Those who seek equality of opportunity often wish to create a meritocracy – again, a rallying cry for many Conservatives and some other supporters of a free market. Outcomes, it is argued, should be determined by talent and hard work. There is no apparent objection to one person earning more than another as long as differences arise from talent or hard work.
It could be argued that hard work is meritorious and should be rewarded (though it is possible that some people have a genetic pre-disposition towards hard work). But, what about talent? Why is it more satisfactory for people to be rewarded for the talents with which they were born than it is to make use of the connections with which their families endowed them, their inherited wealth or a whole set of other characteristics that are determined by luck and inheritance rather than merit? Her Majesty the Queen merits her wealth (ignoring disputes about whether it was obtained justly in earlier generations) no less than the mathematical genius who earns millions developing new option pricing theories.
But, for a moment, let us assume that a meritocracy based on talent and hard work is a laudable objective of public policy. What would be the outcome of trying to ‘equalise starting gates’ as it is sometimes described?
Promoting equality of opportunity has long been in the minds of those who believe in state-financed education. For example, in response to Boris Johnson’s justification of inequality, David Cameron said: ‘I believe in equality of opportunity. No one should be held back by not being able to get the training, the education, the skills that they need.’ And, of course, the expansion of higher education has long been justified by appeals to the notion of equality of opportunity.
However, within our heavily state-controlled schooling system, there are huge differentials in outcomes depending on where people live, whether they can afford to move house to be near a good school, whether they can afford a private school, and so on. One response to that would be to accept that equality of opportunity was an impossible aim. A second response (not mutually exclusive of the first) would be to reform the state schooling system to increase opportunities for all even if this led to very different outcomes for different people. This might well happen as the process of competition could benefit everybody whilst it benefited some more than others (though the evidence suggests that competition would benefit the poor and the less gifted more than the better off).
In the 1960s-1980s, many in the political establishment were happy to see the promotion of equality of opportunity by levelling down – hence the creation of the uniform comprehensive school and the abolition of direct grant schools (a form of private school for which local authorities subsidised the fees of the less-well-off). Fortunately, ‘levelling down’ policies seem to have moved out of the Overton Window of policies that can be discussed in polite company.
Instead, the focus has switched to promoting equality of opportunity by trying to improve the state education system. But, in the process, it has been realised that this cannot be done simply by educating children at taxpayers’ expense from the ages of 5-16. In response, the school leaving age has, in effect, been raised to 18. More perniciously, however, there is a continual extension of state control at the bottom end of the age range. After 20 years of increased government subsidies for pre-school education, the government is going yet further in its vain quest to equalise equality of opportunity. In his paper proposing the extension of free nursery education to many two year olds, Nick Clegg argued: ‘Patterns of inequality are imprinted from one generation to the next. The true test of fairness is the distribution of opportunities.’
But, if equality of opportunity is the aim, the policy cannot stop there. Unsurprisingly, opportunities to make the most of one’s skills are strongly affected by what sociologists call the ‘home learning environment’. This cannot be equalised without government involvement in every intimate detail of family life. And, why stop at extending nursery education down to the age of two? After all, according to the government, educational outcomes can be predicted by a range of educational indicators developed before that age. Why not take children away at birth and have the state bring them up? Indeed, it is quite possible that whether a child is breast fed is important for determining educational outcomes – will breastfeeding be made compulsory?
To anybody who thinks that raising the spectre of such policies is scaremongering, it is worth noting that, not long ago, people would have said the same about state-controlled nursery education for two to three year olds.
We can have sensible discussions about promoting greater opportunity for those who start with particular disadvantages. We can debate how we can sequence reforms that are desirable in any case in such a way that the least well off might benefit most. However, let us consign the pursuit of equality of opportunity to the dustbin before the policies adopted in its name consign us to The Road to Serfdom. In short, there is a straightforward choice between family autonomy and social and economic liberty on the one hand and equality of opportunity on the other.