Since I can remember I have readily recited Milton Friedman’s old adage that the government should ensure that people have “equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes.” The logic here is that if everyone is afforded the same opportunities (e.g. education, health, etc.), then it’s simply a matter of individual will, luck, and choices whether one gets “ahead” in terms of social and economic outcomes (e.g. income level). This line of thought also embodies a general disregard among conservatives concerning the role of government in mitigating inequality of outcomes. As with most others, it’s time for me to revisit this proposition.
Rethinking this raises two basic questions: 1) Is equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcomes a useful distinction? and 2) Why might inequality of outcomes be a proper focus of government? In regards to the first question, I’m not convinced that equality of opportunity vs. outcomes is a practical distinction.
Theoretically I understand the logic, but we live in a world where peoples’ opportunities are directly shaped by the outcomes of their families and communities. For example, if one’s parents are too poor to live in a neighborhood with high caliber schools, then that directly impacts their opportunity to get a high quality education, thus furthering educational inequality of opportunity.
I absolutely agree that we should focus on equalizing peoples’ opportunities, not outcomes, but in order to do that we need to restructure opportunities so they are not dependent on outcomes. This is where the typical conservative line falls apart. You cannot simultaneously advocate for more equal opportunities AND smaller government.
If the funding of healthcare and education continues to be largely decentralized, as conservatives advocate, then the quality of those services will mirror the economic circumstances of communities: poor areas will have weak basic services, rich areas have robust education and health systems. If we take Friedman’s logic seriously, I think it undermines his advocacy for small government. By the way, Obama’s quote on this point was spot on: “The fundamental question of our time is not whether government is too big or two small, it will be whether it works.”
On the second question, as usual, I think Amartya Sen says it best in this tour de force of an interview:
I believe that virtually all the problems in the world come from inequality of one kind or another [...] There are some people who say that they're concerned only with poverty but not inequality. I find that very difficult for the reason that Adam Smith discussed a long time ago in The Wealth of Nations. He pointed out that the same thing that everyone likes doing, talking with others, appearing in public without shame, taking part in the life of the community, if you live in a community that's relatively rich, you need a much bigger income to be able to do these elementary things.
If you are a villager in rural Bangladesh or Uganda, you might be able to meet with people very easily even if you're not schooled or if you don't have a car or if you're not clothed in a way that's regarded as obligatory in some cultures. But in, say, America, if you don't have a television at home your kids might find it hard to converse with each other in school. The income that we need in order not to be poor is much higher in a richer society. So that relative poverty, which is really a matter of inequality, in terms of income can be the cause of absolute poverty, the inability to do the basic things which Adam Smith noted we all like doing.
The idea that we can be interested only in poverty but not in inequality I don't think is a sustainable thought. A lot of poverty is in fact inequality because of this connection between income and capability. The same capability to take part in the life of the community requires a much bigger basket of commodities and therefore a much bigger income in a rich society. So you have to be interested in inequality. And since we live in a global village, events in different parts of the world influence each other. The Internet begins to penetrate in my country. Indians begin to find out how other people live in the rest of the world. Given these circumstances, the issues of inequality and the issue of poverty are not separable even globally.
They're very closely linked, both in terms of the need to ask the moral question, Is it right that I should enjoy my privileges, and not feel I owe anything to others? As well as the other level, do I have a right to be content living in a world with so much poverty and inequality? Both these questions motivate us to take these issues to be central to human living. Ultimately, the old Socratic question, How should I live? has to include a very strong component of awareness and response to inequality.”
My apologies for the length of this interview segment, but Sen makes sense of why inequality matters in a way that I have never been able to articulate. In short, I still agree with Friedman’s basic proposition, but I would argue that taking it seriously undermines the libertarian solution he ends up coming to. Further, I think Sen's argument forces us to reconsider the real difficulties surrounding inequality of outcomes, which may be good reason to believe that it is a proper thing for the government to focus on.