The Limits of Equal Opportunity

Equal opportunity is an ideal almost as universally revered as democracy and human rights. While people have different conceptions of what equal opportunity entails (formal vs. fair equal opportunity) the basic idea is similar across ideologies. People would like a system where outcomes are determined by the effort and skill exerted in a fair game. And even though people may overestimate the extent that our society meets this ideal, it is still something our society strives for.

But how much can we strive for this ideal, or even retain equal opportunity as an ideal, in the face of what we know about human nature? The egalitarian philosopher John Rawls emphasized that we cannot take responsibility for our external factors, like the country and socioeconomic status we were born into. And, more controversially, we also cannot even take responsibility for our personality traits like our talents and work-ethic. This prevents the idea of “desert” from serving as the basis of a just distribution. And behavioral genetics has been giving Rawls more credence in his argument.

Desert and Behavioral Genetics

As I don’t want to butcher an explanation of behavioral genetics, I will just quote the field’s three laws.

“First Law: All human behavioural traits are heritable. Second Law: The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes. Third Law: A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioural traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.”

Just about every personality trait has a genetic component, including the traits that determine economic outcomes, including work ethic (conscientiousness) and IQ. These qualities are often associated with a special willpower that all of us have in equal reserves and choose to exert at different amounts. Instead, they are gifts randomly bestowed to each of us from birth.

But What Does the Public Think?

People today at least recognize the role genetics plays to a large extent, but not to its more accurate/more significant extent. One study shows how people tend to underestimate the heritability of most traits. In Robert Plomin’s book Blueprint, one chart compares peoples’ perception of how much genes influence certain traits vs. how much genes actually influence certain traits. For most traits surveyed, which include traits that affect economic outcomes, people underestimate how much genes matter. These include school achievement (29% vs. 60%), verbal ability (27% vs. 60%), and general intelligence (41% vs. 50%). Where we stand on the economic ladder is more luck-based than we thought.

People may respond that since only about 50% of differences can be explained by genetics, we can still hold people liable to the other 50% from the environment. But this intuition is wrong as well. Genes may be a genetic cause of our behavior, but our environmental influences are largely random. As our family life plays a negligible role in this “environment” variable, factors outside of the family are still a mystery. The environmental serendipity lottery is just as arbitrary as our genetic one. Except for lead exposure and malnutrition, we know little about the systemic environmental factors that shape our IQ.

See Hume’s Fork: “Either all our actions are determined, in which case we are not responsible for them; or, our actions are the result of random events, in which case we are still not responsible for them.”

There is still the utilitarian rationale/useful fiction for a meritocratic system, like encouraging people to increase their work ethic and IQ, despite their starting positions. But again, given how much we know about how heritable certain traits are, and how little we know about what aspects of our environment even can affect our personality, how far can this useful fiction take us and how right is it?

Imagine a society where people are both committing crimes (can control their actions and should be held responsible) and are being framed for crimes (no control/no responsibility). Also, imagine that this society punishes people who are known to be framed for a crime the same as people who are known to commit the crime. BUT, if you are framed and ameliorate the crime’s damage, then you can go free (fixing the window they are falsely accused of breaking).

Many people can do this for smaller crimes, and maybe there are special outliers who can do this for larger ones. We would even glorify them to tell ourselves how well the system works. And this society wants to encourage more of these outliers who can fix the crimes society holds them liable for, even if it means punishing ultimately innocent people.

This society seems ridiculous, but how different is it from our own system of what is viewed as a just distribution. Given that we know that people are largely framed for crimes (either by determined genes or random environment) a legal system that doesn’t differentiate between criminals and the framed is clearly wrong. And a system of distribution that doesn’t differentiate between earned rewards (those within people’s control) and unearned rewards (those outside of people’s control) is also wrong.

And especially the interaction between genes and environment makes assigning worth and blame all the more difficult. We cannot honestly put a percentage of how much we can or should hold people responsible for their outcomes, but we can at least move in a more honest direction.

Public Policy Steps?

In the US, the working poor are viewed very differently than the non-working poor. While work supplements like the Earned Income Tax Credit receive broad support, “welfare” does not. This leaves open how much liability our society should place and how much responsibility we may place on people in different situations.

There are cases where denying full responsibility is much more clear. If someone is born with an IQ of less than 85, about 15% of the American population, it is doubtful what job they may be qualified to do. Given all the discussion of a universal job guarantee, we should remember that the free market was supposed to be a job guarantee under the much maligned neoclassical economic framework. Yet many may be unemployed not just for structural factors in our economy or search costs, but from lack of ability through no fault of their own, with their talents being mismatched in our service & knowledge economy.

Providing subsidies to employers may help in this regard, like that already given to workers with disabilities. We can be more honest and recognize that disability largely exists on a spectrum (and given that, how much can we really call it a disability?). Yet a libertarian may object: “Why mandate a minimum wage and provide subsidies that would compensate for this cost?” Good point, we can just eliminate the minimum wage and transfer money directly to the workers as a supplement to ensure a living wage.

Also in this case, what would be the point of a system of public education that would determine merit, when so many lack both the effort and interest? Teenagers who are bored in class and may even be disruptive to other students, but who may be engaged in real-world work, would be better off in the labor force than counting floor tiles in the back of the class. Child labor laws could also be on the chopping block. Or at least we can test students to sort them into either a liberal arts or vocational education, as was done in the UK through eleven-plus exams.

I suspect that people generally have these general intuitions on the role luck plays in social status and economic outcomes, which is why a modestly progressive tax & transfer system is supported in the West. But if we are to examine our intuitions of luck and update them in the face of science (see the survey vs. reality above), we would give more weight to luck for determining social outcomes and nearly by extension be in favor of a more generous tax & transfer system.

Universal Income? What about Universal Respect?

Sorting people into social positions may seem like the start of “Brave New World”, “Gattaca” or other stories about deterministic-dystopian societies. But there is nothing inherently wrong with acknowledging aspects about ourselves and our limits to change. Especially when we also maintain a liberal and egalitarian philosophy. And there is also nothing wrong with updating how much responsibility we place on each other given what we now know about how little control we have. Instead of drawing a hard line at disability, we can recognize that all our abilities naturally differ, preventing the ability to serve as a marker of people’s deservingness of respect.

Differences in abilities may be unfair from a cosmic perspective, but it should lead to a society that responds justly to this unfairness rather than being overly tolerant of them. I believe a more just world would be where natural differences are understood and respected, rather than making moral judgments against good people just because of their place on the social hierarchy. A little less status obsession and a little more acceptance of the things we cannot change can be a very good thing.

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Rick Ruslan

Rick Ruslan

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