[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

Equality and Responsibility

[Topics under debate]: GOOD GOVERNANCE
___Help make this manifesto better, or accept it, and propagate it!___
Dear IPI
I found the following article to be quite interesting. I have also
included the replies by Richard Epstein and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. I
found this article in the Boston Review.
PS: I regret that the paragraph structure for this article was lost
the "pasting" process.

Equality and Responsibility

John E. Roemer

International political events of the last
fifteen years indicate deep popular skepticism about the egalitarianism
the welfare state: the latest dramatic example, for Americans, may be
Republican sweep in the recent congressional elections. The reasons for
this skepticism are complex, but they are partly philosophical. Many
people associate egalitarianism, and the policies of the welfare state
particular, with a rejection of individual responsibility. They accuse
modern welfare state of being a "Nanny State," which seeks to take care
citizens -- ministering to their needs, indemnifying them against all
major harms, and relieving them of any personal responsibility to make
their lives go well. In this essay I aim to answer this charge. I will
present a form of egalitarianism founded on the idea of equality of
opportunity -- the prevailing conception of social justice in western
liberal democracies. According to this widely shared conception, society

must provide a "level playing field," and individuals should face the
consequences of their own choices; those who do well are entitled to the

fruits of their success, and those who fare poorly cannot ask for
rectification. But exactly what is required to level the playing field?
According to one conventional answer, government should eliminate legal
barriers to social mobility, require that employers use meritocratic
hiring procedures to fill jobs, and that some other institutions, such
schools, use meritocratic procedures to fill slots.[1] A second, more
liberal answer, would require equal access to education for all
and insist, more generally, that people receive equal amounts of various

resources that society can provide. I shall argue that
equality-of-opportunity often requires that people receive quite unequal

amounts of the relevant resources -- without denying the personal
responsibility that is at the core of the "opportunity" idea. This
proposal probably entails considerably more equality of income and
than currently exists in the United States. Before getting into the
details, though, let's consider On the equality-of-outcome view, in
contrast, society's mandate is to render all lives equally successful,
least in so far as this is feasible. Thus, persons are effectively not
held responsible for their choices. I have here ignored certain
kinds of things that happen to people, namely, pure bad luck -- bad luck

that a person could have done nothing to avoid. The legal philosopher
Ronald Dworkin calls this "brute luck." Being hit by a truck which runs
red light while you are in the pedestrian crossing is brute bad luck.
Being hit by a truck while you are jay walking is not: for in that case,

you took a calculated gamble and lost, a gamble you need (and perhaps
should) not have taken. Brute luck is to be contrasted with option luck,

which is the luck of the voluntarily taken gamble. Even under an
equal-opportunity view, we might well decide that society should insure
its citizens against brute bad luck, but not against option bad luck.
Under an equal outcome view, society must insure its citizens against
luck of any kind, whether the consequence of voluntary gambles or not.
Citizens of western liberal democracies generally endorse equality of
opportunity, I believe, because we think it is morally correct to hold
persons responsible, at least to some degree, for their actions. This
moral view about responsibility devolves in turn from the western
view of the value of individual freedom. If individuals are to be free
choose how to lead their lives, then they must be held accountable for
those choices: otherwise such a freedom is vacuous. In economic
phraseology, the cost of freedom is responsibility. If, in contrast, we
thought that individuals were not free, that their actions were all part

of God's plan, for example, then it would not be so obvious that they
should be held responsible for the consequences of those actions. In
words, a notion of individual freedom requires a concomitant view of
personal responsibility, with two qualifications: that equality of
opportunity has been implemented before responsible choices are made,
that society insure individuals against brute bad luck. An
equality-of-outcome view, on the other hand, can be justified if one
believes that there is no such thing as real individual freedom, perhaps

because of predestination, or because the actions of persons can always
reduced to causes over which they have no control. Suppose one believes
that a person's behavior is completely determined by a combination of
genetic make-up, and by influences upon her over which she has no
the country and family into which she was born, the particular teachers
and adults to whom she was exposed, etc. One could construct a tree of
causes, so to speak, leading backward from any action the person takes,
rooted finally in an initial set of genetic and circumstantial variables

