Equality Misconceptions: A Libertarian Review


In modern society, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could be opposed to equality, and yet it’s still a subject of debate. The assumption is that anyone opposed to equality holds a collective prejudice against a different race or gender based on some irrational belief of moral or genetic superiority. There’s no denying that these people exist, but they’re nowhere near numerous enough to make equality a controversial issue.

The debate is, partially, one gigantic misunderstanding of definitions. Just about everyone supports this notion, but the average person doesn’t understand the ideological dichotomy between equality of opportunity and of outcome. The misconceptions of these two types is what leads people to believe that if an opponent does not support their advocacy for equality, they must be prejudiced in some form.

Equality of Opportunity

The concept  advocates equality under the law, meaning that a legal system should apply equally to everyone within a society. Laws that specifically and intentionally target members of a certain demographic (for any reason) go directly against this kind of equality. Policies like affirmative action would be in violation of equality of opportunity, because by attempting to enforce equality of outcome, they are not treating people fairly.

Advocates of this kind of equality fully understand that some external factors prevent everyone from having an exactly equal level of opportunity as everyone else. Differences in genetics, natural talents, parenting, and personal connections can make life easier or harder from person to person, but nobody (especially those in government) can manage all of society to mediate these differences without violating people’s rights and micromanaging many aspects of society.

Equal opportunity is a principle supported by many conservatives, (classical) liberals, libertarians, liberalists, and other philosophies that value meritocracy. When people have equal opportunity, they have the freedom to pursue their own rational self-interest, and the freedom to achieve what they desire to the best of their ability. Not only is this guiding principle the most practical option for a society, but it is also the moral option. To achieve equality of opportunity, government need only to step back and lift any restraints it may have on certain groups of people.

Equality of Outcome

Equal outcome is the opposite and opposing form of this. Whereas equal opportunity works to even the starting point, of outcome focuses on evening the endpoint. Those concerned with of the outcome see things like wealth inequality as a legitimate problem that needs to be fixed. Leftist ideologies like communism and socialism support this form of equality, and thus directly oppose equality of opportunity.

There are numerous moral and practical issues with trying to achieve this type of equality. In terms of morality, enforcing equality of outcome requires providing some managing authority (usually a government) with the ability to micromanage many aspects of each person’s life, all in the name of enforcing similarity to others around them.

Practically, a system that enforces equality of outcome is always doomed to fail. Some advocates of this type of equality mistakenly believe in the concept of tabula rasa, otherwise known as “the blank slate,” which claims that all humans are born without innate tendencies, and external environment creates these tendencies. A book by Steven Pinker of the same name presents a comprehensive explanation of why this concept is entirely false.

The blank slate suggests that all human mental differences are mere social constructs. It rejects the idea that males naturally tend to be masculine and that females naturally tend to be feminine, along with numerous other similar concepts. If this is true (which it isn’t), this means that any differences among demographic groups are caused by pressures within society, and must be repaired.

Thomas Sowell covers this topic in Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality, explaining that comparing two groups and expecting equal representation is unfair. Men and women (to use an example) have some biological differences, and thus expecting a world without discrimination or prejudice to have 50% men and 50% women in every possible measurement is nonsense. Just because two groups have small biological differences doesn’t mean one is genetically superior to the other. It’s much like asking whether an electrician is more important than a nurse. The occupations are very different, but both are important.

When innate individual differences are factored in, it quickly becomes clear that enforcing equality of outcome to its logical conclusion would require some form of Harrison Bergeron dystopia.

The Equality Dichotomy

Both types of equality go directly against one another. When people have equal opportunity, they are free, but when they are free, their outcomes are unequal. This is why the fight for equality rages on. When one side gains ground, the other side loses.

One would normally think that societies with greater gender equality (of opportunity) would be closing the gender gap within STEM fields (aka, equality of outcome). But research actually shows the opposite result, which has been labeled the ‘gender equality paradox’. In nations measured to have a higher level of gender equality of opportunity (meaning women and men have more free choice), fewer women go into STEM fields, which widens the outcome gap.


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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]


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