The Causes of Poverty (77): The Lottery of Birth and the Country You Live In

Charles Kenny explains to what extent the country you live in affects your livelihood:

[P]overty in Africa and Asia isn’t the result of something about individual Kenyans and Pakistanis, it is instead something about Kenya and Pakistan. Individuals the world over have the same drives and capacities, but the societies and places in which they live present radically different opportunities to turn that drive into wealth, health, and well-being.

That’s clear from evidence compiled by Princeton economist Orley Ashenfelter for the National Bureau of Economic Research. He looks at the wages earned by staff working at McDonald’s franchises around the world and compares what they earn to the cost of a Big Mac in that same franchise. The Big Mac is a standard product, and the way it is made worldwide is highly standardized. The skill level involved in making it (such as it is) is the same everywhere. And yet McDonald’s employees worldwide earn dramatically different amounts in terms of Big Macs per hour.

In the United States, a McDonald’s employee earns an average of $7.22 an hour, and a Big Mac costs an average of $3.04. So the employee earns 2.4 Big Macs per hour. In India, an employee earns $.46 an hour. The average Indian Big Mac (made of chicken, which is cheaper than beef) costs only $1.29. Still, the employee earns only one-third of a Big Mac for each hour worked. Same job, same skills—and yet Indian workers at McDonald’s earn one-seventh the real hourly wage of a US employee. There’s a huge “place premium” to working in the United States rather than India.

The place premium affects more than just low-end service jobs. Economist Michael Clemens, a colleague of mine at the Center for Global Development, studied a group of Indians working in an India-based international software firm who applied for a temporary work visa to the United States to do the same work in the same firm, just on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Some of them then won the lottery by which visas were issued, while others lost. The winning workers, who were still in the same firm and still doing the same type of job on the same projects, suddenly saw dramatic differences in their pay.

The ones who moved to the United States started earning double what their colleagues back in India were earning (adjusted for purchasing power). They were earning more not because they were different from the colleagues they left behind—selection was not based on education, talent, or drive but was entirely random. And once they returned to India, they went back to earning pretty much the same as their colleagues who had never left. They briefly earned more in the United States simply because they were in the United States rather than India. (source)

Some more numbers are here, regarding how much more workers in the U.S. make compared to identical workers in developing countries; e.g. Nigerians and Yemenis stand to gain upwards of 10 times as much from moving to the U.S.

The place premium is a strong argument in favor of reducing migration restrictions: it doesn’t seem just that people’s income is determined by the good or bad luck of having been born somewhere, and the use of force to keep people in their country of birth only aggravates the injustice. However, by the same logic we can also argue for a more generous welfare state: it’s not just your country of birth that affects your income. Your parents, social class, genetic endowment, health prospects, looks etc. are also a lottery that affects your income and good fortune.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Equality? (4): Equality of Opportunity

I wasn’t very pleased with my previous attempts, so here’s one more. Equality of opportunity is a type of equality that’s usually seen as a very moderate one, one that’s not too demanding – especially compared to other types of equality that focus on equal outcomes – and hence it’s supposed to be acceptable to those of us who are a bit squeamish about equality. However, I’ll try to show that this is a mistake. Real equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and difficult project. In order to show that, I’ll talk first about some of the causes of inequality of opportunity, and then about the things we can do to reduce this inequality.

Four source of inequality of opportunity

1. Unequal endowments and circumstances

Equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project, conditional on the willingness to invest an equal amount of effort. Of course, in reality, people will never have such an equal chance. The lottery of birth means that we are unable to choose to be born in a wealthy family with caring parents who can finance our education and motivate us to achieve our goals. It also means that we can’t choose which talents and genes we are born with. Talents and genetic differences are no more a matter of choice than the character and means of our parents. And genetic differences affect our talents, skills and maybe even our capacity to invest effort. (It’s not impossible that they even determine our choices of projects in which we want to be successful). So two people with the same life projects will only rarely have the same chance of success.

What can we do to equalize their chances? We can’t (yet) redistribute beneficial genes or disable harmful ones, and we don’t want to intervene in people’s families (and force parents to behave in a certain way or possibly even redistribute children). So we can’t remove the impact of genes and parents. But we can correct it, partially. For example, we can compensate people born with a genetic defect that reduces their chances of success in their life projects. We can offer people suffering from a genetic disorder that has left them paralyzed certain instruments to enhance their mobility. We can offer children born in dysfunctional or poor families free education, child benefits and encouragement. Etc.

