Thursday, January 5, 2012

Equality of Opportunity vs. Equality of Outcome

You may or may not have heard arguments over the concepts of equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. Many of these arguments stem over the role of government—what is the government’s job—to provide equality of opportunity, or equality of outcome? (And no, the government cannot provide both—the two are mutually exclusive, but more on that later).

First, we need to understand what the terms equality of outcome and equality of opportunity mean.

Simply put, equality of outcome that the general living conditions, wealth, etc. of everyone in a society are similar. This involves redistribution of wealth from wealthier individuals to poorer individuals. So, everyone ends up basically the same.

In stark contrast, equality of opportunity means that everyone should be treated roughly the same. For example, job seekers are hired based on being the most qualified for a position, and are not discriminated against. You’ve probably heard the term “equal opportunity employer,”—well, that stems from this concept.

As you can see, the two are mutually exclusive—they cannot exist together.
The argument lies in one’s view of fairness, which can be looked at in terms of proportionality—so what does that mean?

Generally speaking, those with a more liberal political leaning view proportionality in terms of outcomes, and view disproportionate wealth accumulation as unfair.

Those who are more politically conservative view proportionality in terms of effort, where wealth acquired in a way that is proportional to effort is fair.

Many political and social ideologies have arisen because of these concepts—most notably, communism, socialism, and capitalism. We’ll discuss those another time, but for now, as you listen to presidential hopefuls, perhaps you’ll have a better understanding of some of their stances on economic and social issues.