Evan Soltas
Feb 3, 2012

Equality, but of What?

The econoblogosphere erupts!

Equal Justice Under Law
The usual suspects are up in arms about Tyler Cowen's incoherence on the topic of equality. Using income mobility as a proxy for equality of opportunity--there are strong reasons to question that conflation--Cowen seemed to see it as an issue in November but as a non-issue in January. (I couldn't understand Cowen's train of thought in the latter, frankly.)

I think we can get a clearer picture of Cowen's position on equality if we look at a book review he authored in 1998 in the scholarly journal Ethics. (To the best of my knowledge, he hasn't explicitly mentioned that he has changed position in the interim, but that is entirely possible.)

Cowen faults the author, who argues that justice requires a sort of relative equality of opportunity in which someone who puts in the average "autonomously taken effort" within his social group should get the average outcome. His criticism is that deciding what is autonomous and what is type-based (pre-existing resources, social institutions, family expectations) is wholly subjective and hardly rigorous.

What this tells me is that Cowen never really believed in full equality of opportunity in the first place, because he judged it impossible--so all this crowing about Cowen's changing position seems mistaken, stemming from either Cowen being unclear in recent argument or in his opponents' mischaracterizations of his position.

Second, Will Wilkinson dissects President Obama's sloppiness on the issues of fairness and equality on The Economist's "Free Exchange" blog. "Last week's state-of-the-union address seems to contain several distinct conceptions of fairness worth drawing out and reflecting upon," Wilkinson writes, "[There are] three distinct conceptions of fairness in a single sentence."

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.
Wilkinson, ultimately, can't decide where the President stands. His call for "an economy where everyone gets a fair shot" implies equality of opportunity--an idea which Wilkinson rejects, and to which I will return shortly. Next Wilkinson asks what "do[ing] their fair share" means, particularly in light of heterogenous preferences in taxation, and the nearest form of equality, maybe, is of outcome -- consider  that the government should tax equally, where "equal" is measured by "equal impact" on living standards. Third, Wilkinson brings up the "same set of rules"--this feels closest to equality under the law, to reference the fundamental principle of justice.

I smell an emerging consensus among the Right here. It's not about equality of opportunity, which Wilkinson, I think, rightly argues is in practice tantamount to equality of outcome:

To really equalise opportunity requires precisely the sort of intolerably constant, comprehensive, invasive redistribution conservatives rightly believe to be required for the equalisation of outcomes. If one is prepared to accept substantial inequalities in outcome, it follows that one is also prepared to accept substantial inequalities in opportunity.
The equality of opportunity argument has always seemed to me a nice theoretical construct with a strong appeal to a visceral idea of justice, one which the President hits well upon--who doesn't want a "fair shot?--but I find it ultimately unsatisfactory. This report from the Heritage Foundation does a decent job in collecting the literature pointing to the role of the family and parents, for example, in creating opportunities and paving the path to success for their children. At the most fundamental level, the idea of equality of opportunity fails because outcomes in one generation create the opportunities of the next. The state cannot create fathers.

So maybe we must return to the President's third fairness--equality under the law--which is arguably has a longer intellectual heritage, even greater when we consider it as equality before God, which always implied that it was not the job of man to treat men differently from one another. It may not be such a bad thing. Wilkinson suggests, to, that a weaker form of equality of opportunity--a sort of "minimum opportunity standard," may be a good point of compromise for the Right in the fairness debate. That works too. That would be a fruitful intellectual debate: what do we feel must be included in a "minimum opportunity standard," which is a highly-precise proxy term for the more nebulous idea of a "positive right."