Equality of Opportunity

According to Dylan Matthews’ write-up of an interview with Bryan Caplan at Vox, Caplan’s elevator pitch is:

“What would you think about a law that said that blacks couldn’t get a job without the government’s permission, or women couldn’t get a job without the government’s permission, or gays or Christians or anyone else?” George Mason economist Bryan Caplan asks. It’s a pretty easy question. Obviously, such a law is discriminatory on its face, serves no rational purpose, and is unacceptable in a liberal democracy. But Caplan continues: “So why, exactly, is it that people who are born on the wrong side of the border have to get government permission just to get a job?”

This argument, also discussed in the “equal opportunity” tab of our permanent content, may be the most effective way to make the case for open borders in two sentences, but I’m ambivalent about it. The ethical intuition it appeals to is equality of opportunity. This is a rather novel principle which, however, is widely accepted in our society as a supremely important moral desideratum, almost a synonym for justice. But I don’t believe in equality of opportunity. Not only is it an impossible ideal, it’s not even especially desirable. And while it’s hard to quantify, I suspect that modern Western society’s pursuit of that ideal has done a lot of harm.

Before I go on, let me say that Caplan’s “elevator case” only presumes that the government policy shouldn’t actively create inequality of opportunity. That’s probably a fairly sound principle of government for contemporary applications. But it’s a short step from asking “why should people born on the wrong side of the border have worse lives?” to asking “why should people born to poor parents have worse lives?” or even “why should people born with genes that make them mentally subpar have worse lives?” Soon you’ve activated luck egalitarian intuitions that people’s destinies ought to depend only on their efforts, and not on factors outside their control, and people start demanding that government policies and individual ethics should be drafted into service to realize comprehensive equality of opportunity in the world. This is a wrong road on which Western society has already traveled a long way.

Equality of opportunity is an appropriate desideratum in certain kinds of games. Take chess, for example. Chess is structured with a view to giving players an equal opportunity to win. They start with the same number and types of pieces, in symmetric positions on the board. Moves alternate, giving players equal numbers of chances to play. Well, almost. White’s first-mover advantage in chess is a well-established fact. In a sense, that’s a flaw in chess, but what can you do? Someone has to move first. Chess would be less interesting if there were huge departures from equality of opportunity, e.g., if White got two moves for every move by Black, or if White started with one rook less. The exception here proves the rule. Sometimes a stronger player deprives himself at the beginning of a rook. This is done to give the weaker player a chance, i.e., to restore equality of opportunity. But just because equality of opportunity is a good norm for all manner of games, doesn’t make it a good norm to try to realize in the life of societies.

In the US, the sanctity of equality of opportunity is a side-effect of the way we dealt with the deep historical tragedy of American blacks (i.e., African-Americans, but like some blacks I don’t like the phrase African-American, since it makes them sound foreign, when the average black bloodline must go back further on American soil than the average white bloodline). While many waves of immigrants to the US have assimilated comfortably, American blacks remain a distinctive, and in many respects a disadvantaged, people, and I think the reason is that they never consented to be part of the American people in the first place, so instead of the sense of social contract that is felt by people of free immigrant origins, the black community is pervaded by an understandable sense of historical grievance. If to reason about justice among groups in this way somewhat offends individualistic ethical assumptions, that doesn’t change the fact of long-term black alienation, passed from generation to generation and absorbed by osmosis from a social milieu, and ultimately rooted in the historical experiences of enslavement and segregation. To regard the imposition of equality of opportunity through anti-discrimination laws as a redress for historic wrongs is, for multiple reasons, an insult to justice, yet it may well have been the least bad way to heal the harmful legacy of racial slavery on the US body politic. But that doesn’t mean that equality of opportunity is a valid ethical principle in general.

