “reform” it. Only if we resolutely support our own conception of a libertarian society can we succeed. The devil is compromise!


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