2. Discrimination

Equality of opportunity also means correcting for lack of opportunity not resulting from the lottery of birth. If African Americans are systematically discriminated in employment, then they don’t enjoy equality of opportunity. They don’t have an equal chance of success in employment. If working for a certain company is part of an African American’s life project, and this company prefers white employees, then this African American doesn’t have an equal chance of success in his life project compared to whites with the same project.

The rule of equality of opportunity is only violated when the African American is rejected for no other reason than his race, and when this rejection diminishes that person’s opportunities (in other words, when this rejection is common and widespread rather than occasional; see here). If his skills, talents, merit and efforts are equal to those of other candidates, he should have an equal chance of employment or advancement. Equality of opportunity means that he should be allowed to compete for positions on equal terms, and that the difference between winners and losers in such competitions can only be a difference based on skills, talents, merit or efforts. However, even when he is rejected for the position because his skills, talents, merit and efforts are below the level of those of other candidates, he may not have been granted equality of opportunity. That is because the lottery of birth (point 1 above) has landed him in a discriminated group and because his lesser skills and willingness to invest effort and strive for merit may be caused by this discrimination.

Even if all are eligible to apply for a … position and applications are judged fairly on their merits, one might hold that genuine or substantive equality of opportunity requires that all have a genuine opportunity to become qualified. (source)

3. Misfortune in life

The natural lottery can reduce your equality of opportunity. Misfortune in the circumstances of your upbringing (bad parents, bad schools etc.) can also do it. And discrimination throughout your life as well. On top of that, other types of misfortune can limit your opportunities: you may get sick or have an accident. So we have to promote equality of opportunity at every step in people’s lives.

4. Neglect of abilities and talents

And there’s yet one additional cause of inequality of opportunity. Until now, I’ve assumed that equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project. But maybe people have an equal chance of success in whatever life project they choose (as long as the project is morally acceptable of course). If society recognizes, rewards and encourages only certain talents and abilities, then some people will not be able to be successful in the life projects that they choose and that are compatible with their talents and abilities. For example, it’s fair to say that someone like Elton John would not have enjoyed equality of opportunity in Sparta or Saudi Arabia.

How to promote equality of opportunity?

If we accept all that, then the promotion of equality of opportunity involves different things:

1. Social structures or traditions

At the most basic level, it means getting rid of social structures or traditions that assign people to fixed places in a social hierarchy, to occupations or to life projects on a basis that has nothing to do with skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts. Patriarchy, in which women are forced to focus on family life and raising children, is incompatible with equality of opportunity. As is a caste society, a society in which racial or other minorities (or majorities) are systematically discriminated against, or a class society in which the class of your parents, your blood line, your religion, your friends and relationships (nepotism) determine your chances of success in life. Getting rid of such social structures and traditions may simply require legislation outlawing them, or may also require affirmative action or positive discrimination and other forms of compensation for past wrongs (if some still benefit in the present from past wrongs, then equality of opportunity will not be respected simply because the wrongs have ended).

2. Equalizing skills, abilities and talents

But the promotion of equality of opportunity also means equalizing skills, abilities and talents, to the extent that this is possible (e.g. offering poor children free education of the same quality as the education and private tutoring offered to children born in wealthy families). And compensating people when this isn’t possible (e.g. give a blind man some help if we can’t cure his blindness).

3. Upgrading ambitions

And the promotion of equality of opportunity means reducing differences in merit and effort that are not the consequences of people’s voluntary choices. E.g. a child raised in a poor and dysfunctional family may have involuntarily adapted her ambitions downwards. Helping her at a young age may allow us to prevent this down-scaling of ambitions. Perhaps this down-scaling of ambitions is the result of the structures and traditions described in 1 above.

4. Other types of misfortune

The promotion of equality of opportunity also means helping people whose skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts have been limited by misfortune different from the misfortune caused by the lottery of birth. If two people have the same ambition, talents and skill to become a lawyer – perhaps after social corrections to their initial starting positions in life (e.g. free schooling for the poorest one of them) and after legislation providing equal employment access (e.g. for the black lawyer-to-be) – but an accident leaves one of them blind, maybe society should provide that person with law books in Braille and such.

5. Recognizing abilities

And, finally, it means that a broad range of talents and abilities should be recognized and rewarded in society, with the exception of those that involve limitations of other people’s talents and abilities.

