Nick Clegg, equality of opportunity and totalitarianism

It is often argued by proponents of free markets – especially within the Conservative Party – that we should not pursue equality of outcomes but, instead, pursue equality of opportunity. Indeed, that was the argument of at least one of my fellow panellists, Matt Ridley and Norman Lamont, in the recent Bloomberg debate on inequality. However, equality of opportunity is undesirable in theory and its pursuit would lead to totalitarianism in practice.

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.

Academic and Research Director, IEA

Philip Booth is Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also Director of the Vinson Centre and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham and Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He also holds the position of (interim) Director of Catholic Mission at St. Mary’s having previously been Director of Research and Public Engagement and Dean of the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences. From 2002-2016, Philip was Academic and Research Director (previously, Editorial and Programme Director) at the IEA. From 2002-2015 he was Professor of Insurance and Risk Management at Cass Business School. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Federal Studies at the University of Kent and Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, University of Notre Dame, Australia. Previously, Philip Booth worked for the Bank of England as an adviser on financial stability issues and he was also Associate Dean of Cass Business School and held various other academic positions at City University. He has written widely, including a number of books, on investment, finance, social insurance and pensions as well as on the relationship between Catholic social teaching and economics. He is Deputy Editor of Economic Affairs. Philip is a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries and an honorary member of the Society of Actuaries of Poland. He has previously worked in the investment department of Axa Equity and Law and was been involved in a number of projects to help develop actuarial professions and actuarial, finance and investment professional teaching programmes in Central and Eastern Europe. Philip has a BA in Economics from the University of Durham and a PhD from City University.

3 thoughts on “Nick Clegg, equality of opportunity and totalitarianism”

  1. Posted 03/09/2014 at 21:55 | Permalink

    Philip, as always, I enjoy your thoughtful pieces. However, I challenge this statement “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.” I agree that there sometimes is, but it is far from universally true, for example in the case of rent seeking and government-granted privileges for certain closed shop occupations. How does removing such privileges (which would increase equality of opportunity) mean that you have less social and economic liberty?

  2. Posted 03/09/2014 at 22:37 | Permalink

    HJ – I agree with that comment entirely and I think the first two sentences of the last paragraph are trying to say something similar. But, what i am saying is that if we are going to pursue equality of opportunity as an end in itself to the bitter end, the consequences will be not ones we would like. When it comes to individual decisions, you are potentially right in many cases.

  3. Posted 04/09/2014 at 12:53 | Permalink

    “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.”

    If you create and sustain the value of your wealth it is merited. If not, it is merely a claim on other peoples work, effort and enterprise.

    Any “wealth” derived from land cannot therefore be merited.

    As the top 1% own around 50% of land by value, we cannot, by definition ever have a meritocracy.

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