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Equality of Opportunity: Another Statist Catchphrase

By: María Marty - @mariamarty16 - Nov 10, 2015, 3:00 pm
The term "equality of opportunity," much like "social justice" and the "common good," has been co-opted by populists. (
The term “equality of opportunity,” much like “social justice” and the “common good,” has been co-opted and transformed by populists. (Fedomatle.org)

EspañolLike so many others, I confess that I had never questioned the essence of the term “equality of opportunity.” Then, one day, when I spoke in favor of this concept by chance, a socialist in the room heartily responded: “agreed!”

That’s when I thought: if someone whose ideals are the very opposite of mine agrees with me without giving a reason, it’s worth confirming whether or not we’re talking about the same thing. When I inquired, it turned out that, as I expected, we were not.

In my previous column, I referred to “equality of outcome,” the concept that everyone has a right to receive an equal piece of the pie regardless of what they have done to deserve it. Never once have I doubted the perversity of this notion.

Nonetheless, I still held the traditional idea of equality of opportunity, that is, that the government should limit itself to protecting individuals’ life, liberty and property. This would guarantee an equal opportunity for all individuals to freely choose what we can and want to do. For me, equality of opportunity meant equality under the law.

The term “equality of opportunity,” however, was hijacked and transformed by the populists from both left and right, just as they did with other terms lacking a precise definition such as “equality,” “the common good” and “social justice.”

Nowadays, equality of opportunity means that everyone begins at the same starting line. And if the starting line isn’t the same for everyone, then you have to make everyone equal somehow.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Is it really fair that some start the “race of life” 10, 20, or 30 meters ahead of the others? The problem is, life isn’t a 100-meter race. Life is more like a trip on a train that has different arrival and departure points. Trying to modify this trip by force inevitably brings everyone to the same destination: poverty.

Take the case of Peter and Ana.

Peter was born with a Steinway & Sons piano next to his cradle. His mother is a renowned pianist who earns a ton of money from her concerts. The house is full of sheet music, and Peter’s day is inevitably musical from the time he wakes up until he goes to bed. Peter inherits his mother’s ear and skill for music and uses every advantage he finds at home in order to develop his talent.

As a one-year-old, he climbs on the instrument. At the age of five, he reads sheet music fluently thanks to his mother’s lessons, which are naturally ad honorem. Five years later, Peter’s small fingers move nimbly across the piano keys, like a cat on a roof.

Ana is Peter’s neighbor and is the same age. The sound of Peter playing the piano awakens in her a single dream: to be a professional pianist. Every time she comes across a piano, she demonstrates her enormous skill and potential. But Ana doesn’t have a piano in her house, and her parents don’t have the financial means to buy one.

Her mother isn’t an accomplished musician, and she can’t afford a teacher of that caliber. Her “starting point” isn’t the same as Peter’s, and her path towards her goal will be long and arduous. True? Yes. Unfair? No.

Circumstances can be unfavorable, but that doesn’t mean they’re unfair. Injustice is done only when someone tramples over the rights of another.

In this particular case, did Peter harm Ana in some way? No. Did he take anything from her belongings? No. Did he restrict her possibilities? No. Peter has committed no injustice or trespass towards Ana.

Now, let’s suppose we want to make opportunities equal for both. What are the alternatives if we don’t take into account Peter’s determination, his family, or his surroundings?

  • Forbid Peter from playing the piano, and forbid his mom from giving him lessons, until Ana can obtain a piano and a world-class teacher.
  • Force Peter and his mother to share the piano and their classes with Ana.
  • Force Peter’s parents to pay for Ana’s piano and her classes.
  • Force all citizens to pay for Ana’s piano and her classes.

Every path results in coercion.

Probably, no one in their right mind would accept the first three options. However, a large majority accepts the last option without hesitation. Yet, the fact that the public (and not only Peter’s parents) assume the costs of providing Ana with a supposed equality of opportunity doesn’t change the coercive nature of this method. It only changes the number of victims.

Remember what I said about unfavorable circumstances?

Now, think about the following: Ana’s case is just one of 7 billion cases in the world. Each one of us wants to reach a goal which someone else has a better opportunity of achieving. What do we do then? How do we make the opportunities equal for everyone to reach their aspiration? The only response is to sacrifice humanity, like a great beast, for the sake of humanity itself: a nightmarish contradiction.

If we honestly want to give people the chance to reach their goals, there is an alternative that doesn’t involve making opportunities equal. The alternative is to maximize opportunity.

Maximizing opportunities means offering the largest amount of options to reach an objective without restricting others’ possibilities.

Does this mean that Ana will have the same chances as Peter? No. It means that, if she deserves it, she will obtain a scholarship to study in a good school. It means that her parents, thanks to their hard work, will have the possibility to buy a piano on credit. It means that piano vendors competing in the free market will have the incentive to lower their prices to a level that will allow Ana’s family to buy one. It means that Ana will have the possibility of becoming a professional pianist.

Of course, my example is simplified, but it’s not a utopia. Maximizing opportunity is possible. Throughout history, political systems based on the respect for individual rights and equality before the law have led to the greatest social mobility.

On the other hand, populist systems have used catchphrases like “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome” to kill every one of its victims’ dreams.

It’s time to identify the “curse words” and phrases that, repeated endlessly, end up as handy slogans for those trying to guide the sheep directly to the shears.

Translated by Scott Myers.

María Marty María Marty

Maria Marty is an Argentinean with a bachelors degree in social communication, a scriptwriter, and a libertarian. She is the executive director of the Foundation for the Responsible Intellectual (FRI). Follow @mariamarty16.