Misconceptions of Equality of Opportunity


Depending on the definition, equality is either the controversial issue of our time, or a value we are in full agreement on.

The standard views (put forth in an earlier Misconceptions) go something like this: The left supports equality of outcome, especially concerning different groups, while the right supports equality of opportunity

In addition to each view comes an underlying premise.

Both views accept that all human beings are, to some extent, the same. Those on the modern right would accept that all human beings are generally subject to the same moral law. All moral laws should apply equally to everyone, regardless of class or social status. An act is moral or immoral regardless of whether the actor is upper class or lower class. Everyone should have “equality under the law.”

The modern left accepts this as well, but goes further. They would accept that human beings are, to some extent, equal in nature and largely influenced by the environment. Individual and group differences are largely due to societal structures that perpetuate inequalities. Change society, and these differences will vanish.

Move far enough to the left, and you get the tabula rasa view, which adopts the idea that every human being is a blank slate at birth, to then be shaped entirely by their environment. Move further to the right, and you will find a view that human nature plays a much more significant role, and one can only accept it and work around it, rather than try to change it.

There is one major error in this dichotomy, and it lies with the right’s advocacy of “equality of opportunity.” The right is advocating equality under the law, not equality of opportunity. Equality under the law implies that the law treats everyone equally, and does not grant special favors to specific groups. This restricts the state’s ability to pick winners with legislation.

Equality of opportunity, meanwhile, goes against this. In a truly liberal society, where everyone is equal under the law, people do not have equality of opportunity. True, the market will continue developing opportunities, but people will never have equal opportunity. Assuming we reject tabula rasa and acknowledge that people are different, some people will draw better cards from the genetic lottery than others. Height, which clearly varies from person to person, is advantageous. There will always be people born into luxury and people born into poverty. Some will be born into broken homes, others into healthy families. These factors play a role in the opportunities one has, and will always do so.

As soon as someone advocates for equality of opportunity (in opposition to equality of outcome), one need only point out the fact that people do not have equal opportunities, and never will. To rectify this, we would need a massive totalitarian nanny state. This state would need to get involved with every child, every family, every organization, and monitor and manage them so that they are equal to all the others. We would need government programs to remove any kind of “unconscious bias” that would affect decisions that affect other people. 

Just as there is no logical stopping point for equality of outcome, there isn’t a logical stopping point for equality of opportunity. The phrase does not describe a worldview that aligns with a free society, and therefore should be dropped from discourse. Equality under the law is the only form of equality worth defending.

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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 nkreider@nkreider.com.