- Against Equality of Opportunity by Matt Cavanagh
Oxford, 223 pp, £25.00, February 2002, ISBN 0 19 924343 3
In 1974 Robert Nozick shattered the political complacency of the philosophical establishment when he published Anarchy, State and Utopia, a book arguing that justice had nothing to do with equality. Justice is about individual property rights, Nozick argued. You get what you make or find or work on (if no one else has made or found or worked on it first), and you get what you bargain for or what others choose for their own good reasons to give you or leave you in their wills. Years before Margaret Thatcher made it a political mantra, Nozick taught his followers to say ‘there is no such thing as society,’ and no social obligation to see that needs are taken care of or that inequality does not get out of hand. These points had been made before, but they had never been argued in recent years in a way that was so philosophically compelling – never in a way that put the liberal establishment so much on the defensive.
Vol. 24 No. 20 · 17 October 2002
Jeremy Waldron writes (LRB, 19 September): ‘we value those features of an economic system that are sensitive to effort, and – more important – we deplore those features that guarantee success for some at the expense of systematic insensitivity to the choices and efforts made by others.’ True enough, but decisions based on true merit and ‘systematic insensitivity’ are not the only options. The unexamined word here is ‘systematic’.
Suppose an employer faced with two applicants, Ernest and Jack, chooses Ernest because he happens to love that name, though Jack is actually far better qualified. Has equality of opportunity been denied? No, because both applicants equally face a world in which merit coexists with arbitrary preference as a criterion of selection: Jack had as good a chance, going in, of meeting an employer partial to Jacks. The value of equality of opportunity gets most of its practical force from its opposition to systematic discrimination. If Jack were black, would equality of opportunity have been denied? No – not if we can be sure that race did not motivate the employer. But how can we be sure? We can only do the best we can to come to an accurate judgment of the case. Systematic bias may be revealed by patterns of employment, which governments may take steps to remedy. The remedy is not to reach perfect fairness for every individual, but to eliminate systematic bias against certain groups.
A society where discrimination is merely a matter of random personal inclinations amounts, in fact, to a society with equality of opportunity. A perfectly fair society is something beyond that. How far should we go in hunting down discrimination, not only against blacks and women but against the fat, the old and the ugly? To pursue positive equality beyond the elimination of egregious systematic discrimination produces what has become known as political correctness.