beyond the reach of her powers. Freedom requires that an alternative
action be possible, which this tree of causes does not leave room for.
this view, an equality-of-outcome conception of justice would be morally

appealing. How, indeed, could we justify society's allowing persons to
lead differentially successful lives if those lives are beyond the
of persons, and society could make lives more equally successful with a
different social policy? A Definition of Equality of Opportunity
of opportunity, then, is closely connected to fundamental values of
responsibility and freedom. But what exactly is it? My strategy in
answering this question shall be first to sketch a rough account of
opportunity, and then to proceed to a more concrete definition by
reflecting upon some examples. Finally, I hope to provide a procedure by

which a society can implement equality of opportunity as a social
A person's actions are determined by two kinds of cause: circumstances
beyond her control, and autonomous choices within her control. Any
particular action a person takes, and its associated consequences, are
thus caused by a highly complex combination of circumstances and
autonomous choices. I say that equality of opportunity has been achieved

among a group of people if society indemnifies persons in the group
against bad consequences due to circumstances and brute luck, but does
indemnify them against the consequences of their autonomous choices.
an equal-opportunity policy must equalize outcomes in so far as they are

the consequences of causes beyond a person's control, but allow
differential outcomes in so far as they result from autonomous choice.
When there is equality of opportunity, then, no one will be worse off
others as a result of factors beyond her control. This definition
to convey the intuitive idea of equal opportunity. Now we need to make
more precise. That will require a way to decide which aspects of a
person's behavior are due to circumstance and which to autonomous
And, once we have such a way, we will need to see how to implement it --

to separate consequences of behavior into those due to autonomous choice

and those due to circumstance. The meat of my proposal, which follows,
a procedure for doing just this. I shall proceed by example. Consider
problem of compensating persons for lung cancer acquired as a result of
smoking. Although people in our society have all been intensively
to warnings about the dangers of smoking, many persist in smoking, and
those, a fair share develop lung cancer or other serious ailments that
require costly medical care. Suppose we hold an equality-of-opportunity
for health ethic. To what extent should that medical care be financed by

society at large, and to what extent should the individual have to pay?
If, indeed, we decided that an individual were entirely responsible for
his choice to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, then an
equality-of-opportunity view would say that he should pay the costs of
consequent diseases. The choice a person makes to smoke or not to smoke
in part determined by his circumstances -- say, his economic class, his
ethnicity, whether his parents smoked, and his level of education -- and

is in part a matter of autonomous choice. (One might question whether
economic class and level of education are properly part of
since there is an aspect of autonomous choice in determining them. I
assume that, for the purposes of analyzing the smoking problem, these
circumstances, in the sense that a person does not consider the effect
his "choice" of economic class and level of education on whether or not
will come to smoke.) I propose, first, that society make a list of the
factors beyond a person's control which it views as influencing the
decision whether or not to smoke. Second, we divide society into groups
types according to individuals' values of these factors (i.e., a group
consists of all persons whose factors all have approximately equal
Suppose, for example, that the list of circumstantial factors society
decides upon is: age, ethnicity, gender, occupation. Then one type will
consist of all sixty-year-old White, female college professors, and
another of all sixty-year-old Black, male steelworkers. Society wishes
decide the social compensation a person should receive, in the form of
socially financed medical care, if he contracts lung cancer. Assume that

the chances of contracting the disease increase with the number of years
person smokes. Within each group, there will be a distribution of years
smoked: some people will smoke more, some will smoke less. This
distribution is a characteristic of the type, not of any individual. The

