Measuring Equality of Opportunity

People on opposite sides of political debates often agree on very little, but they do agree on the importance of equality of opportunity. There is almost universal agreement that people should have at least a starting position that guarantees an equal chance of success in whatever life projects one chooses, for those willing to invest an equal amount of effort. More specifically, equality of opportunity is often defined as an equal likelihood of success for all at age 18 (in order to factor in possible inequalities of opportunity determined by education).

Equality of opportunity is by definition an impossible goal. The lottery of birth means more than being unable to choose to be born in a wealthy family with caring parents who can finance your education and motivate you to achieve your goals. It also means that you can’t choose which talents and genes you are born with. Genetic differences are no more a matter of choice than the character and means of your parents. And genetic differences affect people’s talents, skills and maybe even their capacity to invest effort. So, as long as we can’t redistribute beneficial genes or disable harmful ones, and as long as we don’t want to intervene in people’s families and redistribute children, we can’t remove the impact of genes and parents.

However, we can do something. Equality of opportunity may be impossible but there is less or more inequality of opportunity. Or concern should be to provide as much equality of opportunity as possible, and to expand opportunity for those who are relatively less privileged. This means removing things that hold some people back (e.g. discrimination, unemployment, bad schools etc.), and – more positively – helping people to cultivate their capabilities and expand their choices.

How doe we measure if these interventions are successful? It seems very difficult to measure equality of opportunity. All we can do is measure some of the elements of opportunity:

  • We can measure unequal income and infer unequal opportunity from this. People with low income obviously have less opportunities than other people. However, not all opportunities can be bought and maybe low income isn’t the result of a disadvantaged upbringing or bad schools, but of bad choices, or even conscious choices. Can we say that a child of a millionaire who chose to be a hermit suffered from unequal opportunity? Don’t think so.
  • We can measure unequal education and skills (educational attainment or degrees, IQ tests etc.). However, someone who comes from a very privileged family but with low or alternative aspirations may score low on educational attainment or even IQ.
  • We can deduce unequal opportunity by the absence of opportunity enhancing government policies and legislation. The Civil Rights Act was self-evidently a boost for the opportunities of African-Americans.
  • We can measure social mobility and assume, correctly I think, that very low levels of mobility indicate inequality of opportunity.
  • Etc.

Whatever actions we take to enhance opportunity, it will probably always be relatively unclear what the net outcome will be on overall equality of opportunity. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything. And when we do something, we should also distinguish clearly between things we can do and things we can’t to, or things we feel are immoral (e.g. genetic redistribution or child redistribution). We know that parental attitudes, genetics, talent, appearance, networks and luck have a huge impact on individuals’ chances of success, but those are things we can’t do anything about, either because it’s impossible or because it’s immoral. But we can teach people skills and perseverance, to a certain extent. We can help the unlucky, for example with unemployment benefits. We can regulate firms’ employment policies so as to counteract the “old boys networks” or racism in employment decisions. We can impose an inheritance tax in order to limit the effects of the lottery of family. Etc etc.


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