…[there is an] important difference between Teddy Roosevelt and Barack Obama. Roosevelt believed that government should level the playing field to create equal opportunities. President Obama believes that government should create equal outcomes.
In an entitlement society, everyone receives the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort, and willingness to take risk. That which is earned by some is redistributed to the others. -Mitt Romney, public speech (quote paraphrased) on Dec. 20th, 2011
President Obama is all about equality of result. I’m about equality of opportunity. …There is income inequality in America. There always has been and hopefully, and I do say that, there always will be. Why? Because people rise to different levels of success based on what they contribute to society and to the marketplace and that’s as it should be. -Rick Santorum, speech at the Detroit Economic Club, Feb. 16th, 2012
Society must be made to operate in such a way that it eradicates once and for all the desire of a man to become richer, or wiser, or more powerful than others. -François-Noël Babeuf, leader of the Society of Equals, at his trial for insurrectionary conspiracy against the First French Republic, Feb. 20th, 1797
…the basic American promise [is] that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.
The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. -Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, Jan. 24th, 2012
I keep seeing a strange thing happen: somehow, the most tepid liberalism gets turned into a radical socialist plot. All this transformation seems to require is the application of the right sound bites. For example, here’s a pretty popular one: “Equality of opportunity, not of outcomes.”
So much is bundled up in a phrase like that. In its brevity and simplicity, it’s a masterpiece of sloganeering. What we learn from this is that there are some people who are concerned about the less fortunate and would like to see them given the means to compete in the market and go as far as their talents and virtues will take them, and others who would destroy the justice of market competition by ensuring that everyone is equally rewarded regardless of virtue. Somehow, the former, a basic tenet of American liberalism, is taken up by conservatives, and the latter, an encapsulation of the most radical communism which the world has rarely seen in reality, becomes the ideology of Democratic Party.
This is a common general tactic. It involves taking ownership of a popular virtue in order to seem mainstream and moderate, so that any party in opposition is implied to lack or attack that virtue. You can see it in market conservative rhetoric about economic regulations: marketeers are always in favor of “good” or “smart” regulation. We never learn what this means and what actual regulations they oppose, because we are not meant to; we are only meant to accept the wisdom of their regulatory policy and assume that leftists support “bad” or “dumb” regulations. It’s a favorite in pseudoscience circles, too: proponents of anti-vaccination snake oil present themselves as skeptics of corporate power, as if acknowledging the health benefits of vaccination were equivalent to being a corporate stooge. This tactic is an implied straw man by which whoever uses it switches his opponents’ actual motivation with his opinion of their ideas. In doing this, he ignores the need for the balance of competing interests. We should be skeptical of the intentions of big corporations, but does this really mean abandoning any medicine made by pharmaceutical companies? Regulations may have adverse effects, but are those who propose or support a regulation either unconcerned about these side-effects or maliciously inflicting them? Or do they see these downsides as balanced by some benefit?
When it comes to discussing the equality of opportunity vs. outcomes, the implication is both subtle and complex. It essentially compares a phantom social welfare program (an implicit and unelaborated ideal policy of equalizing opportunity) to a real social welfare program, implying that the possible effects or necessary methods of that program (redistribution of wealth) are the actual goals. Broken down like this, it’s very clear how hollow this rhetorical trick really is, so how can it work so well?
Simply put: because there is no difference between a program or resource and equalizes outcomes and one that equalizes opportunity. Any of them could be framed either way. For example:
Opportunity: Every citizen needs the chance to participate in a dynamic and high-tech economy that is more and more based on knowledge. Additionally, meaningful participation in the democratic process requires knowledge and critical thinking skills.
Outcomes: Parents work hard to provide for their children, including efforts to enrich their lives with knowledge and culture. But some would seek to make sure that regardless of their talent or hard work or how much they care for their children, all parents will be able to educate their children, from kindergarten to college. Worse, those who, by their hard work and productivity, could otherwise afford to do better for their children by paying for higher quality private schools, have their just rewards taken from them and given to parents who have not done as much to provide for their children.
Opportunity: Sickness and injury are risks we all face, and accessing medical care is a great expense. Those of meager means may become economically trapped, unable to try and change careers or take the risk of starting their own business for fear of not being able to afford medical care in the event of an injury or sickness. Worse, people with “preexisting conditions” may be unable to obtain any medical insurance besides what is provided as a benefit of employment, drastically reducing their options. Ensuring that everyone has access to healthcare enables people to take risks and improve their prosperity.
Outcomes: Medical care is a precious resource, a repository of amazing talent, skill, and technology. Equalizing access to healthcare not only removes an important incentive to work hard, it cheapens the nature and value of the profession. Why should doctors be forced to care for anyone at some state-mandated rate, and why should the prosperous and successful provide the luxury of medical care for the lazy and unproductive?
Welfare (Food Stamps, Unemployment Insurance, etc.)
Opportunity: While everyone should work to secure their own prosperity, no one is free from the economic risk of unemployment. By providing a basic stipend and subsidizing food purchases for those who are looking for a good job, we ensure that no one need fear absolute destitution and everyone has the chance to get back “in the game” without settling for less.
Outcomes: Competition in the market gives everyone a chance to rise to the limit of their talents and earn rewards for their efforts. Distributionist policies undermine this principle. When everyone is given enough to get by regardless of their efforts, paid for by those who do have the work ethic and creativity to succeed, the incentive to be productive disappears.
There’s no trick here, in fact. The reality is that every economic outcome is an opportunity, and economic opportunities are based on outcomes. After all, you have to “spend money to make money,” and once you’ve made that money, you re-invest it into making even more. This is the basic progression of growing wealth, and the “opportunity” for the next step is the “outcome” of the last. With that in mind, let’s take a look at an element of our economy that isn’t a social welfare program:
Opportunity: Money pays for the investments that grow one’s prosperity. Additionally, the more money you can rely on, the more freedom of action, unconstrained by economic means, you have.
Outcomes: Clearly, riches and luxury are the reward of hard work, creativity, and ambition.
Neither stance is really wrong, for the simple reason that it’s not possible to improve opportunity without the resources provided by outcomes, and anyone who takes advantage of a provided opportunity will likely get better outcomes. Every government program, therefore, which attempts to equalize economic opportunity will require funds taken from citizens’ economic outcomes as tax revenue. The end effect of making these opportunities available is to empower more people to improve their prosperity, thus moving the distribution outcomes closer to equality. Thus, when a pundit or politician claims to support equality of opportunity while opposing equality of outcomes, she is taking up the mantle of social conscience and compassion while damning its necessary methods. This gives her license to attack any real program for equalizing opportunity while looking like a champion of fair policy.