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Equality Of Opportunity May Not Be Fair

Equality of opportunity is the starting point for a fair society. But it’s not enough. Of course, individuals should be rewarded for better performance, but the question is whether they are actually competing under the same conditions as their competitors.

What they tell you Many people get upset by inequality. However, there is equality and there is equality. When you reward people the same way regardless of their efforts and achievements, the more talented and the harder-working lose the incentive to perform. This is equality of outcome. It’s a bad idea, as proven by the fall of communism. The equality we seek should be the equality of opportunity. For example, it was not only unjust but also inefficient for a black student in apartheid South Africa not to be able to go to better, ‘white’, universities, even if he was a better student. People should be given equal opportunities. However, it is equally unjust and inefficient to introduce affirmative action and begin to admit students of lower quality simply because they are black or from a deprived background. In trying to equalize outcomes, we not only misallocate talents but also penalize those who have the best talent and make the greatest efforts.

What they don’t tell you Equality of opportunity is the starting point for a fair society. But it’s not enough. Of course, individuals should be rewarded for better performance, but the question is whether they are actually competing under the same conditions as their competitors. If a child does not perform well in school because he is hungry and cannot concentrate in class, it cannot be said that the child does not do well because he is inherently less capable. Fair competition can be achieved only when the child is given enough food – at home through family income support and at school through a free school meals programme.

Unless there is some equality of outcome (i.e., the incomes of all the parents are above a certain minimum threshold, allowing their children not to go hungry), equal opportunities (i.e., free schooling) are not truly meaningful.

More Catholic than the Pope? In Latin America, people frequently use the expression that someone is ‘more Catholic than the Pope’ (mas Papista que el Papa). This refers to the tendency of societies in the intellectual periphery to apply doctrines – religious, economic and social – more rigidly than do their source countries.

Koreans, my own people, are probably the world champions at being more Catholic than the Pope (not quite in the literal sense – only around 10 per cent of them are Catholics). Korea is not exactly a small country. The combined population of North and South Koreas, which for nearly a millennium until 1945 used to be one country, is about 70 million today. But it happens to be bang in the middle of a zone where the interests of the giants – China, Japan, Russia and the US – clash. So we have become very adept at adopting the ideology of one of the big boys and being more orthodox about it than he is.

When we do communism (up in North Korea), we are more communist than the Russians. When we practised Japanese-style state capitalism (in the South) between the 1960s and the 1980s, we were more state-capitalist than the Japanese. Now that we have switched over to US-style capitalism, we lecture the Americans on the virtues of free trade and shame them by deregulating financial and labour markets left, right and centre.

So it was natural that until the nineteenth century, when we were under the Chinese sphere of influence, we were more Confucian than the Chinese.

Confucianism, for those who are not familiar with it, is a cultural system based on the teachings of Confucius – the Latinized name of the Chinese political philosopher, Kong Tze, who lived in the fifth century bc. Today, having seen the economic successes of some Confucian countries, many people think it is a culture particularly well suited to economic development, but it was a typical feudal ideology until it came to be adapted to the requirements of modern capitalism in the second half of the twentieth century.1 Like most other feudal ideologies, Confucianism espoused a rigid social hierarchy which restricted people’s choice of occupation according to their births. This prevented talented men from lower castes from rising above their station. In Confucianism, there was a crucial divide between the farmers (who were considered to be the bedrock of society) and other working classes. The sons of farmers could sit for the (incredibly difficult) government civil service examination and get incorporated into the ruling class, although this happened rarely in practice, while the sons of artisans and merchants were not even permitted to sit for the exam, however clever they might be.

China, being the birthplace of Confucianism, had the confidence to take a more pragmatic approach in interpreting the classical doctrines and allowed people from merchant and artisanal classes to sit for the civil service examination. Korea – being more Confucian than Confucius – adamantly stuck to this doctrine and refused to hire talented people simply because they were born to the ‘wrong’ parents. It was only after our liberation from Japanese colonial rule (1910–45) that the traditional caste system was fully abolished and Korea became a country where birth does not set a ceiling to individual achievement (although the prejudice against artisans – engineers in modern terms – and merchants – business managers in modern terms – lingered on for another few decades until economic development made these attractive professions).

Obviously feudal Korea was not alone in refusing to give people equality of opportunity. European feudal societies operated with similar systems, and in India the caste system still operates, albeit informally. Nor was it only along the caste lines that people were refused equality of opportunity. Until the Second World War, most societies refused to let women be elected to public office; in fact they were refused political citizenship altogether and not even allowed to vote. Until recently, many countries used to restrict people’s access to education and jobs along racial lines. In the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, the USA prohibited the immigration of ‘undesirable’ races, especially Asians. South Africa, during the apartheid regime, had separate universities for whites and for the rest (the ‘coloureds’ and the blacks), which were very poorly funded.

So it has not been long since the majority of the world emerged from a situation where people were banned from self-advancement due to their race, gender or caste. Equality of opportunity is something to be highly cherished.