Limits of equality of opportunity

So equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and far-reaching project, contrary to what people usually believe about this type of equality. Hence we have to limit it somehow. For example, it shouldn’t extend to people’s private lives. You can’t demand that the girl next door marries you even if that’s your project in life and even if you think you’re the best candidate who didn’t have his equal opportunity. And the girl can decide not to marry you simply because you’re black. A club of racists can decide not to accept your membership request. A racist restaurant owner can decide not to serve you food on his private property. None of this diminishes your equality of opportunity, at least not as long as enough of the same opportunities exist for you elsewhere.

There will be a problem of equality of opportunity if all or many restaurants, clubs etc. turn you away. But if that’s not the case, and enough of the same opportunities remain elsewhere, even businesses can discriminate on the basis of race in their employment decisions, as long as this practice is not widespread and not part of a wider system of discrimination not limited to employment. If, in a perfectly tolerant and egalitarian society, there’s one bakery insisting on being racist and refusing to hire or serve blacks, who cares? (More here).

Equality of opportunity and statistical discrimination

However, discrimination in employment doesn’t have to be taste based, as they say. It can be mere statistical discrimination. Is that a violation of equality of opportunity? I would say yes, because discrimination is discrimination and whatever the motives are – a taste for discrimination or just prudence based of statistical averages – it diminishes the opportunities of those affected by it. People who engage in statistical discrimination make no effort to assess the skills, merit and talents of individuals.

What is Equality? (1): Some Dimensions and Distinctions

If you want to explain the nature of equality the best thing to do is to distinguish between different types of equality. In fact, we’ll need a whole set of different distinctions, so that’s what I’ll try to do below. You can probably already guess the conclusion: equality is always and necessarily complex equality (in the words of Michael Walzer). I suppose that’s also why this post is so long. I apologize.

What equality isn’t

But before we distinguish types of equality, let’s clearly distinguish equality from some other concepts: equality ≠ identity (or sameness) ≠ uniformity ≠ similarity.

When people speak about “equality” in moral and political philosophy, they never mean “identity” (perhaps they do in mathematics, but we don’t care about that). Claims that people aren’t treated equally or suffer from some form of unjust inequality are not claims that people should always and in every respect be equal or treated equally. Complete or absolute equality would be the same as identity, but that’s not what is at stake in moral or political discourse. To my knowledge, people never claim that all people should always be treated identically in every respect. The claim is that people should be treated equally, or “the same”, in some very specific ways or some very specific fields of life: people should have the same access to education, for example. The anti-egalitarian claim that those of us who care about equality will push society to a dystopian future of uniformity is therefore misguided. Egalitarianism demands certain forms of equality, but beyond that it’s very happy to accept inequality.

The egalitarian goal isn’t even “approximate correspondence” or high levels of similarity between people. Very dissimilar people can have a justified claim to equal treatment in certain respects, and when they achieve this equal treatment they don’t become “similar” to each other in any ontological sense. They remain very different people, except that in some very specific sense and very specific part of their lives they are being treated the same. For example, a poor African American has the same right to a fair trial as a wealthy WASP, but that, together with all their other claims to equality, doesn’t make them similar people.

Equality needs at least one other word: equality is always equality of something very specific. Equality without any qualifier would indeed be very close to identity or uniformity. People should be equal in important and specific respects only. They shouldn’t in general be the same, nor should they even be treated in generally the same way. The goal is to realize certain specific types of equality among human beings, not to move steadily towards ever greater “correspondence”, similarity or even identity and uniformity. This very specific nature of equality is a natural limit on its scope, something which should appease critics of equality. People shouldn’t be treated equally or uniformly in all respects, only in those respects for which people have a justified claim to be treated equally or uniformly.

The question then is, of course, what are those justified claims and which claims are not justified? What are the specific cases in which people deserve to be treated equally? We are talking about equality of what exactly? Which are those “specific field of life” where equality is required? That’s an ongoing and probably never-ending public discussion. A typical strategy in dealing with such questions is to take a step back as it were. Make things a bit more abstract. As a result, the most common qualifier or “second word” is dignity or respect, which in turn is believed to justify other, more specific qualifiers. For example, the equal dignity of all human beings, if that’s a claim that can be justified, is supposed to invalidate gender discrimination.

