Thursday, June 11, 2015

Equality of outcomes without apology

This short piece by Kanbur and Wagstaff says nothing new, but the point bears repeating. To put it somewhat differently from the way the authors do:

The "American creed" favors equality of opportunity over equality of outcomes as the proper criterion for economic justice. A good example of this philosophy applied to policy recommendations can be found in this recent plan for poverty reduction in California. Achieving truly meaningful, deep-down equal opportunity of the kind that Rawls referred to as fair equality of opportunity requires equalizing or compensating for differences in circumstances that are arbitrary from a moral point of view. And this in turn will often be nearly indistinguishable from equalizing outcomes, for example to the extent that a child's socio-economic circumstances growing up are a major determinant of her opportunity.

Furthermore, "leveling the playing field" in a significant way may require extraordinary redistribution of circumstances, and be very expensive. Imagine trying to eliminate differences in life chances due to family and socioeconomic background through compensating educational interventions. Because schooling is expensive, equalizing large differences in opportunity using schooling alone would be enormously costly, as Betts and Roemer have shown. This rather technical paper includes some of their estimates. Overcoming differences due to parental education would require educational spending on disadvantaged students at something like five times the per-pupil spending for the most advantaged. Not to mention that eliminating differences in opportunity due to race would require race-conscious policies.

Improving opportunity in sensible ways is achievable. But when it comes to justice as fairness, equal opportunity will never be an adequate substitute for redistributive policies.

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