Saturday, November 10, 2007


Equality of opportunity, fairness of outcome

This is a response I posted to James Graham's post On Equality. I'm replicating it here, partly because it ended up as something of an essay, but also because the thoughts came out a lot more developed than I thought they would.

James wrote:

Ultimately, a commitment to true equality means moving outside the narrow confines of concepts like “meritocracy”, “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome” and instead appreciating the bigger picture. Ideally, equality of opportunity ought to produce equality of outcome. In the real world we are never going to achieve that ideal but the creative tension between the two can lead to progress. By contrast, an opportunity-centric approach in the way that Andy Mayer espouses is like a factory owner having a machine in which he believes he can get the best products by putting the finest raw materials in one end, but who refuses point blank to look at what comes out at the other end.
I think as liberals we ought to be OK with the idea that person A makes more money than person B because they work harder or have better ideas. In that sense, absolute equality of outcome would be an affront to natural justice. Perhaps fairness of outcome would be a better term.

But James is right, it would be equally daft to ignore outcomes altogether when designing a fair society. For a start, there are some pretty obvious injustices - the way that women and ethnic minorities are under-represented in Parliament or on the boards of FTSE 100 companies, for example.

As a rule though I tend to believe that providing equality of opportunity is the best way to influence outcomes. I think that intervening directly in outcomes should be a tool of last resort - because to do so blunts incentives and as such limits people from reaching their full potential… not to mention enslaving people by conformity!

The biggest problem we have in British politics is that no party has attempted more than a nod at solving the biggest problem facing equality of opportunity in this country. James mentioned it himself - wealth distribution.

Socioeconomic status at birth is still by far the biggest predictor of outcomes in education, in employment, and in politics. And from a point of view of providing equality of any kind, it simply stinks.

The economist Tim Harford in his book The Undercover Economist suggests a way that you could acheive radical wealth redistribution without affecting incentives - just give everyone a lump sum at birth to compensate for the opportunities (or lack of) that you expect them to have.

That’s the sort of radical policy shift I would like us to be looking at.


I just bought Harford's book so I look forward to finding that proposal in it!

It also sounds like precisely the principle behind the "pupil premium" (as properly interpreted!) that we seem to be hearing so much about at the moment!

I'd like to hear more about the Pupil Premium idea, actually. It sounds like it uses the same broad principle, but I've not yet had the opportunity to look into any of the detail.

I will look out for it when Nick publishes his manifesto!

I think the main policy stuff about this on this was in the poverty paper that you can find here, in the paper entitled "Freedom from Poverty, Opportunity for All".

In fact I'm not sure if Nick is planning to publish a manifesto as such.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Printed (hosted) by Blogger. Published and promoted by S Ayris on behalf of J Taylor (Liberal Democrat), all at 7 Park Grange Croft, Sheffield S2 3QJ. The views expressed are those of the party, not the service provider.

Blogging Liberal Britain
Since 2006