Equality of Opportunity is Not Enough


When exactly did equality become a dirty word? Or at least, become so laden with suspicions of its harbouring some lurking despotism? It seems for a long time that greater material equality was regarded as a natural, almost irrefutable, demand for any progressive social movement to make – “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” was the slogan of the French Revolution, for example. Adam Smith regarded the desire for equal material conditions as a natural desire of mankind, which only legal coercion founded upon violence could suppress, stating in his Lectures on Jurisprudence that:

“Laws and government may be considered in this and indeed in every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor, and to preserve to themselves the inequality of the goods which would otherwise be soon destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if not hindered by the government would soon reduce the others to an equality with themselves by open violence.”

and in Wealth of Nations that:

“Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions. It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security. He is at all times surrounded by unknown enemies, whom, though he never provoked, he can never appease, and from whose injustice he can be protected only by the powerful arm of the civil magistrate continually held up to chastise it. The acquisition of valuable and extensive property, therefore, necessarily requires the establishment of civil government. Where there is no property, or at least none that exceeds the value of two or three days’ labour, civil government is not so necessary.”

Similar ideas were expressed by James Madison during the Federal Convention of 1787. Madison warned that “Democratic communities may be unsteady, and be led to action by the impulse of the moment” and so the United States government should be set up so as to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”; with this benevolent elite acting as “friends to guard them [the majority] against the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions.” Here is a fuller quotation, from the Yale Law School’s website:

“Democratic communities may be unsteady, and be led to action by the impulse of the moment. -Like individuals, they may be sensible of their own weakness, and may desire the counsels and checks of friends to guard them against the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions. Such are the various pursuits of this life, that in all civilized countries, the interest of a community will be divided. There will be debtors and creditors, and an unequal possession of property, and hence arises different views and different objects in government. This indeed is the ground-work of aristocracy; and we find it blended in every government, both ancient and modern. Even where titles have survived property, we discover the noble beggar haughty and assuming.

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa, or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge of the wants or feelings of the day laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe; when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability. Various have been the propositions; but my opinion is, the longer they continue in office, the better will these views be answered.”

In view of the above quotation, the fact that the U.S. political process today is largely unresponsive to local popular demands and largely captured by big corporations and big finance is not very surprising – Madison states quite bluntly that the U.S. Senate ought to act as a buffer between popular agitations and elite privilege, and it continues to serve as such today (try googling for example “US senate blocks…” and see what you can turn up).

I sometimes wonder what has become of our “unruly passions”. Have we really bought into the propaganda of the elite to such an extent that we accept their paper-thin rationalisations for the existing distribution of property and power? (a.k.a. neo- “liberal” economic theory). Do we really think that without a (rigged) social “game” of winner-takes-all competition no one will have incentives to innovate, to develop and actualise their innate potential? Does that sound like you, or your friends? John Stuart Mill, hero of many contemporary neo- “liberals” and “free”-market “libertarians” (who have presumably never read him), dismissed such elitist notions with contempt in his Chapters on Socialism:

“It may be said that of this hard lot no one has any reason to complain, because it befalls those only who are outstripped by others, from inferiority of energy or of prudence. This, even were it true, would be a very small alleviation of the evil. If some Nero or Domitian were to require a hundred persons to run a race for their lives, on the condition that the fifty or twenty who came in hindmost should be put to death, it would not be any diminution of the injustice that the strongest or nimblest would, except through some untoward accident, be certain to escape. The misery and the crime would be that any were put to death at all.

So in the economy of society; if there be any who suffer physical privation or moral degradation, whose bodily necessities are either not satisfied of satisfied in a manner which only brutish creatures can be content with, this, though not necessarily the crime of society, is pro tanto a failure of the social arrangements. And to assert as a mitigation of the evil that those who thus suffer are the weaker members of the community morally or physically, is to add insult to misfortune. Is weakness a justification of suffering? Is it not, on the contrary, an irresistible claim upon every human being for protection against suffering? If the mind and feelings of the prosperous were in a right state, would they accept their prosperity if for the sake of it even one person near them was, for any other cause than voluntary fault, excluded from obtaining a desirable existence?”

There seems to me to be no moral or pragmatic argument for disproportionately rewarding the winners of a genetic lottery (those lucky enough to possess some marketable talent) never mind those lucky enough to inherit a fortune (which can probably be traced back to some violent conquest or other anyway, though that is besides the point here). And if we are talking incentives, why not incentivise the one factor people actually control, their personal effort towards their self-development and the satisfaction of societal needs?

Also, isn’t it supremely unjust to punish those relatively lacking innate gifts twice over? First they are punished by nature herself in terms of a limitation placed upon what they might ultimately accomplish as individuals, however hard they try, and secondly, as if to compound the first injustice, they are punished by a society which rewards them far less than what their more talented (i.e. luckier) contemporaries can gain from similar efforts. A point that Mill also made, this time in his Principles of Political Economy:

“The proportioning of remuneration to work done, is really just only in so far as the more or less of the work is a matter of choice [i.e. of effort]: when it depends on natural differences of strength or capacity, this principle itself is an injustice: it is giving to those who have; assigning most to those already favoured by nature.”

