Should society favour equality of outcome or opportunity?

26 Aug 2018


The subject of ‘equality’ is one of current political and economic debate when determining its definition and, more importantly for this discussion, its route to triumph.


Free market thinkers have always argued for equality of opportunity in economic order as a framework, not as a result. Progressive thinkers, however, contend a fundamental flaw with an opportunist structure - rising inequality. Instead, they pursue equality of outcome through significant government intervention.


In chapter five of Milton Friedman’s Free To Choose, both these two concepts are analysed in parallel with fairness. Opportunity, to Friedman, is an essential component of liberty. When someone who is qualified for a job is denied on the basis of their ethnic background, colour or religion, they are denied equal opportunity. A thought true today as it was then but seemingly still not present in our ‘democratic’ society.


Outcome though, to Friedman and now myself, is deeply problematic. He relayed that fairness is not an objective concept when dealing with wealth. One man’s garbage is another’s treasure. The crux of the free market ‘may yield odd results and certainly unequal outcomes but the greater opportunities and prosperity have made the trade-off worthwhile for society.’


At present it is difficult to determine what equality ideology is being progressively forwarded by the left as most political commentators on social media platforms are not reflective of mainstream parties. Nevertheless, evidence would suggest that the zeal for equality of outcome by liberals is having a burgeoning effect in the west.


The media roles available to only BAME individuals at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 are an example of public and private companies attempt to increase equality in an ever-growing, multicultural society.


Whilst most agree that this is a modernistic, revisionist concept to pursue, others question the implementation method as an illustration of belligerence in the practice of equality of outcome. It may appear that white people, who are also attempting to acquire a role in a job sector that is scarce and strenuous, have been denied the opportunity to apply for certain roles.


As Jonathan Haidt says in his book, The Righteous Mind, ‘when social justice demands outcomes for all groups, without concern for inputs on third variables, it becomes unjust.’


Another critic is the controversial clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. He argues that forcefully reshaping the tertiary structure to reflect a broader socioeconomic and ethical landscape will affect the current echelons that function in our society both sociologically and biologically.


In his new book, 12 Rules for Life, he warns of the current anomaly in the postmodern left thought towards the current hierarchical structure:  ‘A hierarchy of competence in relation to pursuing goals from less good to good is imperative. If you destroy the hierarchy of power, then you destroy the concept of value.’


You may have also heard of his lobster comparison that initially persuaded me. The higher up a hierarchy a lobster goes, the more its brain produces serotonin, similar to the way humans operate. It is the opportunity to climb the ladder that gives humans a purpose to their value.


His dynamism is for a societal structure that endorses opportunity and not the outcome. To some, myself included, he is blatantly rude, narcissistic and often speaks in hyperbole about post modernists association to Marxism yet, on this particular topic, he makes a compelling case.


Furthermore, for progression in equality, Peterson believes a progressive relationship between liberal and conservative thinkers is an equilibrium for success.


He states that, broadly speaking, ‘liberal thinkers tend to create new values whereas conservative thinkers, whilst monolithic, are effective at implementing new ideas. Both sides, therefore, are at constant odds with one another – like continental plates colliding, forcing the mountain ranges to form– as they help society progress further.’


In the west though, Peterson doesn’t see such collaboration. His trepidation towards equality of outcome is evidenced most notably by Gijsbert Stoets’ study entitled the 'STEM gender-equality paradox', which states that: ‘The pursuit of equality in STEM subjects between boys and girls increased further for boys whilst decreasing for girls in rising national gender equality states.’


The crux of this quotation, and Peterson’s book, is that the more the government attempts to forcefully equal men and women in certain sectors, the further the gap widens. I believe in gender and ethical equality. The opportunity for any individual to achieve their ambition in life, whatever that may be, is a fundamental right.


Yet, the quest for this utopian dream through equality of outcome seems to be failing. Perhaps this is a clear example of liberal values lacking conservative implementation.


Reflecting once again on Friedman’s ‘free to choose’ evolution, this time on a contemporary basis, attempting to equalise the outcome would ‘give less advantage individuals a greater amount of training compared to the advantaged.’


This focus seems to be transcended by those who are advantaged based on one’s property, such as their financial situation. Property, though, can take the form of talent, music ability, strength, and standpoint. From an ethical perspective, is there a difference? I am unsure.


In time myself, Friedman and indeed Peterson may be proven wrong. But for now, I will end with another point from Haidt: ‘Disparate outcomes do not imply disparate treatment.’


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