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.
It was natural to expect that someone taking this line would gravitate towards the ideal of equality of opportunity. That’s what usually happens when someone attacks equality of wealth or income. They concede that outcomes will be unequal, but insist that people must have a fair opportunity to earn or compete for them. If the prizes are unequal, they say, that’s all the more reason why the starting-line and the rules of the race must be the same for everyone. But Nozick, disconcertingly, attacked equal opportunity as well. It, too, is an affront to freedom and a violation of individual property rights. If all the books and computers in the world are privately owned, as well as all the factories, farms and businesses, then the only way to bring everyone up to an equal starting-point is to redistribute some of these resources and constrain some of the choices that employers, parents and educators would otherwise make. And Nozick thought that sort of redistribution and constraint was forbidden. His critique was perfectly general: ‘The major objection to speaking of everyone’s having a right to various things such as equality of opportunity, life and so on, and enforcing this right, is that these “rights” require a substructure of things and materials and actions; and other people may have rights and entitlements over these.’
Now, almost thirty years later, we have another critique of equality of opportunity, another attack by a well-trained philosopher on this apparently moderate ideal. Matt Cavanagh’s attack is not the same as Nozick’s. Though Cavanagh takes seriously the Nozickian challenge – he calls it the ‘libertarian objection’ – he doesn’t think it’s unanswerable. He is willing to concede that we can justify some constraints on what people do with their property. For example, he cites the encouragement of motherhood and the suppression of racial hatred as legitimate grounds for placing restrictions on the choices made by private employers concerning hiring and firing. What he denies, however, is that there is any general justification for interference in the name of equality of opportunity. And that is not because of any Nozickian respect for private property. It is because Cavanagh thinks the very idea of equal opportunity is confused.
People who believe in equal opportunity veer between two incompatible propositions. The first is meritocracy: the proposition that jobs should be allocated to those who are most deserving. The second is a principle of equal chances: things should be arranged so that everyone has an equal chance of succeeding. These two propositions, he says, are plainly in tension. If there is any ingredient of talent or natural ability in ‘most deserving’, then chances of success can never be equal, at least for people as they are. To reconcile ‘equal chances’ and ‘most deserving’, my chance of succeeding must refer to the abstract probability of my succeeding established on the basis of complete ignorance of anyone’s abilities. (So someone who knew us only as numbers would say that Einstein and I have an equal chance of winning when we sit down at the start of the test for the physics prize.) Equal chances in this sense cannot survive any information about ability; but it is just such particular information that meritocracy seeks to elicit.
Cavanagh also argues fiercely against enforcing a principle of meritocracy. Let’s assume, he says, that the ‘merit’ in meritocracy goes beyond the deservingness of one’s past choices (a conception that would conceive of jobs as rewards rather than tasks). Let’s take meritocracy as a principle dictating that each job should be allocated to the person who can do it best now. What should we say, in the light of this principle, about the owner of a small business or factory who is disposed to hire the first minimally qualified applicant who walks through the door? Should that employer be forced to consider, compare and test all the other applicants (and hunt for more applicants), in order to find the one with the greatest merit? If we answer ‘yes’, is this because we think the best candidate – out there, waiting to be discovered – somehow has a right to the job? Or is it because society has an interest in work being done as well as possible, even in private industry and even when those who provide the jobs do not share that interest?
If, on the other hand, we say the employer is not required to devote time and resources to comparing all possible candidates, is this because the ‘best’ in meritocracy means the one the employer is disposed to choose, for any reason? (After all, the job description is his to define.) Or is it because we don’t see why he should be bound by our (or society’s) conception of opportunity? Cavanagh’s argument in fact takes Nozick’s challenge seriously. But it doesn’t rest on the proposition that employers may do what they like with their property. It uses libertarianism as a filter which enables us to pierce the cloud of platitudes surrounding the idea of allocation by merit and see through to the confusion beneath.
Cavanagh acknowledges that meritocracy and equal opportunity need not be regarded as principles for regulating the choices of individual employers, one by one. Society may take a loftier, more indirect approach. Whether we believe in equal opportunity or not, we face all sorts of policy choices that have an impact on the relation between people’s situations and the overall allocation of jobs in the economy. We face choices about public education, labour law, market regulation, the distribution of subsidies and licences, the tax structure (educational deductions, gift and estate duties etc) and welfare policy, not to mention public sector employment policy. How we make these choices will affect how people fare in the market for jobs. If we make them one way, the result may be that people really do have at some point in their lives an equal chance to succeed. If we make them another way, that proposition may be laughable. The ideal of equal opportunity is thus a way of instructing us to be sensitive to this difference, along with all the other criteria for evaluating the background choices that we make.
Still, even this indirect approach will not work if the underlying goal is incoherent. So why, exactly, do we want to diminish the present inequality in people’s chances of succeeding? Cavanagh doesn’t think that egalitarians have ever given an adequate answer. They say we should strip away the layers of prejudice that blind us to ability, but that is not the same, he says, as aiming at equality of chances as such. Unfortunately, at this point in the argument, Cavanagh falls into the philosopher’s trap of thinking he has refuted a position by discrediting several bad arguments in its favour. In fact he has missed something positive and important – two things, to be precise.
First, people value the sense that their economic prospects depend to some extent on their own choices and actions. Of course, we all know that there’s a large amount of dumb luck involved, and that choosing to strive and work hard is no guarantee of market success. Still, 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. ‘Equality of opportunity’ may be a clumsy slogan by which to capture this concern, but it is a legitimate concern nonetheless.
Second, there is the issue of human potential. For almost all of us, there is a considerable gap between what we can achieve if we are left entirely to our own devices – merely fed, watered and sheltered, for example – and what we can achieve under the most favourable circumstances of education and encouragement. Cavanagh talks briefly about this, and emphasises that the gap varies from individual to individual. I’m sure he’s right. Even so, there is such a gap in the case of all individuals, and people are rightly sensitive to the fact that, as things stand, a greater effort is invested in realising the potential of some individuals than others. A lot of talk about equal opportunity is motivated by a bitter sense of the waste that this involves, and it isn’t just an abstract proposition of political economy that is at issue here. For example, a disadvantaged woman will focus on her own case in the context of a system that she knows has paid no attention to what she might be capable of or the choices she might have made if her potential had been given half the attention given to the potential of her brothers.
If you put these two points together, you get the sense that there is, after all, something important in or around the concept of opportunity that ought to command our attention. And we see, too, that an egalitarian might bring to it a different sort of attention – sensitive to difference, privilege and discrimination – from a non-egalitarian. Cavanagh’s book does a fine job of showing that egalitarians have not been very good at articulating any of this: he is a good bullshit-detector. But the unforgiving rigour of his argument yields an odd sort of obtuseness as to what the underlying concerns about equal opportunity really are.