Fairness, Opportunity, and Redistribution

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Arthur Brooks at the American Enterprise Institute 1

Jon Chait’s review of Arthur Brooks’ The Battle is focused elsewhere, but contains an interesting digression into the question of equality of opportunity:

In opposition to the punitive leveling agenda of the 30 percent coalition, Brooks puts forward what he calls the “moral case” for free enterprise. This case rests upon “equality of opportunity.” Brooks is unequivocal about the centrality of equality of opportunity to his argument. “As long as everyone has the same opportunities,” he argues, “the free enterprise movement should have no qualms about trumpeting our values as deeply American and profoundly fair.”

As Chait observes, if you take the idea of equality of opportunity really seriously you end up with an incredibly radical agenda:

Equality of opportunity is an extremely radical, even utopian proposition. The Battle betrays no signs whatsoever of having considered what equality of opportunity would mean. It is, alas, a nearly impossible ideal to fulfill, since one of the most valued ways for parents to spend their wealth is to impart greater opportunity to their children. Affluent parents can pass on money or assets to their children. They can finance private education; subsidize internships, travel, or other valuable opportunities; raise their children in safe communities that help impart middle-class values; or simply offer them stable two-parent families. All these things create massive inequality of opportunity.

Indeed, it’s been generally acknowledged by everyone from Robert Nozick to John Rawls that achieving this kind of robust form of equality of opportunity would be incompatible with any kind of recognizable form of liberty. By contrast, I think Plato seriously entertained the idea of abolishing the family and raising children in giant collective houses, a notion that I believe also blossomed a bit in the wake of the Russian Revolution. In other words, this is a goofy kind of intellectual trap that less-thoughtful rightwingers fall into. In an attempt to block the legitimacy of redistributive tax-and-transfer schemes they end up authorizing massively more intrusive government.

For whatever it’s worth, my view is that the best argument for redistribution and the best argument for free enterprise are both grounded in basic utilitarian thinking. If there’s a guy on the sidewalk dying of Anaphylactic shock and you’re standing next to him with an epi pen talking about your right to hang onto it, then the right thing for me to do is punch you in the face, take the pen, and save the guy’s life. That’s a welfare-enhancing transfer of resources from someone who doesn’t really need it to someone who needs it much more. Redistribution!

But in general more welfare-enhancing resources exist if we have a system of well-defined property rights and free market exchange. So we have a basically capitalist system full of private businesses and private property not because of the metaphysics of “fairness” but because it works well. And then you also have a certain amount of regulation of externalities, provision of public goods, and welfare-enhancing redistribution. All because the system works better with that stuff, too. And people argument about how much of that stuff we need and how it should be organized. Of course not everyone agrees with me. Indeed, probably most people would disagree if you asked them. But this is the direction the world is heading in and we’re better off for it.