Equal opportunty is inadequate

Steve Pearlstein has a long piece titled “Is capitalism moral?” in the Washington Post. The piece is a total mess. It seems to misconstrue different moral traditions and hops between them without seemingly realizing it. Nonetheless, it does provide a jumping off point for a point that needs to be emphasized: equal opportunity is totally inadequate for economic justice.

On page 2 and 3 of his post, Pearlstein wages a weak attack on liberal invocations of equal opportunity. His chief complaint is that equal opportunity is too vague a concept in practice. It does not tell us how far we need to go and which programs to actually implement. The problem with this attack is that, although there are competing notions of what equal opportunity actually means, the various conceptions of it are generally pretty clear.

Putting that aside though, Pearlstein’s big problem here is that he presents “equal opportunity” as a sufficient theory of what economic justice requires. That is, he imagines that there are people who think economic justice is achieved once “equal opportunity” is achieved. There are some people out there who talk like that, but I know of no serious theorist of economic justice who actually thinks that. Some think equal opportunity is a necessary component of economic justice, but absolutely none I have read ever suggest it is a complete, adequate picture of economic justice.

Indeed it would be extraordinarily strange to suggest that equal opportunity was sufficient for economic justice. Such a theory would hold that wildly different economic forms were equally just. So a ruthlessly authoritarian system that was basically a big slave economy would be economically just so long as everyone had an equal opportunity at occupying the various positions in that economy. Same holds for a social democratic system, socialist system, mixed economy, laissez-faire economy, and so forth. They would all be just and equally just so long as the positions that exist within those forms are made equally open to all. This a very odd view, and I doubt very seriously that anybody actually holds it.

With that said, Pearlstein’s piece catches on to something liberals do that is really pernicious. Many liberals refuse to talk about anything other than equal opportunity, and thereby neglect distributive issues or issues pertaining to power and control over economic resources. This neglect causes people to infer that liberals only object to lack of equal opportunity, and are otherwise fine with our economic institutions. Some liberals might hold that view, but many do not. Those in the latter camp do a real disservice to their economic program by pounding equality of opportunity almost exclusively. They confuse others, and harm the realization of their political goals.

It is time for those liberals who are not satisfied with economic institutions that distribute wealth, income, and power in dramatically unequal ways to call that out directly. Despite the popular mythology to the contrary, these institutions were not created by God or nature. They are social constructions and political inventions. If we are not satisfied with their performance, we can and should replace them. The case for doing so is very strong, and liberals should be making it, not navigating around it by side-lining all grievances that are not related to equal opportunity.