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Opportunity and Inequality

By Matthew Yglesias

"Opportunity and Inequality"


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Will Wilkinson reads Robert Schiller describing the level of inequality in the contemporary United States as a “serious problem” then pronounces the view that “greater inequality per se is a problem” to be “utterly mysterious.” I tend to agree that for a sufficiently strong sense of per se this can get to be a bit mysterious, but in the real world there’s relatively little mystery about it. Will, for example, is willing to allow that one might worry about inequality insofar as it is caused, for example, by “the system of monopoly public provision of education that systematically disadvantages certain classes of citizens on the basis of morally arbitrary characteristics, like the property tax rate in their neighborhoods.”

Clever, clever; if you really cared about inequality you’d embrace . . . libertarianism. Without getting dragged into an argument about school vouchers, though, let me merely observe that you can attribute whatever powers you like to the introduction of a freer market in schooling and you still won’t get anywhere near the conclusion that parental wealth no longer impacts schooling quality. The best teachers will command the highest salaries, meaning schools employing them will tend to have the highest prices, and those prices will be paid by the wealthiest parents. You would have a system of competitive private provision of education that systematically disadvantages certain classes of citizens on the basis of morally arbitrary characteristics, like the income level of their parents.

Insofar as we can take it to be a basic fact about human psychology that people on the whole care a great deal about their children and will tend to invest in their future well-being, there’s simply no way vouchers or any similar education reform is going to prevent inequality in parental wealth from replicating itself to some extent as unequal opportunities for children.

This, I think, gives us two kinds of reasons to worry about inequality of condition. One is that inequality of condition undermines equality of opportunity, which is an important value. Another is that inequality of condition in part reflects previous unequal opportunities, which is unjust. Of course, you don’t want to do too much to advance equality of condition, since taken to extremes that would undermine everyone’s prosperity. Nor do you want to go too far in efforts at generating equal opportunities or you’ll fatally undermine liberty. But you do want to do some of both. Both are important values, they’re mutually re-enforcing, but neither one can be realized at the limit without undermining yet other important values.

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