society that has chosen its list of circumstantial factors, determining
type, should view the different locations of particular sixty year old
Black steelworkers in their group as due to their responsible choice,
their circumstances have already been normalized by type, and similarly
for sixty year old White female college professors. That a 60-year-old
Black male steelworker is more likely to have smoked for thirty years
a 60-year-old White female college professor is a statistical fact not
to the autonomous choices of individuals, but to group: this is a
characteristic of the smoking distributions of the different types, not
any individual. Thus, the distribution of years smoked within a group
provides us with a way of calibrating the real opportunities of the
members of a group. To take an extreme case, if all 60 year old
steelworkers smoked for thirty years, I would say that the choice of
smoking" was not accessible to 60 year old steelworkers: as a 60 year
steelworker, one would have had effectively no opportunity except to
for thirty years. Given one's group, certain choices may be effectively,

even if not physically, barred. How, then, might one equalize the
opportunity for a life free of lung cancer, or at least for a life free
shouldering the financial burden of contracting that disease? I propose
that we seek a distribution of socially financed medical care which is
equal, across groups, for all those who exercised a comparable degree of

responsibility in regard to smoking. To be specific, consider the
professor and steelworker who each have smoked the median number of
for their types -- let's say 8 and 30 years, respectively. I view these
two as having acted with comparable responsibility. Alternatively
the act of smoking 8 years for a White, female college professor and the

act of smoking 30 years for a Black, male steelworker are equally
accessible acts, and this is because exactly one-half of White female
college professors smoked less than 8 years, and exactly one-half of
male steelworkers smoked less than 30 years (see figures 1 and 2 on
the median smokers of the two groups are depicted). Suppose, then, that
society decides it should pay all the medical-care costs of the median
professor who contracts lung cancer. Then it should also pay all the
medical care costs of the median steelworker. For the differences in the

number of years smoked by these two smokers, each at the median of her
type, are due entirely to circumstances that society has decided are
beyond their control. Of course, society will end up paying much more in

the treatment of steelworkers' lung cancer than college professors',
because those who have smoked for thirty years will have a far higher
incidence of disease than those who have smoked for eight. Now I have
taken the median smokers of their types as an example: but my
equality-of-opportunity procedure requires that we treat persons from
different types in the same way wherever they are located in their type
distributions. Thus the White female college professor who is at the
centile of the smoking distribution of her type should also be provided
with socially financed medical care to the same extent as the Black male

steelworker who is at the 80th centile of the smoking distribution of
type.[2] Though this uniform treatment across groups is attractive, it
turns out to be impossible to achieve for all centiles simultaneously.
some kind of compromise proposal for the social allocation of that
resource to lung cancer victims has to be used. I have such a compromise

proposal, but I will not present the details here. The salient point is
that, for every centile of the smoking distribution, the social transfer

is approximately equalized across groups, but within each group, those
exercised more responsibility will be given more favorable treatment.
People are indemnified against the consequences of being in a particular

group, but not against the consequences of their autonomous actions
that group. One aspect of the procedure I've described needs further
justification. Suppose Fernando and Gabrielle belong to different
and that each has smoked the median number of years for their group. Why

do I consider them comparably responsible for their actions, and hence,
why do I say that they should receive equal social compensation for
bad health outcomes? The justification lies in the observation that the
frequency distribution of years smoked for a group is a characteristic
the type, not of any person. People are not responsible, by hypothesis,
for the group they are in; hence they cannot be held responsible for the

frequency distribution of years smoked that is characteristic of their
group. Exactly at what point in the distribution Fernando sits, however,

is, by definition, a consequence of his autonomous choice: for society
already factored out everything that it considers to be beyond
control, in so far as his smoking behavior is concerned, by assigning
to a group. Thus if exactly half the people of Fernando's type have
less than he, and exactly half the people of Gabrielle's type have
less than she, then it is reasonable to say they have exercised
degrees of will power, or have taken comparable degrees of
for their smoking behavior. Before leaving the smoking example, I should

perhaps say that, in the last few months, new information has emerged
relevant to the assignment of personal responsibility in decisions to
smoke. We have learned that cigarette manufacturers discovered, many
ago, that nicotine is addictive, and that many or all of them add
to natural tobacco to enhance this addictive effect. Thus, another
in a person's circumstances, which I omitted in the example as described

above, is the biological predilection of a person to nicotine addiction.