Descriptive or prescriptive equality

Justifying equality is a prescriptive task. You want to come up with reasons why a certain form of equality is morally necessary. You’re not interested in descriptive equality, i.e. the measurement of levels of (in)equality, of their causes and effects, of the interaction between different types of (in)equality etc. You will be interested, but only after the prescriptive work is done and after you’ve decided which types of equality are morally important. Prescriptive equality is the claim that people ought to be equal in some respects. Because equality is necessarily a social concept – i.e. you need at least two people before you can speak about equality – the prescription here is comparative: people ought to be equal in some respects to other people, mostly to all other people, but not necessarily. Perhaps people should be treated in an equal way by other people in certain circumstances (e.g. the ballot); or perhaps their opportunities should be equal to those of other people; or perhaps their basic resources should be equal to those of other people etc. (More below).

So prescriptive equality has two different aspects: people should be equal

  • in certain respects (equality of what: treatment, resources; opportunities etc.), and
  • to certain other people (equality of whom: we’ll see below that in some cases all people should be equal but in other cases only some people or people belonging to a certain group).

Prescriptive equality will also answer the question: why should people be equal in certain respects and to certain/all other people? Why is this equality important and why is its absence a problem? The remainder of this post will focus on prescriptive equality.

Universal or specific equality

Prescriptive equality can be either universal or specific. Since equality is a moral concept, we see in most cases that the equality claimed by people is a universal one: people want to be equal in some respect to all other people. The claims by victims of racism, discrimination, oppression etc. fall under this heading. However, equality can also be more specific: people may want to be treated equally compared to certain other people, and therefore, logically, unequally compared to the rest of humanity. An example of that is Aristotle’s claim that we should treat “like cases as like”. Cases that are unlike each other should sometimes be treated unlike each other. The classic example is that of students: we usually sense that there is something wrong when a teacher systematically gives the same grades to everyone, the meritorious as well as the lazy. Equal treatment in such cases should be limited to similar people, in this example people with similar merit.

Other examples of a non-universal notion of equality:

  • A sick person has other needs than a healthy person. Treating them equally doesn’t sound right. However, giving help to one sick person and not to another also doesn’t sound right. Equality here means equal treatment of all sick persons.
  • People who are themselves responsible for their unequal position because of their own free decisions – for example the so-called undeserving poor – will have more difficulties making the claim that society should restore their equal position – in this example, deliver some basic goods.

Instrumental and non-instrumental equality

The previous distinction leads to another one: suppose that you value equality not for its own sake but as a means for another goal, say solidarity. A more equal society is then supposed to be one in which people care more about each other, which in turn can be a means for yet a more profound goal, for example stability. In that case, it won’t make a lot of sense to adopt a universal type of equality (see above). You’ll focus instead on the equality between members of a specific community. If, on the other hand, you value equality for its own sake, then there’s no reason to limit the egalitarian concerns to a given community. However, an instrumental type of equality is not necessarily specific. It can be universal if the goal that is served by equality is a universal goal. An example of such a goal could be dignity.

Absolute or limited equality

If equality is a value in itself and not the means for achieving other values, and if it is, at the same time, a value that takes priority over all other values and that cannot be limited by other values, then we have a problem. Because in that case,

there is something good, from the standpoint of egalitarian values, in bringing about equality or a clear move in the direction of equality by making better off persons worse off without bringing about any offsetting gain at all to worse off persons. Suppose there are rich peasants and poor peasants and there is nothing we can do to improve the lives of the poor peasants. We could, however, burn the grain storehouses of the rich peasants, rendering them worse off but still no worse off than the poor peasants. … If equality were to be deemed a value that takes priority over all others, a trumping value, then we would be committed to asserting that the state of affairs after levelling down is all things considered morally better than the status quo ante. (source)

And that’s highly counterintuitive. This doesn’t mean that equality shouldn’t be a non-instrumental value; only that it shouldn’t be both a non-instrumental and an absolute value at the same time.

Formal or substantial equality

Equality can be either formal or substantial equality. An example of formal equality is legal equality: all people have the same legal rights – e.g. equal human rights – and all people are equal before the law. Marx has famously ridiculed this formal equality, saying that it has no meaning for the poor, and can even serve to oppress the poor (it’s therefore a negative instrumental equality). A rich and a poor person both have the same legal rights, but the rich person can use these rights more and better than the poor person, sometimes even against the interests of that poor person. Hence, formal equality leads to substantial inequality. However, I’ve argued elsewhere that formal equality isn’t as useless as that. It may be useful but it’s not sufficient, and more substantive notions of equality, such as equality of opportunity, of basic resources etc. are important as well. People shouldn’t only have an equal legal right to something, but also an equal right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of that right. Those means can be food, education, opportunities etc. Let’s have a closer look at some of those more substantial types of equality.