Markets liberate? Many of the formal rules restricting equality of opportunity have been abolished in the last few generations. This was in large part because of political struggles by the discriminated against – such as the Chartist demand for universal (male) suffrage in Britain in the mid nineteenth century, the Civil Rights movement by blacks in the US in the 1960s, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa in the second half of the twentieth century and the fight by low caste people in India today. Without these and countless other campaigns by women, oppressed races and lower caste people, we would still be living in a world where restricting people’s rights according to ‘birth lottery’ would be considered natural.

In this struggle against inequality of opportunity, the market has been a great help. When only efficiency ensures survival, free-market economists point out, there is no room for racial or political prejudices to creep into market transactions. Milton Friedman put it succinctly in his Capitalism and Freedom: ‘No one who buys bread knows whether the wheat from which it was made was grown by a Communist or a Republican . . . by a Negro or a white.’ Therefore, Friedman argued, the market will eventually drive racism out, or at least reduce it significantly, because those racist employers insisting on employing only white people would be driven out by more open-minded ones who hire the best available talents, regardless of race.

This point is powerfully illustrated by the fact that even the notoriously racist apartheid regime in South Africa had to designate the Japanese ‘honorary whites’. There was no way the Japanese executives running the local Toyota and Nissan factories could go and live in townships like Soweto, where nonwhites were forced to live under apartheid law. Therefore, the white-supremacist South Africans had to swallow their pride and pretend that the Japanese were whites, if they wanted to drive around in Japanese cars. That is the power of the market.

The power of the market as a ‘leveller’ is more widespread than we think. As the British writer Alan Bennett’s play-turned-movie, History Boys, so poignantly shows, students from disadvantaged groups tend to lack intellectual and social confidence and are thus disadvantaged in getting into elite universities – and by extension, better-paying jobs. Obviously, universities do not have to respond to market pressures as quickly as firms have to.

However, if some university consistently discriminated against ethnic minorities or working-class kids and took in only people from the ‘right’ backgrounds despite their inferior quality, potential employers would come to prefer the graduates from non-racist universities. The narrow-minded university, if it is to recruit the best possible students, would have to abandon its prejudices sooner or later.

Given all this, it is tempting to argue that, once you ensure equality of opportunity, free from any formal discrimination other than according to merit, the market will eliminate any residual prejudices through the competitive mechanism. However, this is only the start. A lot more has to be done to build a genuinely fair society.

The end of apartheid and the cappuccino society While there are still too many people with prejudices against certain races, poor people, lower castes and women, today few would openly object to the principle of equality of opportunity. But at this point, opinions divide sharply. Some argue that equality should end with that of opportunity. Others, including myself, believe that it is not enough to have mere formal equality of opportunity.

Free-market economists warn that, if we try to equalize the outcomes of people’s actions and not just their opportunities to take certain actions, that will create huge disincentives against hard work and innovation. Would you work hard if you knew that, whatever you do, you will get paid the same as the next guy who is goofing off? Isn’t that exactly why the Chinese agricultural communes under Mao Zedong were such failures? If you tax the rich disproportionately and use the proceeds to finance the welfare state, won’t the rich lose the incentive to create wealth, while the poor lose the incentive to work, as they are guaranteed a minimum standard of living whether they work hard or not – or whether they work at all? (See Thing 21.) This way, freemarket economists argue, everyone becomes worse off by the attempt to reduce inequality of outcome (see Thing 13).

It is absolutely true that excessive attempts to equalize outcomes – say, the Maoist commune, where there was virtually no link between someone’s effort and the reward that she got – will have an adverse impact on people’s work effort. It is also unfair. But I believe that a certain degree of equalization of outcomes is necessary, if we are to build a genuinely fair society.

The point is that, in order to benefit from the equal opportunities provided to them, people require the capabilities to make use of them. It is no use that black South Africans now have the same opportunities as whites to get a highly paid job, if they do not have the education to qualify for those jobs. It is no good that blacks now can enter better (former white-only) universities, if they still have to attend poorly funded schools with underqualified teachers, some of whom can barely read and write themselves.

For most black kids in South Africa, the newly acquired equality of opportunity to enter good universities does not mean that they can attend such universities. Their schools are still poor and poorly run. It is not as if their underqualified teachers have suddenly become smart with the end of apartheid.

Their parents are still unemployed (even the official unemployment rate, which vastly underestimates true unemployment in a developing country, is, at 26– 28 per cent, one of the highest in the world). For them, the right to enter better universities is pie in the sky. For this reason, post-apartheid South Africa has turned into what some South Africans call a ‘cappuccino society’: a mass of brown at the bottom, a thin layer of white froth above it, and a sprinkling of cocoa at the top.

Now, free-market economists will tell you that those who do not have the education, the determination and the entrepreneurial energy to take advantage of market opportunities have only themselves to blame. Why should people who have worked hard and obtained a university degree against all odds be rewarded in the same way as someone, coming from the same poor background, who goes into a life of petty crime? This argument is correct. We cannot, and should not, explain someone’s performance only by the environment in which he has grown up. Individuals do have responsibilities for what they have made out of their lives.