Suppose our medical technology were sufficiently advanced to ascertain
degree of this predilection for all persons. This, indeed, should also
a component of type, as it is clearly beyond the person's control. We
might find that this new factor explains a good deal of the variance in
years smoked within the types into which we initially partitioned
As this example indicates, the development of medical technology, in
cases, will cause society to add new components to the list constituting

the definition of type. As this happens, some actions that formerly
appeared to be matters of personal responsibility come to be seen as due

to circumstances beyond the person's control. Consider a second example,

one which is perhaps more important than the smoking case, and more
than health to be viewed as subject to an equal-opportunity ethic,
than an "unqualified right" ethic. In our society, one's income, and
probably also one's success in life, depends positively on the amount of

education one receives. Income is strongly correlated with years of
education, and, although I am not familiar with the survey data on this
question, I would conjecture that the degree to which people rate their
lives as successful is also strongly correlated with the number of years

of education they receive. Let us, at any rate, assume that this is so.
Now the years of education a person acquires depend, as always, on two
kinds of factor: circumstances beyond the person's control, and
choices within her control. Suppose we, as a society, wish to implement
social policy of equality-of-opportunity for income; to do so, we shall
concentrate on the relationship between years of education acquired in
youth and income earned in later life. The general principle I have been

describing says that we should design a social policy which indemnifies
individuals against the low incomes which are the consequence of poor or

insufficient education in so far as that insufficiency is caused by the
individual's circumstances, but not indemnify her against the income
consequences of insufficient education to the extent that that
insufficiency is a result of autonomous choice. For simplicity of
exposition, I shall assume that income in society is exactly determined
the number of years of education one receives. I shall proceed just as
before. Society's first step is to make a list of factors that it deems
be beyond a person's control and that affect the years and quality of
education that he receives. Perhaps this list will consist in the
following: the years of education his parents had, his parents' income,
his ethnic group, his natural intelligence (assuming society can agree
how to measure this), the number of siblings he has, and whether he was
raised by a single parent or by two parents. All of these factors are
beyond a person's control, and they all arguably affect the number of
years and/or quality of a person's education. The next step is to
partition society into groups, where each consists of all persons who
share the same values of these six factors. Now each type will include a

large number of persons; there will be a frequency distribution of years

of education for each type, and, of course, these frequency
will differ across types. The frequency distribution of years of
is a characteristic of the group, not of any single individual. Since
persons are not responsible for their type, they cannot be responsible
this distribution. Where, however, a person sits in the frequency
distribution of his type is viewed as a consequence of his autonomous
choice, because, in listing the six factors of circumstance, we have, by

social decision, exhausted the conditions we regard as beyond a person's

control. So the differences in educational level reached within a type
due, by definition, to differences in autonomous choice, and hence,
matters of personal responsibility. My equality-of-opportunity proposal
this example is a policy that equalizes, through the tax-transfer
the income across types of all those at a given location in the group's
frequency distribution of education. Concretely, if Alice has achieved
median level of education for her type (i.e., exactly half of the
of her type have gotten less education than Alice), and if Bernard has
achieved the median level of education for his type, then our tax system

should attempt to equalize the income of Alice and Bernard, even though
they may have acquired quite different amounts of education. It is
important here to recall that I am assuming that income is completely
determined by years of education. A comment about my
equality-of-opportunity proposal is in order. I have not attempted to
provide a theory of what aspects of a person's behavior really are
his control, and what aspects are really within the realm of autonomous
choice. Each society, according to my account, decides this question for

itself. Thus, different societies will generally choose different lists
factors comprising a person's circumstances. An individualistic society
like the United States would probably include fewer factors in the list
a person's circumstances than a social-democratic one like Sweden. Thus
proposal is not metaphysical, in the sense of trying to solve the deep
problem of what actually is beyond a person's control; it is political
the sense that it depends on the current views of the society in
According to the proposal, each society can implement
equality-of-opportunity according to its own conception of what features

of a person's social and biological environment constitute factors
her control. Objections The conception of equality-of-opportunity that I

