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What Does Jordan Peterson Mean by “Equality of Opportunity”?

February 19, 2018 in Economics

By Ryan Bourne

Ryan Bourne

The psychologist Professor Jordan Peterson is usually
exceptionally careful with his definitions and language. So it is
with trepidation that I challenge his commitment to “equality
of opportunity” as a desirable goal.

Yet in an otherwise excellent and thought-provoking EconTalk podcast with Russ
Roberts
he repeated the assertion from his Channel 4 interview
with Cathy Newman that “equality of opportunity” is a
desirable societal ambition.

Perhaps I have missed some lecture where he has elucidated
further. But if listeners like me who share his disdain for outcome
egalitarianism are confused, it is worth pinning down exactly what
he has in mind. For it seems to me that someone who truly rejects
outcome equality should also regard “equality of
opportunity” as either trivially self-evident or wrong.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition of
“equality of opportunity”
starts by suggesting it
is the opposite of a caste society. It clearly would be undesirable
if all positions in life were determined purely by social status.
We want a dynamic society where individuals are able to rise and
fall to a large extent according to competitive processes, and for
hard work and talent to be a route to success.

Yet in truth “equality of opportunity,” as commonly
articulated, is much stronger than favouring a society where hard
work and talent can affect our positions in hierarchies.
Indeed, the very last part of the Stanford definition indicates the
potential expansiveness of the idea. It reads (my emphasis):

“In contrast, when equality of opportunity prevails, the
assignment of individuals to places in the social hierarchy is
determined by some form of competitive process, and all
members of society are eligible to compete on equal
terms
.”

What does “equal terms” mean here? Is it the idea
that all people should be able to use their talents, absent
coercive state-imposed constraints, to pursue their ambitions? Is
it that any state actions or policies should treat all individuals
as equal under the law? Maybe, but sadly neither of these concepts
represent how it is used in wider political parlance.

No, the reason I oppose “equality of opportunity” as
an aim is because the “equal terms” part of that
sentence is instead widely used to justify a vast array of
government interventions, which often hinder the ambitions and
preferences of free people in ways very similar to the pursuit of
equality of outcome.

In UK debates, I have heard it said that the existence of
inheritances mean children do not compete on equal terms, as
justification for 100% inheritance taxes. Some claim that pushy
parents bestow unfair educational advantages on their children as
justification for rigid, state-imposed comprehensivisation …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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