However, while correct, this argument is only part of the story. Individuals are not born into a vacuum. The socio-economic environment they operate in puts serious restrictions on what they can do. Or even on what they want to do. Your environment can make you give up certain things even without trying.

For example, many academically talented British working-class children do not even try to go to universities because universities are ‘not for them’. This attitude is slowly changing, but I still remember seeing a BBC documentary in the late 1980s in which an old miner and his wife were criticizing one of their sons, who had gone to a university and become a teacher, as a ‘class traitor’.

While it is silly to blame everything on the socio-economic environment, it is equally unacceptable to believe that people can achieve anything if they only ‘believe in themselves’ and try hard enough, as Hollywood movies love to tell you. Equality of opportunity is meaningless for those who do not have the capabilities to take advantage of it.

The curious case of Alejandro Toledo Today, no country deliberately keeps poor children from going to school, but many children in poor countries cannot go to school because they do not have the money to pay for the tuition. Moreover, even in countries with free public education, poor children are bound to perform poorly in school, whatever their innate ability may be. Some of them go hungry at home and also skip lunch at school. This makes it impossible for them to concentrate, with predictable results for their academic performance. In extreme cases, their intellectual development may have already been stunted because of a lack of food in their early years. These kids may also suffer more frequently from illness, which makes them skip school more often. If their parents are illiterate and/or have to work long hours, children will have no one to help them with their homework, while middle-class children will be helped by their parents and rich kids may have private tutors. Helped or not, they may not even have enough time for homework, if they have to take care of younger siblings or tend the family goats.

Given all this, as far as we accept that we should not punish children for having poor parents, we should take action to ensure that all children have some minimum amounts of food, healthcare and help with their homework. Much of this can be provided through public policy, as happens in some countries – free school lunches, vaccinations, basic health checks and some help with homework after school by teachers or tutors hired by the school.

However, some of this still needs to be provided at home. Schools can provide only so much.

This means that there has to be some minimum equality of outcome in terms of parental income, if poor children are to have anything approaching a fair chance. Without this, even free schooling, free school meals, free vaccinations, and so on, cannot provide real equality of opportunity for children.

Even in adult life, there has to be some equality of outcome. It is well known that, once someone has been unemployed for a long time, it becomes extremely difficult for that person to get back into the labour market. But whether someone loses her job is not entirely determined by the person’s ‘worth’.

For example, many people lose their jobs because they chose to join an industry that looked like a good prospect when they first started but since has been hit hard by a sudden increase in foreign competition. Few American steelworkers or British shipbuilding workers who joined their industries in the 1960s, or for that matter anyone else, could have predicted that by the early 1990s their industries would be virtually wiped out by Japanese and Korean competition. Is it really fair that these people have to suffer disproportionately and be consigned to the scrapheap of history? Of course, in an idealized free market, this should not be a problem because the American steelworkers and the British shipbuilders can get jobs in expanding industries. But how many former American steelworkers do you know who have become computer engineers or former British shipbuilders who have turned themselves into investment bankers? Such conversion rarely, if ever, happens.

A more equitable approach would have been to help the displaced workers find a new career through decent unemployment benefits, health insurance even when out of a job, retraining schemes and help with job searches, as they do particularly well in Scandinavian countries. As I discuss elsewhere in the book (see Thing 21), this can also be a more productive approach for the economy as a whole.

Yes, in theory, a shoeshine boy from a poor provincial town in Peru can go to Stanford and do a PhD, as the former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo has done, but for one Toledo we have millions of Peruvian children who did not even make it to high school. Of course, we could argue that all those millions of poor Peruvian children are lazy good-for-nothings, since Mr Toledo has proven that they too could have gone to Stanford if they had tried hard enough. But I think it is much more plausible to say that Mr Toledo is the exception. Without some equality of outcome (of parental income), poor people cannot take full advantage of equality of opportunity.

Indeed, international comparison of social mobility corroborates this reasoning. According to a careful study by a group of researchers in Scandinavia and the UK, the Scandinavian countries have higher social mobility than the UK, which in turn has higher mobility than the US.2 It is no coincidence that the stronger the welfare state, the higher the mobility. Particularly in the case of the US, the fact that low overall mobility is largely accounted for by low mobility at the bottom suggests that it is the lack of a basic income guarantee that is preventing poor kids from making use of the equality of opportunity.

Excessive equalization of outcomes is harmful, although what exactly is excessive is debatable. Nevertheless, equality of opportunity is not enough.

Unless we create an environment where everyone is guaranteed some minimum capabilities through some guarantee of minimum income, education and healthcare, we cannot say that we have fair competition. When some people have to run a 100 metre race with sandbags on their legs, the fact that no one is allowed to have a head start does not make the race fair. Equality of opportunity is absolutely necessary but not sufficient in building a genuinely fair and efficient society.

Reference book: Things they don't tell you about capitalism

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