have described is not the conventional view. It appears to support a far

more egalitarian society than we now have in the United States. No doubt

it will generate considerable disagreement. To forestall some of that, I

will respond here to a few likely objections. One criticism -- suggested

in the work of Ronald Dworkin -- may be that the distinction between
a person is and is not responsible for is not the same as the
between what she has and has no control over. I have in fact assumed
those two distinctions are, by definition, the same. Dworkin's view may
seem paradoxical; I shall try to make it less so by example. Suppose a
child, who grows up in a poor family, whose parents lack education
primary school, who is exposed to no books in the home or any kind of
culture, develops preferences in which education has a low value. He
not care to become educated, and feels education will not make his life
more successful. He identifies with these preferences, views them as
intrinsic to who he is. Then Dworkin, I think, would have to say that
a child does not require any social compensation for the low level of
education he acquires, and the consequent low income he earns. Dworkin
places tastes with which a person identifies, and the choices that
from them, within the realm of personal responsibility, regardless of
whether those tastes were formed or induced by factors over which the
person had no control. I, on the other hand, do not make the distinction

between autonomous and non-autonomous choice depend on what the person
thinks, but rather on what society deems to be within or beyond a
control. Thus, the unfortunate child I have just described, or the adult

that child becomes, would be due social compensation under my notion of
equal opportunity for income, but not under Dworkin's. A second
comes from the vantage point of efficiency. It is all well and good, you

might say, to attempt to equalize opportunity, and, you might agree that

my proposal is the way to accomplish that goal. But you might further
that the cost of equality of opportunity may well be a substantial
decrease in national income: for the incentive effects of the
redistributive taxation that would be necessary to implement my program
say, in the second example of education and income -- would be such as
decrease the labor supply of highly skilled, and hence high-income,
individuals. If those who are in 'fortunate' types, and who earn large
incomes, are taxed to increase the incomes due those in unfortunate
under my proposal, they might work less, and in that case national
per capita would fall, perhaps disastrously. There are two responses to
this objection. The first relates to the incomplete definition of the
equality-of-opportunity proposal that I have here made. In fact, the
social policy I advocate is the one that equalizes opportunities (for
income, say) at the highest possible levels. It is not possible to make
this precise without going into some mathematical detail, but the idea
roughly, that if a taxation policy results in opportunities for income
being equalized at a very low level, then it is not the optimal policy.
is true that, under my proposal, mean income, that is, national income
capita, may well be below what it would be without any redistributive
taxation: the benefit associated with that reduction in mean income
be increased equality of opportunity. The second response to the
is that, if you think social policy should attempt to maximize national
income per capita, then you simply cannot advocate equality of
opportunity. These two goals are just not simultaneously achievable. If,

indeed, the highly skilled would to some degree withdraw their talents
from productive use if their incomes were highly taxed, then maximizing
mean income in a society could only be accomplished at the expense of
equalizing opportunities. Thus, to the extent that our society measures
its economic success by the rate of growth of mean income (i.e., GNP per

capita), it is not measuring success by the extent to which society
achieves equal-opportunity. If we rigorously adopt an
equality-of-opportunity ethic, then we must redesign our statistical
measures of what constitutes economically successful social policy. A
third objection is of a deeper philosophical nature. It is a
or more properly, a libertarian objection, and runs as follows. It may
that children are not responsible for their genetic and social/familial
environments, but it does not follow, according to this objection, that
the just social policy entails compensating persons for the consequences

of the differences in their genetic and social circumstances. Persons
legitimately deserve to benefit from their natural genetic endowments;
parents, as autonomous adults, are responsible for providing their
children with opportunities. Parents, furthermore, can legitimately
on and bequeath to their children the wealth they have legitimately
earned. Society's legitimate intervention is restricted to providing,
us say, free public schools and enforcing anti-discrimination laws. This

position may be ethically coherent; perhaps it can be given a sound
logical foundation. It is, indeed, the task of libertarian political
philosophy to do so. But this position is not consistent with equality
opportunity. We just cannot say that Fernando and Gabrielle, or Alicia
Bernard, face equal opportunities when the success of their lives will
vastly different, and quite predictably so, on account of features of
their environments over which they have no control. I have sketched some

