The dangerous idea of equality?

Nozick devotes the next subsection of Chapter 8 (pp. 235-238) to attacking the concept of equality of opportunity. But before we proceed any further, I must make a confession. Although I agree 99% with Nozick’s criticism of equality of outcomes, I was at first aghast by Nozick’s negative appraisal of equality of opportunity. I mean, for goodness’ sake, who can be against the ideal of equal opportunity? Nevertheless, I ended up changing my mind about this after I digested Nozick’s no-hold-barred condemnation of this concept. It turns out that equality of opportunity is not only an impossible goal; it is also a dangerous one.

As Nozick himself notes (p. 235), there are only two ways of providing equal opportunity to everyone: (1) “by directly worsening the situations of those more favored with opportunities” or (2) “by improving the situation of those less well-favored.” I won’t dwell at all on the first possibility, since that solution would end up making everyone worse off, but what about the second solution, i.e. expanding the opportunities of those less favored? After all, lifting people up (expanding opportunities) sounds better than pushing people down (taking away opportunities), but the problem with lifting people up is that there are no “magic wands,” to borrow Nozick’s fitting phrase on page 235 of ASU. Improving everyone’s lot “requires the use of resources, and so it too involves worsening the situation of some.” (Ibid.) Simply put, the second solution and the first are one in the same!

To sum up, Nozick’s critique of equality of opportunity is based on his entitlement theory of justice (p. 238, emphasis in original): “The major objection to speaking of everyone having a right to various things such as equality of opportunity, life, and so on, … is that these ‘rights’ require a substructure of things and materials and actions; and other people may have rights and entitlements over these.” In other words, the right to property is superior to the right to equality.

Nevertheless, although I appreciate the logic of Nozick’s objection to equality, one possible reply to his anti-egalitarian arguments is to note that not all property rights are private ones. In any society, even libertarian ones, some property rights will be held in common, especially over such public or “non-rivalrous” goods as air, bodies of water, parks, etc. (See chart below for a full description of different types of goods.) Even copyrighted materials eventually enter into the public domain. Accordingly, to the extent the state has a legitimate right to certain forms of public property, why can’t the state use those collective resources to help the plight of the poor? Furthermore, don’t forget the Lockean proviso, and don’t forget that some private property rights may have been obtained ab initio by force or fraud, thus requiring some form of rectification under Nozick’s own entitlement theory.

But at the same time, even with these key caveats in mind (the Lockean proviso as well as the force and fraud exceptions), we still need a workable theory of equality. What if, however, the desire for equality were motivated by envy? Nozick will explore this possibility in the next subsection of Chapter 8, and so will we in our next blog post.

Image result for non rival good

Source: Cowen & Tabarrok

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2 Responses to The dangerous idea of equality?

  1. Kathy H says:

    I am not articulate, but I will try. I don’t believe that to provide equal opportunity you are bound by either (1)“by directly worsening the situations of those more favored with opportunities” or (2) “by improving the situation of those less well-favored. The problem with “equal opportunity” is the way we try to enforce it. For example quotas. This is an artificial reallocation of resources. But putting up barriers to equal opportunity is also a reallocation of resources. For example equal qualifications on an application with the only difference being the name – Tumwijuke or John. The John gets selected way more than the Tumwijuke. I think laws should be made to improve society as a whole. The problem is laws are man made and once created can have unintended consequences.

    • That is an excellent example, one that shows the injustice of the voluntary exchange (due to prejudices and biases) and also the problems with trying to rectify these prejudices and biases via law. I would only add three points: (1) the question is not whether x state of affairs is bad (it probably is); instead, the question is whether y remedy for x state of affairs will produce a better situation than x or a worse one. And (2) how do we know whether y remedy is, in fact, better or worse, than x state of affairs. (Re: points 1 and 2, I am indebted to my intellectual mentor Ronald Coase and his paper “The problem of social cost.) Point number 3, however, is Nozick’s: whether we adopt y remedy or not does not just depend on whether it will be an improvement on x, it also depends on whether y violates anyone’s rights to their holdings. Admittedly, it is this third point that is the most contentious, since in reality, no rights are absolute.

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