Political, legal, economic or social equality

So universal equality isn’t only legal equality but also political, economic or social equality. Political equality means that all the citizens of a country should have the same political power. That usually translates into equal voting rights in a democracy – which are legal rights – combined with some more substantial equality like equal education, education being a prerequisite for adequate political participation (so the equal right to education is a “right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of another right”, in this case political rights).

However, the universality of political equality is often somewhat limited, in a couple of ways:

  • people living elsewhere obviously have no need for political power in our country
  • it’s also limited to full citizens, controversially
  • and it’s – even more controversially – limited to adult people who are not in prison.

Economic equality is usually understood as the equal distribution – or redistribution – of some basic goods such as food, shelter, health, education etc. (It’s rarely seen as absolute equality of all goods).

Social equality is often a mix of the three previous ones: racial discrimination for example is a violation of the demands of social equality (equality between different social groups), but it often manifests itself unequal voting rights, unequal legal rights (e.g. segregation or Jim Crow) or unequal prosperity between racial groups.

Equal opportunity or equal outcomes

Equal outcomes can be, for example, equal resources: people should have the same basic resources (e.g. a guaranteed basic income). Equal opportunity means that people have the same options in life and the same prospects for preference fulfillment as all other people. The actual outcomes, what ultimately happens to them – whether their lives are equal or not, whether they’re rich or poor – is less important because, given equal starting opportunities, those outcomes are their own responsibility. However, most people would agree that outright misery, even if it’s someone’s own fault and not the result of back luck, discrimination or unequal starting opportunities, should be a legitimate issue of egalitarian concern.

Equality of opportunity then may not be enough but it certainly is important. No one deserves the circumstances, family, class, country etc. into which she is born. She doesn’t even deserve her talents and abilities (or lack of them), to the extent that these are not developed through effort. Bad luck in the natural lottery (talents) or the lottery of birth (circumstances and places of birth) can lead to vastly unequal opportunities. We can’t equalize talents or luck, but we can mitigate the inequalities they create. For example, we can offer some insurance against misfortune, or education as a means to develop abilities.

Quantitative or qualitative equality

And finally, equality can be viewed as a quantitative or qualitative notion. Two people can be equal when they have the same amount of something – e.g. income – or when they have the same characteristics or qualities – e.g. equal rights. Quantitative types of equality are economic equality, political equality in some sense and equality of certain opportunities. Qualitative equality is for example legal equality and social equality.

Migration and Human Rights (32): A Human Right to Free Movement and the Common Ownership of the Earth

I’m consistently in favor of increased immigration, and skeptical of the arguments against (such as those based on notions like “importing crime”, “importing poverty” or “watering down culture”).

However, if the arguments against immigration fail, how about the quality of the arguments in favor? Poverty reduction is a strong one: the prosperity of immigrants obviously increases when they are allowed to immigrate, but so does the prosperity of the families left behind (as a result of remittances). But a more interesting argument is based on the concept of the common ownership of the earth. Humanity collectively owns the earth and its resources because the earth is simply there. No one has created it and no one therefore deserves credit for it. Consequently, all individuals have an equal claim to every part of it and collectively own every part of it. (That’s an old idea, going back at least to Kant and Grotius).

Accidents of birth do not destroy this common ownership. They don’t yield private ownership rights to those parts of the earth where they take place. Hence, these accidents should not determine who gets the exclusive usage rights over parts of the earth. Immigration restrictions are morally arbitrary since they differentiate between people based on the lottery of birth. They take the accident of being born somewhere and turn it into a rule to stay there. They are equivalent to other morally arbitrary differentiations, such as those based on race or gender. However, contrary to what happened to those other differentiations, a majority of public opinion has yet to be convinced of the morally arbitrary nature of immigration restrictions.

From the notion of the common ownership of the earth follows that every kind of private property, not only the state as the exclusive property of a part of the earth claimed by the citizens who happen to live in that state, is a privatization of common resources. I think any justification of such a privatization, and therefore any justification of any type of private property, is bound to be difficult.