of the reasons that lead western, liberal democrats to advocate equality

of opportunity, and spelled out what I think equality of opportunity
entails. Although I did not argue for equality of opportunity as an
I do believe that equality-of-opportunity is a sound ethical position.
Perhaps the procedure I have outlined for implementing it will convince
some readers of that soundness. Others, perhaps, will be convinced that
equality-of-opportunity entails what I say it does, and therefore will
reconsider their advocacy of an equal-opportunity doctrine, because they

believe the consequences of an equality-of-opportunity view are unfairly

egalitarian. Finally, there will be those who believe that the
equal-opportunity view I have outlined is unfairly inegalitarian, that
people who suffer large harms should be indemnified by society, even
they are responsible. I do not claim to have resolved these
but to have clarified their terms and to have shown that we can be
egalitarians without rejecting the fundamental ideal of personal

Estate Planning -- Done Right

Richard A. Epstein

Rather than address John Roemer's essay at an abstract level, I will
return to my original academic
roots as an estate planner. In order to equalize prospects of success
within the family, Roemer suggests a complex scheme of testamentary
disposition that, to my knowledge, no prudent individual has ever
followed. If such a scheme is unworkable within a single family, it is
even less plausible as a basis for public policy. During life, it may be

wise and possible to make subtle adjustments in annual giving to reflect

the differences in the needs and prospects of children. Sometimes larger

sums are invested in children who have planned risky careers. But not
often. Frequently, children with more conventional aspirations need and
receive money for a down-payment on a house, or to pay private school
tuition for grandchildren. Throughout it all much may depend on such
fortuitous circumstances as where they live and how well they get along
with their parents. Even during life, however, the baseline presumption
equality across children is very strong, and deviations from that
are undertaken only with caution, and, often, only after sounding out
those children who are asked to accept a diminished share of parental
largesse. But after death the situation is quite different, and the
flexibility found in gifts is typically absent from bequests. A
testamentary disposition is often made once and for all. So what should
done if an aspiring musician scraps her plans and opts for a high-paying

job in investment banking? Take back the money? The future variations
so great that a reversion to the equal division norm becomes even
stronger, particularly for dispositions to young children whose
are still fluid. Even in family situations, Roemer's finely calibrated
sophistication is not to be expected. Flexibility requires setting up a
costly discretionary trust, with a trustee who, even with the best of
intentions, may not be able execute the commands. The default option of
equal treatment among offspring is not only safe; it is also cheap. The
lessons from estate planning for political theory are, I fear, precisely

opposite to those Roemer draws. Estate planning shows how difficult it
to work sensible schemes of equalization and redistribution even within
families, where close affective ties across and within generations serve

to reduce the abuses of discretion. Estate planning practices also show
little voluntary redistribution outside the family. In the political
setting, we collectively do not have strong affective ties; we do not
good information about the prospects of different individuals; and we
cannot monitor recipients to distinguish bad behavior from bad luck. And

we do not give of ourselves, but must take from some in order to give to

others. Of course we need social institutions to handle cases of
misfortune (even when attributable to bad behavior, I might add). But
Roemer's statistical central planning would deplete the treasury in the
fruitless effort to place all individuals in arbitrary risk classes. The

more sensible response is to rely on churches, fraternal organizations,
and, yes, the family, to respond to the questions of ill fortune, based
better information and better social controls. On these, however, Roemer

is silent. Instead his actuarial balancing act would lead to levels of
political intrigue likely to bankrupt us all. And no sound estate
planner could tolerate that.