The issue goes far beyond race. Whether attempts to apply the principle of equality of opportunity to gender have wrought net good or net harm, I’m not sure. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart grimly documents (among other things) how family breakdown has created a new underclass, and it’s hard to imagine that the surge in divorce and illegitimacy in the US doesn’t have something to do with the comprehensive attack by advocates of equality of opportunity on traditional marriage and its sexual division of labor. On the other hand, a lot of women now enjoy opportunities to pursue excellence that they wouldn’t have had. But that’s good because opportunities to pursue excellence are good in themselves, not because it’s especially important for them to be equally distributed across identifiable social groups such as genders, still less because equality of opportunity across individuals is attainable or desirable.

A race-blind society is a semi-attainable goal. A gender-blind society is not. It might just be possible to make education and labor markets gender-blind, but in the marriage market, sociobiology ensures that men will tend to like somewhat younger women, and will place less value on a mate’s education and potential income, while women are instinctively hypergamous. People will continue to respond to these gendered incentives in ways that make their aggregate performance differ in education and labor markets too, and that isn’t a problem, except from the warped point of view that sees equality of opportunity as a moral imperative. A dogmatic insistence that men and women must have the same opportunities in life will certainly make the problems harder, not easier, to think about clearly, and to deal with sensibly.

Equality of opportunity is sometimes thought of as “meritocratic” and conducive to efficiency, but it can also conflict with efficiency. Norman (2003) proves this in the abstract, by showing that statistical discrimination– “stereotypes”– can be a useful source of information, and can facilitate specialization and networking. Statistical discrimination can even be Pareto-improving, meaning that even the direct victims of statistical discrimination benefit from it, since privileged groups, if not compelled to include them, become more productive in activities that are complementary to those left to the excluded groups. Norman (2003) shows only that this is an abstract possibility, but I suspect that the growth of credentialism, whose wastefulness is one of Bryan Caplan’s regular themes, is partly a consequence of the spread of the principle of equality of opportunity, which made it politically incorrect to just hire trusted cronies or co-ethnics, and forced people to rely instead on impersonal systems like college that filter people much more expensively, and are trickier for less capable people to navigate.

Economic theory provides a certain clarity here. Economists like to speak of people’s “opportunity sets.” They usually start with simplified two-good models, e.g., if you have $10, and apples cost $1, and pears cost $2, you can buy 10 apples, or 8 apples and 1 pear, or 6 apples and 2 pears, etc. But the concept of an opportunity set is extensible to unlimited numbers of goods and services, and the budget constraint concept applies not just to money but to time, and maybe to other things like willpower, social capital, and appetite. Take all this into account, and the opportunity set that each of us faces when we start life is very, very complicated. What can equality of opportunity mean except that these opportunity sets ought to be identical for every individual born? And that, of course, is absurd. Or you could try to save the concept by aiming to equalize the “value,” in some sense, of people’s opportunity sets, but those schooled in the rigorous theory of value developed by economists know that it can’t do any such work. And attempts to make people’s opportunity sets more equal, beyond a certain point, must make the world more homogeneous and less interesting. Variety is the spice of life, and much of the social variety that we enjoy has its roots in differences of experience and circumstance that began well before the age of responsibility, and which would have to be erased, for more equality of opportunity to be attained.

I think one reason people value equality of opportunity is that they identify it with the democratic social contract. Equality of opportunity is an attempt to translate into the economic sphere the principle of “one person, one vote.” The Constitution lets any American (voters willing) be president, so the capitalist economy should be organized so that everyone has a chance at being the CEO of Coca-Cola or Google. By this account, it’s because everyone had a chance at being rich, that the capitalist system is fair, and deserves our support or at least acquiescence. There’s a naïve version of this argument and a cynical version. The naïve version really believes that equality of opportunity exists or is attainable, and seeks to protect or to establish it, so that the have-nots won’t be justified in launching a revolution. The cynical version knows that equality of opportunity is unattainable, but wants to preserve it as a myth, so that the have-nots will be told they could have had it all, but for their own indolence and mistakes, and that will demoralize them too much to make a revolution. Perhaps I’m attacking a straw man here, but I’m not sure.