If the justification of privatization – whether of territory or commodities – does not succeed, then private property and the state are by definition illegitimate. So there’s a lot at stake here. The reason why such a justification is difficult, is that private property is necessarily based on an original theft of common ownership. Even if you cultivate the land you appropriate or privatize (or better steal from the collective of humanity), and even if you incorporate your labor in the product you make based on natural resources (Locke’s justification for private property) and thereby create added value, that doesn’t change the original sin: you’ll still be like the thief who takes care of the car he’s stolen and gives it a new color.

The same is true for a farmer fencing a part of the earth, a state imposing a border and restricting immigration, an oil company extracting the oil and refining and selling it, and a primitive tribe settling down in the jungle somewhere and keeping strangers out. Even nomadic tribes are guilty of the same sin by letting their cattle graze the land and keeping other tribes away.

So this reasoning a priori invalidates all talk about immigration restrictions. But it seems that I have proven too much: all private property, not just private property of land or a country, is, in the words of Proudhon, theft. Yet, private property is extremely important from the point of view of human rights. Private property also seems to be fueling economic efficiency, as the communist experiments have shown, a contrario. Especially private property of land – important in the context of immigration – is important for prosperity. I don’t want a justification of policies removing immigration restrictions that destroys all possible justifications of all forms of private property. Moreover, while I consider existing immigration restrictions unjust, I do recognize the value of some types of restrictions. Some restrictions used by citizens to limit access to a territory that they claim is theirs are legitimate. A state is necessary for democratic self-government and for the legal and judicial protection of human rights, and it would seem impossible to imagine the concept of a state without some immigration restrictions.

These are moral goals – rights, democracy – that are at least equivalent to the moral goal of not stealing and to the moral rights of immigrants. The problem is that stealing – namely stealing a part of the earth from humanity – is precisely what seems to be necessary to achieve these moral goals. So we have a conflict between moral goals. The fact that these moral goals all seem to be equivalent – it’s not obvious that stealing is always more wrong than protecting human rights for instance – indicates that it should be conceivable to violate – or limit the force of – the principle of the common ownership of the earth in order to create private property, both of commodities and land/territory. Hence, immigration restrictions are not necessarily morally wrong, although I would still claim that the existing restrictions of all countries in the world go much too far: they don’t take the moral claim of the common ownership of the earth seriously enough, and they overemphasize the goals of residents over those of immigrants.

So how exactly do we balance these different and equivalent moral goals? For example, a country violating human rights has less rights to impose immigration restrictions because such restrictions will not serve the goal of rights. (Unfortunately, this won’t promote migration since such a country will not attract many immigrants if it winds down its immigration restrictions). A wealthy country – like wealthy people – have less rights to exclude others from a share of their wealth, since their wealth is based on the use of common property. In that case, immigrants can demand entry rights based on common property.

While national borders are drawn in a morally arbitrary way, as argued above, and while immigration restrictions that go together with the drawing of such border are therefore equally arbitrary, they are not morally meaningless. They are a morally arbitrary fact that has acquired moral significance: they have resulted in a tool – the state – that can do morally good, e.g. protect human rights and democracy.

The Ethics of Human Rights (37): Luck Egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism is a school of thought in moral philosophy that focuses on the injustice of bad luck, and one type of bad luck in particular: it wants to eliminate as far as possible the impact on people’s lives of bad luck that falls on them through no fault or choice of their own. One type of luck that we don’t bring on ourselves is the luck – or lack of it – associated with the circumstances into which we are born. We don’t deserve the circumstances, family, class or country of our birth. We don’t even deserve our talents and abilities (or lack of them), to the extent that these are not developed through effort.

There’s a natural lottery (the lottery that decides which talents and other biological potentials or inabilities we are born with) and a social lottery – as Rawls called it – (the lottery that decides which political, social and economic circumstances we are born into, including our family and country of birth). Bad luck in either of these lotteries can lead to vastly unequal opportunities and outcomes, none of which we deserve.

Luck egalitarianism states that only those inequalities that are wholly attributable to the responsible choices we make, and not to differences in our unchosen circumstances or abilities, are morally acceptable. The focus on responsible choices means that, once you’re an adult and capable of responsible choices, luck egalitarianism considers that its work is done. Its focus is on birth and early life, because that’s when misfortune of circumstances and nature take effect, and that’s when their unequal consequences have to be corrected. Opportunities have to be equalized. What people do in adult life with their equalized opportunities is their responsibility and of no concern to society or justice.

