Does equal opportunity justify unequal outcomes?

Today, income and wealth inequality are at their highest levels in at least 50 years, with almost half of all income in the United States going to just 10% of the population. In the last two years, Covid-19 has exasperated this inequality as even the IMF has acknowledged:

“The severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is clearly seen in the numbers: more than 3.1 million deaths and rising, 120 million people pushed into extreme poverty, and a massive global recession. As suffering and poverty have risen, some data show an increase in another extreme: the wealth of billionaires.”

Of course, wealth and income inequality are nothing new. Capitalist markets explicitly encourage inequality as a driver of investment and innovations — under capitalism it is the concentration of wealth by a few individuals which funds economic expansion.

Unsurprisingly, then, capitalists have argued for centuries that inequality is not bad in itself so long as you can guarantee equal opportunities. In other words: so long as every person has a shot at becoming Bill Gates, we cannot call Gate’s huge wealth (and the benefits that come with it) unfair. Afterall, any of us could’ve gained that wealth ourselves, if only we worked hard, right?

I have already discussed the absurdity of the idea that all people have equal opportunity elsewhere, and questioned whether it would really be fair to divide wealth by how hard people work even if that were the case.

However, for the sake of this piece, let’s set that all aside. Let’s say for the moment that equal opportunity really does exist, and that people really can “choose” to work harder. Even if that is true, I am not at all convinced that it would justify wealth inequality of any kind — much less on the scale that exists today.

To illustrate why, let’s do some thought experiments:

  1. Two people are randomly abducted off the street. A coin will be flipped. The winner gains incredible wealth, and the loser will be executed. They must play. Is this fair?
  2. Two people are randomly abducted off the street. A coin will be flipped. The winner gains $10,000 and the loser loses $10,000. They must play. Is this fair?
  3. Two people are randomly abducted off the street. They are made to compete in a footrace. Whoever wins gains $10,000 and the loser loses $10,000. They must race. Is this fair?
  4. Two people are randomly abducted off the street. They are both given a test on financial literacy. The winner gains $10,000 and the loser loses $10,000. They must take the test. Is this fair?
  5. Two people volunteer for a competition. A coin will be flipped. The winner gains incredible wealth, and the loser will be executed. They may choose not to play. Is this fair?
  6. Two people volunteer for a competition. They are both given a test on financial literacy. The winner gains $10,000 and the loser loses $10,000. They may choose not to play. Is this fair?
  7. Two people volunteer for a competition. They are both given a test on financial literacy. The winner gains incredible wealth, and the loser will be executed. They may choose not to play. Is this fair?

In the questions above there are a few things at play:

For one, are there any stakes high enough to make even a voluntary competition unfair? How low do the stakes have to be to make involuntary (forced) competition fair? For another, what kinds of skills is it fair to judge people by? Does that answer change if the competition is voluntary?

While these are, of course, imperfect metaphors, I would submit that questions 1–4 best reflect life under capitalism. We are all forced to compete from birth —however, whether or not we agree to the terms, the nature of the competition, or the stakes at play, is another question.

I would probably argue the coinflip is the best metaphor for a system in which birth zipcode, gender, race, and parental wealth are all so strongly correlated to eventual success — but even if capitalist meritocracy works, and our competition is more like a footrace or financial literacy exam, would that justify punishing people for failing in a competition they never chose to join?

The phrase “I support equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome” is at this point a total cliché. It is assumed by default that no serious person would support equality of outcomes, and therefore, that the best we can do is provide “equal opportunity.” Precisely because it is so widely accepted, however, we too rarely ask “why?”

Why should we allow any forced competition — coin-flip, test, race, or market — to determine who vacations and who starves? Why do we feel that guaranteeing the fairest competition, even if possible, would do anything to make a system of high-stakes mandatory competition more fair?

And even if people were able to somehow opt-out of capitalist competition, how high stakes should we let that competition to be? Are disease, poverty, despair, and death really acceptable punishments? Is wealth to the point of near godlike power really an acceptable reward?

For my part, I reject any kind of competition with such stakes.

Even if opportunity were equal, even if some people can truly choose to work harder than others, and even if the competition were over a genuinely valuable skill, I will never accept allowing human lives to be ended for the sake of the game.

Would you?

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