What’s absurd about the contemporary West’s partially sincere commitment to equality of opportunity is that Western immigration restrictions are as flagrant and unmistakable a violation of equality of opportunity as could be imagined. That’s why Caplan’s attack is so devastating. The West excludes the vast majority of mankind from opportunities to prosper in the West that many would take advantage of, and benefit by, if they were allowed. By excluding them, we condemn to poverty, poor education, limited political freedom, and often disease and/or violence many who would come to the West and flourish. Equality of opportunity demands open borders.

Inequality within the West is mild compared to global inequality. Feminists scheduled Equal Pay Day on April 14, 2014 to complain that women (collectively) have to work until that date to make as much as men made in 2013. The implicit desideratum makes little economic sense even if the principle of equality of opportunity is accepted (a few happy housewives working part-time would bring the average down for women, but it would not represent any societal injustice) but for purposes of comparison, if estimates of the place premium were used to calculate an “Equal Pay Day” for foreigners, it would have to be postponed several years. In addition to economic inequalities, many foreigners suffer from a severe lack of religious and/or political freedom.

Once an interlocutor understands that equality of opportunity demands open borders, they have two choices. They can cling to a moral belief in equality of opportunity as a compelling desideratum, and accept that this entails opening the borders. But open borders would fall far short of delivering the unattainable, boring utopia of equality of opportunity. People born in poor countries would still be disadvantaged by not knowing English, not getting as much free education, and perhaps by not inculcating the ineffable habits and values that make Westerners free and productive.

On the other hand, an interlocutor might regard open borders as the reductio ad absurdum of equality of opportunity, and abandon that moral principle. That’s fine, too. Let’s abandon that misguided ideal and think more rationally about how to promote human flourishing. Still, there is a little merit in the idea of equality of opportunity, and we should have a bias against government policies, like immigration restrictions, that directly and massively work against it.

By the way, those who have read to the end of this post may be interested in an earlier argument of mine that “private discrimination against immigrants is morally fine and should be legal.” Also relevant is my post “No Irish Need Apply.”

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

5 thoughts on “Equality of Opportunity”

  1. Equality of Opportunity by Nathan Smith once again shows total and complete lack of comprehension of the immigration onslaught swamping the West. To think that America discriminates against legal immigration must be the dumbest contention of Smith’s essay. The USA takes in more legal immigrants than all other countries combined.

    Additionally, the third world adds 80 million more people annually, thus human overpopulation that cannot be sustained. He would see all 80 million desperate people flooding into the USA without consequence to our civilization. Of course, he thinks it’s our responsibility to save the rest of the world’s overpopulated countries. How about they save themselves, take care of themselves, feed themselves and practice birth control Mr. Smith? How about personal accountability?

    He needs to study reality, carrying capacity, water footprint, energy footprint, species extinction rates of overloaded countries, cultural IQ and energy footprint. No amount of endless immigration will solve America’s black breakdown, lack of employment or family breakdown–but in fact, make it worse and still worse after that to a point that black America cements itself into intractable poverty.

    So often, the writers of high academic and lofty thoughts throw down so much intellectual stupidity in this forum that I can hardly stomach their lack of a reality-based theme.

    The reason for such poverty in the third world stems from cultural–intellectual poverty. When they flood into first world countries, they recreate the same in those countries. Smith needs to walk down into Chicago or LA for a harsh reminder of reality. Check that in 2014, the USA features 42 million people who cannot read, write or perform simple math.

    Again, the USA remains on course to add 100 million legal immigrants from 150 poverty torn nations, their birth rates and chain-migrated relatives within 36 years. It’s unsustainable Mr. Smith. Get that, or remain out of touch with reality. You degrade our civilization for your esoteric nonsense.

    Frosty Wooldridge, 6 continent world bicycle traveler and realist

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