There are two moral intuitions at play here:

  • It’s a bad thing for people to be worse off than others through no fault of their own. People shouldn’t be disadvantaged if they don’t deserve it.
  • It’s a good thing for people to be better off than others if that advantage is the result of their efforts. People should be rewarded when that’s what they deserve.

In other words, we should avoid unjust punishment and promote just reward. Inequalities and different opportunities that are the result of luck rather than choices are unjust. Inequalities produced by merit are just.

In the ideal luck egalitarian society, there are no inequalities in people’s life prospects except those that arise through processes of voluntary choice or faulty conduct, for which the agents involved can reasonably be held responsible. Richard Arneson (source)

That means, positively stated, that disadvantages for which a person is not responsible and which result merely from bad luck, establish a claim to correction or, if correction is impossible (e.g. blindness), compensation (e.g. provision of guide dogs).

[I]t is the responsibility of society – all of us regarded collectively – to alter the distribution of goods and evils that arises from the jumble of lotteries that constitutes human life as we know it … Distributive justice stipulates that the lucky should transfer some or all of their gains due to luck to the unlucky. Richard Arneson (source)

Some such disadvantages are physical disabilities, lack of talent, inadequate parents, being born in a poor African country etc. All other disadvantages, inequalities or differences are the outcome of choice and are therefore the individual’s responsibility. She should bear the costs of her own choices and can’t demand compensation. And when compensation is required, it should come only from that part of others’ good fortune that is undeserved.

If we manage to redress or compensate inequalities resulting from luck, the luck egalitarianism perspective can accept all remaining inequalities, because those remaining are deemed to be the result of people’s own choices and relative merit. Only equality of opportunity counts. Once people are adults, and all opportunities have been equalized, no further intervention is needed.

Some problems

Luck egalitarianism is appealing because of its focus on undeserved misfortune. We are appalled by people suffering from circumstances or endowments which they don’t deserve because they didn’t choose them and were simply born with them. It’s also appealing because, contrary to many other egalitarian theories, it provides room for merit, personal responsibility and choice.

However, luck egalitarianism is also problematic. First of all, it doesn’t seem right to abandon people who suffer deeply because of their own choices. Even if suffering is people’s own fault there are times when it is morally required to help them. Not always of course, because we don’t want to give people incentives to act irresponsibly (moral hazard etc.), but sometimes. So luck egalitarianism seems incomplete, to say the least, because it offers no aid to those it labels as irresponsible, whatever misery they happen to find themselves in.

Does it offer aid to those who act responsibly but have bad luck anyway? For example, those who chose to take a risk in a very prudent fashion, but ended up miserably because they misunderstood the risks, because the risks were unknowable, or because a risk is a risk after all? Some versions of luck egalitarianism do, fortunately, but that means they have to complicate the theory: luck has to become a much broader concept than simply the lottery of birth or nature.

And it’s a serious complication: if more kinds of bad luck than simply bad luck at birth or bad luck because of nature are unjust, then we can only abandon people who have acted very carelessly. People who, after prudent assessment of risk, engaged in an activity but suffered a bad outcome notwithstanding an initial positive assessment of risk, can demand compensation of their bad luck, like people having the misfortune of being born blind or in a poor family or without talent. None of them deserve their bad luck or are responsible for it. The imprudent, however, still deserve what they get. They can’t be said to have bad luck since they engaged in an activity knowing full well the risks. But how can we possibly assess the level of prudence? Doesn’t it mean that we have to take people at their word? That doesn’t sound very practical. And how is this extended version of luck egalitarianism different from normal egalitarianism? It seems to encompass almost as much equality.

Luck egalitarianism is not only unnecessarily cruel in some cases – unnecessarily because we often can do something to help the undeserving sufferers – but also dangerous. It’s not always so clear whether people act responsibly or not. That means that luck egalitarians risk abandoning a miserable person deemed to have acted irresponsibly, when in reality – who knows? – her misery was perhaps not (entirely) her own responsibility. For example, a person can have an unknown genetic predisposition to risk taking. So she will only appear to act irresponsibly.

Because of the very common difficulty to separate responsible actions from irresponsible ones, luck egalitarianism provides an incentive to deny responsibility and to hide it. If you can convince people that you weren’t responsible, then you can claim compensation. This incentive in turn provides an incentive to the state – which is supposedly the agent who should correct for bad luck – to snoop and invade people’s privacy (even their genes) in order to separate the really responsible from the merely apparently responsible, or the prudent from the imprudent.

