Equality of Opportunity? I Don’t Think So.

Mitch Thompson mentioned the phrase “equality of opportunity” in his great post today.  Quoting Logan Albright of Mises Canada, he wrote:

In a more traditional sense of the word, however, equality means equal treatment under the law and, to a certain extent, equality of opportunity. In short, no one should be given legal preference over anyone else.”

Insofar as “equality of opportunity” means that “no one should be given legal preference over anyone else,” it is a decent phrase. Unfortunately, that phrase has been used in not so agreeable ways in the past.  More often than not, that phrase is used to describe one side of a debate that covers a false dichotomy.  If “equality of outcome” means that the central planners of an economy need to ensure that the success of every socio-economic class, then “equality of opportunity” has been used as the counter position and is meant to summarize the belief that the State should ensure that every person has the necessary tools at the start to be successful in the long run.  While denying that the State should seek to make everyone successful, the “equality of opportunity” camp has advocated that the State should do things such as provide a basic income, fund basic education for the children, provide a minimal grant for health care, etc.  This view is even becoming more prominent in so-called “libertarian” (they really aren’t) circles.

This is a good time as any to point out that it is on this subject that I have issue with people like F.A. Hayek.  While a great economist, his political theory was less than ideal.  And it was such precisely because he agreed with the phrase “equality of opportunity.”  Hans Hoppe once explained why the Mises Institute was named after Mises and not Hayek:

Additional government functions [for Hayek] include “the assurance of a certain minimum income for everyone”; government should “distribute its expenditure over time in such a manner that it will step in when private investment flags”; it should finance schools and research as well as enforce “building regulations, pure food laws, the certification of certain professions… and the provision of such public institutions as theaters, sports grounds, etc.”; and it should make use of the power of “eminent domain” to enhance the “public good.”

The problem is that the phrase in question is not often used in the way that Thompson and Albright used it above.  And thus, in my view, it should not be used. Clearly both Albright and Thompson use it agreeably, and they reject “equality of opportunity” as it is used more commonly. I wouldn’t question their commitment to individual liberty in any sense, just want to push back on the phrase itself to describe our position.

Equal treatment under the law is good insofar as the law itself is good.  If the law is good, liberty will thrive. Liberty, not equality, is the challenge of our time.

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