On Equality

by radimentary

“For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and
when one prevails the other dies.”

We are taught as first principle that equality is good and an end in itself. This post seeks to complicate that notion. I hope to establish: (a) overall, more socioeconomic equality in our society would be a good thing, (b) equality is not an end in itself, (c) there are situations in which fighting for equality may be actively counterproductive.

I will focus on socioeconomic equality and equality of access to education.

What Kind of Equality?

Let’s begin with two seemingly separate notions of equality: equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. If fighting for equality of opportunity, we want a “level playing field,” then what we want is for everyone to get from birth the same opportunities in life, fight for the same openings, and let the most meritorious make the most money, get the most attractive mate(s), etc. Most people can get behind equality of opportunity.

Equality of outcome is basically socialism: everyone does whatever and then the state redistributes equally. Most people think equality of outcome is dystopian and unfair. People respond to incentives – and by taking away the fruits of their labors they will have no incentive to try, to git gud, to innovate.

Here are two major issues with the idea that we can be for equality of opportunity but not equality of outcome.

The first objection is that outcomes are the only way we have of detecting equality. The constant refrain of progressivism is that if the outcomes of two groups are different, then they must have experienced a difference in availability of resources, social capital, stereotype threat, etc. As long as a field is dog-dominated there must be systemic anti-felinism – if cats and dogs are treated exactly the same how could it be that more dogs end helping blind people?

It is certainly possible to find glaring and systemic inequality of opportunity, but when all the Jim Crow laws are gone and most seeing-eye animals are dogs – what do we do? Do we believe that dogs are biologically or culturally better suited for the job than cats? Do we believe cats temperamentally don’t like the job even though they were given the same opportunities? Or has the source of inequality sunk deeper and less formally into the fabric of the entire pet industry? It seems impossible to tell until blind people really start using seeing-eye cats at proportional rates.

The second objection is that differences in outcomes mean differences in opportunities for the next generation. If my dogs choose freely to go to puppy school and your dogs didn’t, five years later I will have a middle class brood of puppies with upstanding, well-mannered parents and yours will barely be potty trained. If we want equality of opportunity for our kids, we must then want wealth (in as many senses of the word as possible) redistribution for the current generation. Unless we start taking puppies from their parents and let the state raise them all together equally in communal pounds, equality of opportunity is deeply tied to equality of outcome.

It follows that equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are essentially the same thing. Let’s just call it equality.

Why do we want Equality?

One of the great thought experiments from political philosophy is the Rawlsian veil of ignorance:

Parties to the original position know nothing about their particular abilities, tastes, and position within the social order of society. When such parties are selecting the principles for distribution of rights, positions, and resources in the society they will live in, the veil of ignorance prevents them from knowing about who they will be in that society. For example, for a proposed society in which 50% of the population is kept in slavery, it follows that on entering the new society there is a 50% likelihood that the participant would be a slave. The idea is that parties subject to the veil of ignorance will make choices based upon moral considerations, since they will not be able to make choices based on self- or class-interest.

As John Rawls put it, “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”The idea of the thought experiment is to render obsolete those personal considerations that are morally irrelevant to the justice or injustice of principles meant to allocate the benefits of social cooperation.

Rawls says if you didn’t know who you got to be before being born, then you would want a more equal society. Let us examine two examples. We pretend there is no such thing as income for simplicity: people simply start with a fixed amount of money that they slowly spend on stuff until they go bankrupt.

Here are two societies, each with a thousand people and a billion dollars. In society A,one of those people owns all billion dollars. In society B, everyone has a million to zir name.

Clearly society B is more equal and preferable in this situation. Even if you are completely risk neutral, a billion dollars is not worth a thousand times a million dollars in utilons. A billionaire is not a thousand times happier than a millionaire. Because of concavity of utility (i.e. diminishing returns) we definitely prefer society B.

Here are two more societies, each with a billion people and a billion dollars. In society A’, a thousand of those people have all of the wealth – each is worth a million dollars. In society B’, everyone has a dollar to zir name.

Clearly society B’ is more equal – but which would you prefer to be born into? Let’s make the reasonable assumption that owning a dollar will not stave off starvation or homelessness for very long. I would take the one in a million to live comfortably in A’ over the certainty of dehumanizing poverty.

Thus we come onto the following principle:

  1. Equality is only preferable in a world of plenty. Inequality is preferable in a world of scarcity.

For many games in real life, everything is fixed-sum. You cannot imagine the counterfactual to inequality to be “everyone has the same amount of money as the richest person.” That is not a fair or realistic comparison. Would you prefer a world in which you take from a thousand well-off people to make everyone a tiny bit less stupendously poor?

So now, the question is: do we live in a world of plenty?

If you’re just talking about money in the US, then the answer is yes. According to our principle, socioeconomic equality is a great goal in a country where the average wealth is $301,000 (for comparison the median wealth is $44,900).  Although that is by no measure a stupendous amount of money it allows one to live comfortably albeit frugally for something like a decade here.

If you’re talking about money in the world, the answer is not so clear. Entire countries of people would get shafted in the redistribution, and the amount you end up with (estimates within an order of magnitude of $10,000) is hardly exciting.

Of course, there are still many great arguments against redistribution in the US that the thought experiment fails to capture. People respond to incentives and redistribution is the worst incentive conceivable. Also, deciding that an equal world is preferable in a vacuum is very different from saying we prefer to make a currently unequal world more equal by taking people’s property by force.

I hope the point is clear that equality is not always preferable.

Do we want equality in education?

Education is precisely the kind of situation where equality is probably not a productive goal.

First: in terms of educational opportunity, the US is a world of scarcity. Most of our schools and teachers are bad, and there are only a handful of private schools, charter schools, and pricey school districts where one can get what I would consider a passable education. I would prefer today’s US to one in which everyone had to go to a slightly less bad average public school.

Second: the value of education is not concave like the value of money. I would prefer for 1/12 of the population to graduate high school over everyone getting a first grade education. The best educated people are disproportionately valuable to society – not two or three times, but 10^2 or 10^3 times – for the amount of money spent on their educations (I believe – citation or correction needed).

I think this point deserves more attention, especially attention to the goals of the education system. If the goal is to give the populace decent educations so that they can live somewhat better, then some level of equality is a reasonable concern. If, on the other hand, the goal is to create value for the world, and to solve the challenging problems of the day – fix the economy, cure cancer, delay death, combat climate change, automate everything – then we cannot afford to give everyone a small amount of resources and fund each of 300 million people to work on these problems equally. Focusing resources on those who are most keen to learn and solve and already have the (any kind of) capital to make things happen is the way to go.

Third and finally: there are people who learn differently, but also there are people who learn better, and this difference is rarely fixable by any kind of intervention. I think most kinds of education reform that leads to improved average outcomes – say test scores – will also cause more, not less, inequality in education. If you replace a bad teacher with a good teacher, the stupid kids will learn better, but the smart kids will improve more. I predict that most of the countries with higher test scores than the US have just as much inequality, if not more, just shifted up (citation or correction needed).

I don’t think the picture is all that abysmal – certainly educational outcomes do suffer from diminishing returns eventually. There is only so much we can do for any given person to essentially max out their learning, and once this happens it is natural and right to move on to the next person. One day, when the US becomes a world of plenty, it will be time to fight for educational equality. But this is not that day.