Opportunity and Outcome

Kiwiblog drew my attention to NZ Initiative’s Roger Partridge publishing in the “Our Latest Insights” section of the NZI site. He says…

Focussing on inequality – and looking to redistributive policies to solve it – risks throwing the baby out with the bath water. We would not restrain our more talented child just to make her less successful, younger brother feel better, so why should we levy our most talented, productive citizens?

This is a facile analogy for two reasons.

The first is that levying the wealthiest (who are not necessarily our most talented or productive citizens) is not in any relevant way like “restraining a talented child”. Progressive taxation does not restrain the pursuit and exercise of the talents of the wealthy, except when their talents are limited to spending or investing their wealth – which are precisely the activities least comparable to those of a “talented child”.

The second is the strawman characterisation of those at the bottom of the heap in our unequal society as analogous to a “less successful, younger brother” who wants to “feel better” about the success of the more talented older sibling. In other words, “Poor people are just envious and taxation is their revenge.” I’ll come back to that later. Partridge goes on to say…

What is needed is a focus on the real problem: that not everyone in our society has the skills needed to take advantage of the opportunities that should be available to all.

He does get close to the real problem here. There are two things going on in that statement – the availability of opportunities and the ability to take advantage of them. Proponents of equality of opportunity tend to focus on the former and ignore the latter. When the question of inequality is raised, they point to instances of formal equality of opportunity in New Zealand – for example, that anyone over a certain age could get a student loan and study at university. Therefore, if someone doesn’t have a university education, that’s their fault.

This emphasis on formal equality of opportunity is important, because it allows people to describe the circumstances at the bottom of the heap as a result of poor choices, and therefore guilt/responsibility – which logically implies that those at the top of the heap are there as a result of virtuous choices (and sometimes talent) and so rightfully deserve their wealth.

The problem is that, in our society, even with formal equality of opportunity, you can predict with some accuracy someone’s outcome by knowing morally arbitrary facts about them. For example, at birth you can predict that a Pākehā New Zealander will go on to earn a higher income than a Māori New Zealander. Individually they may not, but writ large they will, and it’s that predictability that demands an answer from advocates of merely formal equality of opportunity.

Because if there were equality of opportunity in New Zealand, outcomes may not be equal, but they would also not be predictable. Unpredictability of outcome is the measure of equality of opportunity. And anyone defending inequality in New Zealand by referring to equality of opportunity should, to be consistent, be advocating redistributive measures that address predictability of outcome.

That call to consistency makes a good test to determine who actually supports equality of opportunity, and who pays it lip service as a convenient means of indirectly justifying their own relative position in our society.