Paul (and equal opportunity)


Paul Ryan is a fascinating conservative republican because unlike most members of the GOP or the tea party (though Mike Lee is said to be stumping on poverty) he professes to be concerned about poverty in the United States. To this end he laments diminishing equality of opportunity.

You might think, “He must actually be concerned about poor people, since he is advancing such a progressive ideal as equality! Now if only the rest of the GOP would start representing the interests of persons other than the wealthy”.

But hold on there, friend, before you start thinking that Paul Ryan actually cares about poor people, we should look a little more closely at the word after ‘equality’ — ‘of opportunity’. We’ll see that by ‘equality of opportunity’ Paul Ryan means ‘equality of wealthy and healthy persons born into affluent communities.”

‘Opportunity’ by itself is an empty concept. It refers to an ability to achieve. Achieve what? Possession of valuables, or the end for which we attain valuables: welfare? Perhaps Ryan and others might mean the equal opportunity to attain employment or good jobs. This seems unlikely given their general opposition to affirmative action, Ryan included. Putting the conservative position aside, the concept of equal opportunity for employment seems vacuous on its own. What such an ideal boils down to, assuming that most jobs are taken for the financial compensation, is equal chances to have the ability to achieve. As before, we are left to wonder ‘achieve what?’ Even if this is the correct reading of equality of opportunity, we still need to flesh out what x is in this definition: equality of opportunity obtains if and only if the relevant persons have equal chances to have the ability to achieve x (among who equality should obtain is a separate, though intersecting, issue).

As noted above, the two most common metrics of equality, and thus, potential values for x in the just posed definition, are resources and welfare. Ronald Dworkin and Eric Rakowski are the major proponents of the resource based view, while Richard Arneson and Thomas Christiano, among many others, favor welfare as the metric of equality. Applied to our working definition, the resources view looks quite similar to the view posited by Dworkin. If persons have equal chances to possess resources then a manageable place to start is to distribute resources such that all persons have an equal share of resources at the starting gate. If persons lose resources due to poor decisions then they have less resources than others, but the opportunity to be equal in resources is present because they would have been equal if they hadn’t mismanaged their resources. If persons lose resources due to factors beyond their control then more resources are to be redistributed to them and this because as things turned out, they did not have an equal opportunity for resources.

This view is nevertheless unfavorable, because it unfairly burdens handicapped and seriously ill persons. Consider: if everyone starts off with equal resources, then handicapped and ill persons will actually start off with an unequal amount of resources to others because they have conditions that will require expending resources, such that they have less resources to use for food, shelter and entertainment, when all is said and done. Now, Dworkin has a method around this, but I think it is quite messy and unfair. He posits that before we reach the starting point, we can stage an auction wherein persons can use some of their resources to purchase insurance against handicap and illness. Thus, the free market determines the cost of having a handicap or illness, and the funds spent on such insurances are to be given to the relevantly handicapped and ill persons so that they start off with an unequal but fair amount of resources. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that most persons will take their chances with handicap and illness and not purchase insurance, resulting in the amount of resources to be redistributed to the handicapped and ill to be minimal, and leaving them at a serious disadvantage throughout their lives.

What this suggests is that insofar as we are interested in promoting equality out of a concern for fairness and justice, we are interested in promoting welfare; it is just the case that we must use resources to provide welfare. Equal opportunity for welfare avoids the problem posed by handicaps and illness, because at the starting point, all persons are not given an equal amount of resources, but rather, all persons are given the amount of resources necessary to making them equal in welfare. Arneson, the major proponent of equal opportunity for welfare posits that, “for equal opportunity of welfare to obtain among a number of persons, each must face an array of options that is equivalent to every other person’s in terms of the prospects for preference satisfaction it offers” (Richard Arneson, “Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare”, page 85). It is worth noting that the most successful welfare account is based on preference satisfaction, given that happiness has been dismissed as impossible to measure. As with equal opportunity for resources, if persons make poor choices that result in the reduction of their welfare, then they are not deserving of having their welfare brought up by a redistribution because they had the opportunity to be equal in welfare and squandered it. If persons have a reduction in welfare due to factors beyond their control then the state ought to redistribute resources to equalize their welfare with others, because as things turned out they didn’t have an equal opportunity to have welfare. We see that welfare is superior to resources as a metric of equal opportunity for x because our concerns for the well being of handicapped and ill persons are met by the basic ideals of equal opportunity for welfare and we do not need supplemental insurance markets, as was required by the resource account.

(Note: these views are much more nuanced and detailed than the brief glimpses I have provided. If you would like to find out more about these views I suggest picking up Equality by Pojman and Westmoreland, Sovereign Virtue by Ronald Dworkin, and On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice by G.A. Cohen.)

Equal opportunity for welfare is thus simply stated as the view that persons ought to be equal in welfare, unless they are responsible for not being equal in welfare. The problem is that given that welfare is best measured by preference satisfaction, isn’t it possible that two persons be equal in welfare due to their making the most rational decisions throughout life but one be much poorer than the other because of suppressed ambitions from his being born into an impoverished community? The egalitarian is concerned for equality because he thinks it is the best measure of justice, such that we can say that an egalitarian is concerned about equality because of a concern for justice. But how is the scenario envisioned just? If an egalitarian position leads to unjust outcomes then it is contradictory. Thus, we ought to reject equal opportunity for welfare as the correct view of equality.

What are we left with? We have seen that equal opportunity for resources and equal opportunity for welfare both go against our pre-theoretic intuitions on justice (see my last entry for more on pre-theoretic intuitions). Moreover, it seems that the problems that plagued equal opportunity for resources and equal opportunity for welfare would also apply to equality of resources and equality of welfare, respectively.

I think our pre-theoretic intuitions are that equality among citizens of a polity is valuable, either instrumentally, as an end, or both (I subscribe to the unorthodox view that intrinsic value is distinct from end value and extrinsic value is different than instrumental value, but alas, that discussion must wait for another day). The right account for the metric of equality has yet to been provided. Against those who would say that specifications of social and political equality are sufficient for a complete theory of justice (and I do intend the allusion to John Rawls), I say, perhaps in theory, but not in practice. In capitalist economies, social inequality causes and is caused by economic inequality. Equality of welfare and equality of resources are theories as to what needs to obtain in order for there to be equality of social goods such as civil liberties, opportunities for political participation, and opportunities for social mobility.

All of this goes to say that if Paul Ryan has a working theory for the metric of economic equality then he should share it with the rest of us. He certainly throws the term around like he knows what it means. My suspicion, however, is that he means just the sorts of theories detailed above, and what I posit are serious flaws with the views, he sees as welcome consequences. So to anyone who thinks, “Paul Ryan isn’t so bad, he’s progressive in his espousing egalitarian ideals regarding income”, think again. “Equal opportunity” just means “let the wealthy and healthy stay wealthy and healthy, and let poor and ill stay poor and ill”.

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