To give a more contemporary spin on all this, the authors of The Spirit Level have recently amassed a quite extensive body of statistical evidence suggesting that more materially equal societies are better in practically any way you care to measure. Returning to Adam Smith’s initial observations this makes immediate intuitive sense – if the foundation of unequal material conditions is ultimately violence, one would expect more equal societies to be freer and more pleasant places to live in. The findings of Wilkinson and Pickett seems to suggest they in fact are. For example:


So much for equality of opportunity – what about a more through-going equality?  The rough equality of material wealth – equality of outcome, as some people call it – should not be confused with such ridiculous ideas as “trying to make everyone equal” (Consider for example that many of us might support the equality of the sexes, but few would attempt an action so ridiculous as trying to make men and women’s bodies the same! Or consider that we might oppose racism, but few would regard a “solution” such as making everyone’s skin the same colour as anything less that insulting).

People are obviously not equal in the sense that we all have different appearances, personalities and innate talents. In a more rational society, of the sort I would prefer to live in, this would be a source of celebration rather than insecurity (as is sadly the case in the present society, which pits us in competition against those in possession of similar talents to our own). Competition is fine on the sports field, say, but it shouldn’t be the basis for determining the material conditions, and hence in large measure the dignity, under which I or my family should live. Rather, people should be empowered, through greater equality of material conditions, to truly develop their individual capacities – individualism in its true sense, as Oscar Wilde has expressed beautifully in The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

“For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses. It has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies not in what man has, but in what man is.

Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false. It has debarred one part of the community [the poor] from being individual by starving them. It has debarred the other part of the community [the rich] from being individual by putting them on the wrong road [materialism], and encumbering them.”

One way to put all this is the idea that human beings are equal in dignity, so society should ensure everyone the opportunity to lead equally dignified lives. I do believe that equality (of dignity) and freedom are inseparable. If instead I can capture vast amounts of social wealth as a result of some dubious claims to moral and/or intellectual superiority over my fellow human beings (and of course plenty of people with guns and lawbooks who buy into my delusions and are prepared to back them up…) then I am placed in a position to command and coerce others. I then cease to relate to these others as fellow human beings, as equals – they become instead tools, mere extensions of my will. And then, what is the death of one or one million of them to me? Merely like cutting my hair or fingernails. Inequality of dignity is the foundation for despotism, while equality of dignity is the foundation for freedom. And equality of opportunity? A perverse race, organised for the amusement of emperors, in which the losers suffer all manner of indignities.


~ by freedomthistime on December 3, 2012.

3 Responses to “Equality of Opportunity is Not Enough”

  1. One either supports private property, which may lead to *GASP* someone happening to have more of something than someone else, or one does not.

    You clearly do not.

    People who don’t support private property are welcome to give up their property to someone else in support of their beliefs. Have fun being homeless.

    Also, I found your statement to be ***extremely presumptuous*** – “The rough equality of material wealth – equality of outcome, as some people call it – should not be confused with such ridiculous ideas as “trying to make everyone equal” (consider for example that many of us might support the equality of the sexes, but few would attempt an action so ridiculous as trying to make men and women’s bodies the same!).” I would be infinitely gladder to live among only one physiological sex (rape would probably plummet) than to live unable to keep my hard-earned wealth in accordance with my work.

    • Tiffany, hi,

      “People who don’t support private property are welcome to give up their property to someone else in support of their beliefs. Have fun being homeless.”

      Okay, let me clarify this: I don’t support the private ownership of collectively used, productive property. I do support the private ownership of personal property (stuff I alone may require for day-to-day personal use – like, say, a house). So your above “solution” of my giving up what little personal property I currently own (not a house, by the way) would not in any way address what I am opposed to. Were I a wealthy aristocrat or the CEO of a large corporation, on the other hand…

      I’d trace my stance on “property” back to Pierre Proudhon’s essay “What is Property?”. You might find that interesting? You can read it here:


      “I would be infinitely gladder to live among only one physiological sex (rape would probably plummet) than to live unable to keep my hard-earned wealth in accordance with my work.”

      I saddens me deeply that we live in a world where you would feel motivated to write that. That women around the world have to live terrorised by the fear of rape is horrendous. Horrendous. There is no excuse for it – none. But I prefer to live in a world of rich diversity and I think a world in which men and women’s bodies were physiologically the same would be a far poorer world to live in (if it were possible somehow…). I think most artists (for example) would agree with me here – most female artists as well, I would assume. It’s such a huge part of the human experience and human culture, after all.

      Now, I disagree with your implication that diversity may need to be sacrificed to achieve security. I think there are other ways of having security, without losing diversity. Better social arrangements is the far preferable way, but there are individual solutions too. I study martial arts, for example. If you have superior technique you needn’t rely on superior physical strength to be safe. And women make better natural fighters than men anyway – lacking the same resort to physical strength men have, they have psychologically adjusted more to the idea that in a situation where your physical safety is threatened you do whatever (and I mean whatever – in context – fingers in eyes, to throats, whatever…) it takes to stop an aggressor trying to rape you. Even (especially?) if you have to kill them.

  2. Absolutely nothing here I disagree with. Perfectly sound. Perfectly reasonable. Dare I say perfectly expressed! Well, at the very least, in such a way that would please me were I able to do it.

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