Ceteris Paribus

Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome…is it the same thing, or not, as recently discussed in The Economist?

It’s appropriate to be talking about opportunity and outcome as the number of Americans in poverty rises, and may get worse, and we argue over the meaning of the 1%-99% divide. I sometimes describe myself as a social liberal and fiscal conservative (and I realize to many that’s an oxymoron, and maybe just a reflection of someone who registers Democrat but thinks they really should vote Republican). But affecting the economic well being of individuals in our society presents a fundamental challenge to anyone who claims to resolve within themselves this ideological dilemma. Being a fiscal conservative means wanting control of your economic outcome, and having the government butt out of affecting it, but being a social liberal means supporting government programs in the name of letting everyone play on the same level field. The irony, and conflict, arises when everyone starts off at the same point but ends up in very different places.

If people start with varying potential (capacity to take advantage of opportunities,) and immediately experience differential opportunities, then it’s almost impossible to imagine equality of outcomes. If all people start with the same potential, the ability to achieve equal outcomes depends on our control over the environmental factors, but they are not only numerous for each individual, they interact in complex ways across groups of individuals. Again it seems impossible to imagine equality of outcomes. That doesn’t mean we should abandon attempts, by the way.

Even if we could affect the path each individual follows, is equality of outcome a generally agreed-to goal? I’ve thought about this when discussing poverty with my public finance students. I distinguish between elimination of poverty and amelioration of the effects of poverty. While, by definition, we can’t eliminate (god forbid!) the poorest 10%, we can make ourselves feel better about how they live. And maybe that’s what public social programs are all about.