Playing God

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

John Roemer is right: Equality of opportunity is a swindle. The
"playing field" is never level,
and simply providing people with access to open competition will not
guarantee equality of results. The horses in the Kentucky Derby depart
from the same starting gate, but one of them always wins the race, if
by a nose. The winner has swifter legs, a better trainer, a better
more heart, or simply a better day. The loser has slower legs, a less
trainer, an incompetent jockey, less will to win, or an off day. These
differences take no account of what Roemer, following Ronald Dworkin,
calls "brute bad luck" -- say, the loser trips or has surreptitiously
administered a drug that makes him groggy. But even if brute bad luck
not intervene, one horse will still win, in part because he has enjoyed
some advantages before ever reaching a starting gate that purportedly
evens the chances of winning. Fillies rarely win the Derby, although
time to time one does. Non-thoroughbreds do not even enter it. And a
thoroughbred whose owner cannot afford a quality trainer or jockey has
poor chances indeed. As with the Derby, so with life. None of us starts
precisely equal to any other, and our advantages and disadvantages have
disquieting tendency to compound along the way. "To him that hath shall
given." Life regularly confirms the parable of the talents, no matter
deeply it offends our sense of fairness or, more accurately, charity.
the truth remains, we do not think very clearly about what we mean by
fairness. Roemer attempts to clarify our thinking by exposing the
inconsistencies and bad faith that inform prevailing notions of equal
opportunity. At the core of his argument lies the insistence that people

who are unequally endowed, whether by genetics or social and economic
situation, do not enjoy equality of opportunity. Thus if two children
start first grade in the same public school and one has parents who have

regularly read to her while the other does not, the children do not have

equal opportunity to learn to read, much less to become enthusiastic
readers. The conditions and attributes that compound our inequalities
could be multiplied indefinitely, but the conclusion is inescapable:
multiple reasons beyond our control affect the starting point from which

we compete with others. Roemer argues that we may -- and probably should

-- attempt to compensate for inequalities of condition and attributes to

ensure genuine equality of opportunity. The compensations he proposes
amount to providing the child whose parents do not read to her with
pre-school exposure to reading, presumably Head Start, possibly new
parents. Such compensations, he insists, do not deny the importance of
personal responsibility to make the most of one's opportunities or
personal responsibility for failing to do so. He insists upon the
importance of personal responsibility in order to fend off anticipated
charges that, under the guise of equality of opportunity, he is
equality of outcome. The gambit is ingenious and has a certain
philosophical coherence, but, in the end, it fails. For Roemer blandly
assumes that we may accurately, or fairly, calculate the conditions and
attributes that invalidate formal equality of opportunity. Roemer's
in other words, rests upon the assumption that it is possible to effect
substantive equality of opportunity by compensating for the myriad of
factors that make every individual unequal from every other. His
example of children within a family exposes the extraordinary illusion
mastery that undergirds his thinking. Who, even a father, can really
determine what accounts for one child's fantasies, much less decide if
equality of opportunity requires that the musically average child who
wishes to become a concert violinist be humored? Does social justice
require that we attempt to provide non-thoroughbreds with an equal
to win the Derby? By what arrogance do we suppose that if we provide the

non-thoroughbred with the best trainer, the best jockey, and all the
he would even then have a chance to win the Derby? Is that a better use
our resources than providing a poor child with the opportunity to learn
be a jockey who might one day ride a through-bred? Which of us, even
assisted by the ultimate computer, is capable of such calculus? One
as many have, make a case for greater equalization of material
This principle supports the graduated income tax and might be invoked to

support other redistributive taxation schemes. Material resources alone
will not determine the use that individuals and families make of
opportunities. We all know that some will spend welfare payments on
and others will spend them on advantages for their children. An honest
person might argue that the risk that some welfare money will be spent
drugs is one we must take to provide others with the opportunity to
it otherwise. But the notion that we may so accurately calculate the
probabilities of an individual's response to the complexity and
indeterminacy of life, even when we calculate on the basis of types
than individuals, bears a disconcerting resemblance to the attempt to
God. And Roemer's protestations notwithstanding, it moves the politics
equality of opportunity a
giant step closer to a self-defeating politics of an unrealizable
of outcomes

This is the National Debate on System Reform.       debate@indiapolicy.org
Rules, Procedures, Archives:            http://www.indiapolicy.org/debate/