And also those who really have bad luck aren’t treated very fairly by luck egalitarianism. In the words of Elisabeth Anderson: it offers humiliating aid to those it labels innately inferior. People who have had bad luck in the natural or social lottery of birth have to reveal to the whole of society that they have no talent, for example.

Another problem with luck egalitarianism is the exclusive preoccupation with inequalities resulting from luck. What about inequalities resulting from government policy, capitalism, discrimination etc. Oppression and discrimination are replaced by bad luck as the main egalitarian concern. The natural inequality in the distribution of luck overshadows the artificial inequalities resulting from social interaction. This is quite a loss, indicating again that luck egalitarianism is at best an incomplete theory.

This problem with luck egalitarianism has to do with vagueness of “choice” in the theory. Elisabeth Anderson again: if a robber offers someone a choice between her money and her life, is the outcome just? According to luck egalitarianism the answer is “yes” because the outcome is not the result of the lottery of birth or bad luck, but the result of choice. The fact that inequalities are the product of choices hardly justifies them: a choice within a set of options does not justify the set of options itself. More relevantly for equality: the choices can be limited, not by a robber, but by racism for example.

So we need more than equality of opportunity at the start of life; equality also means focusing on institutional arrangements that protect, widen and equalize people’s choices over the entire course of their lives (with the exception of those people who voluntarily, through their own choices or excessive risk taking, have reduced their choices; the exception to this exception being people who landed themselves in a situation in which “diminished choices” equals utter suffering, see above).

Also, what does “being born with” mean? Can you be born with a disagreeable character? And if it’s so disagreeable that nobody wants to give you a job or buy your goods or services, should you be compensated for this “bad luck”?

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (19): Ideology

From Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society:

Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.

That’s the basis of trickle down economics which is a theory about how inequalities ultimately benefit everyone. It’s also the basis of tax schemes such as a flat tax that limit forced redistribution, because the invisible hand will redistribute wealth or make it trickle down automatically.

And, when trickle down is discredited and when it turns out to be difficult to prove that inequality is a universal value, we hear that inequality isn’t as big a problem as it seems, and that this is the land of opportunity where even people who are on the wrong side of inequality can make it through hard work and discipline. Even Obama seems to believe this, as is clear from his inauguration speech. That’s a classic case of the anecdote turned into a “scientific” law. Data show that social mobility isn’t what the American Dream dreamers think it is. Implicit in this story is that existing inequalities are the sole responsibilities of individuals who haven’t made diligent use of the many opportunities this land has generously provided them. Discrimination, injustice, greed and lack of compassion are obscured as causes of inequality.

In reality, inequalities are indeed greater than could possibly be defended rationally, in the words of Niebuhr. The defense based on trickle down economics has failed, as has the defense based on the claim that inequalities are the sole result of individual choices and a lack of response to opportunities (this defense completely rejects effects of discrimination, which seems to be misguided).

However, it’s not because inequalities are greater than they should be that all inequalities are wrong. Some inequalities are unavoidable or even valuable. We do want Einsteins and Picassos. Society should reward merit. We all benefit from the recognition of exceptional individuals. Nietzsche for example rightly protested against the modern habit of cutting everyone down who dares to stick his head up. Equality of outcome is in many respects distasteful. And apart from the valuable inequalities, there are unavoidable inequalities. Some inequalities that are the result of the “lottery of birth” are impossible to correct: some people are born with more talent than others or with talents that are more appreciated in the economic or cultural market; and there will always be people who are born in privileged families.We wouldn’t want to engage in genetic engineering in order to redistribute talent, and neither would we be willing to redistribute children across families (at least not for the purpose of equality of opportunity).

Other aspects of the lottery of birth, however, are more difficult to defend. Why should the good luck of being born in a wealthy family with educated parents guarantee you a better education, better healthcare and better economic prospects? But of course it isn’t just the contingency of your place of birth that determines your opportunities and you future place in society. Some people are pulled down by discrimination or bad luck. We justifiably don’t accept that people’s prospects in life are fully determined by their family, luck or discrimination.

Again, equality of opportunity is different from equality of outcome: most of us don’t think it’s a good idea to strive towards equality of outcome in most spheres of life. We’re quite happy to accept that some people earn less money, have less vacation time, have lower social status and recognition levels and have more uncomfortable, dangerous, or physically draining work etc. What we don’t accept is that those outcomes are predetermined by the family they happen to be born in, by discrimination they suffer or by other instances of bad luck.

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.