If one is an egalitarian, what should one want to equalize? Opportunities or outcomes? Resources or welfare? These positions are usually conceived to be very different. I argue in this paper that the distinction is misconceived: the only coherent conception of resource equality implies welfare equality, in an appropriately abstract description of the problem. In this section, I motivate the program which the rest of the paper carries out.
Imagine a society of fisherfolk, who, in the state of nature, fish on a lake of finite size. Fishing on the lake is characterized by decreasing returns to scale in labor, because the lake's finite size imply that each successive hour of fishing labor is less effective than the previous one, as the remaining fish become less dense in the lake. In the state of nature, the lake is commonly owned: each fishes as much as he pleases, and, we might (...) suppose, calculates his fishing plan by taking the labor of the others as given, as he sees it. Each knows that the distribution of fish will be proportional to labor expended among the fisherfolk: if I fish twice as long as you, I will end up with twice as much fish as you. This is not due to some kind of concern with equity among the fisherfolk; it is a technological fact, implied by the assumption that fishing labor is homogeneous, and all are equally likely to catch a fish in a unit of time. An equilibrium under common ownership can be thought of as a Nash equilibrium of the game where each computes his optimal fishing plan, given the labor of the others and knowing what the consequent distribution of fish would be. (shrink)
Radical and liberal theories of egalitarianism are distinguished, in large part, by the differing degrees to which they hold people responsible for their own well-being. The most liberal or individualistic theory calls for equality of opportunity. Once such “starting gate equality,” as Dworkin calls it, is guaranteed, then any final outcome is justified, provided certain rules, such as voluntary trading, are observed. At the other pole, the most radical egalitarianism calls for equality of welfare. In between these two extremes are (...) egalitarian proposals that equalize more than conventional opportunities, yet less than full welfare. Sen speaks of equality of basic capabilities as a goal; implementing that requires more than starting gate equality, because some will require more resources than others to attain the same capabilities. Meeting basic needs is another objective. Equality of needs fulfillment is perhaps less radical than equality of basic capabilities and more radical than equality of opportunity. Rawls takes equality of primary goods as a benchmark; he distinguishes primary goods from welfare, but includes among them goods that are more complicated than conventional resources and opportunities, all of which are supposed inputs into any conception of welfare. One could imagine proposing an egalitarianism that equalized some quite measurable outcome across populations, such as infant mortality. That would be an outcome-equalizing theory where the rate of infant mortality is a proxy, presumably, for some more complicated maximand, such as the degree of wellbeing of a population. (shrink)
The theory of equal opportunity as I have expounded it in Roemer uses a language comprising five words: objective, circumstance, type, effort, and policy. The objective is the kind of outcome or well-being or advantage for whose acquisition one wishes to equalize opportunities, in a given population. Circumstances are the set of environmental influences, beyond the individual’s control, that affect his or her chances of acquiring the objective. A type is the group of individuals in the population with a given (...) set of circumstances. Effort is autonomously chosen action—within the individual’s control—which, if expended in greater amounts, will increase the degree to which the individual acquires the objective. A policy is a social intervention that is used to influence the degree to which individuals acquire the objective. The equal-opportunity policy is the one from the set of feasible policies that will make it the case that the degree to which individuals acquire the objective is independent of their circumstances, and sensitive only to their effort. I propose a way of computing the equal-opportunity policy in any given situation, given the appropriate data, and a decision as to what environmental aspects should be taken to constitute circumstances. This quick summary leaves out many details, which will be focused upon in what follows. (shrink)
All advanced societies maintain a commitment to equal educational opportunity, which they claim to implement through a public school system that is charged toprovide all children with an education up to a state-enforced standard. Indeed, what public schools do, even in the best of circumstances, is to provide all children with a more or less equal exposure to educational inputs, rather than to guarantee them equal educational attainment. Children, as the schools receive them, differ markedly in their docility — due (...) in part to innate ability, but perhaps due more to the economic status and cultural practices of their families. Many, including myself, believe that the task of schools should be to provide some measure of equal educational attainment among students of heterogeneous talent and background. Schools should devote more educational resources to students who require them in order that they be educated to an acceptable standard. (shrink)
The neo-Lockean justification of the highly unequal distribution of income in capitalist societies is based upon two key premises: that people are the rightful owners of their labor and talents, and that the external world was, in the state of nature, unowned, and therefore up for grabs by people, who could rightfully appropriate parts of it subject to a ‘Lockean proviso.’ The argument is presented by Nozick. Counter-proposals to Nozick’s, for the most part, have either denied the premise that people (...) should morally be viewed as the owners of their talents, or have challenged Nozick’s Lockean proviso.Rawls, and to a more limited extent Ronald Dworkin, deny self-ownership. As Rawls writes: ‘…the difference principle represents, in effect, an agreement to regard the distribution of natural talents as a common asset … The naturally advantaged are not to gain merely because they are more gifted, but only to cover the costs of training and education and for using their endowments in ways that help the less fortunate as well. No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society.’ Behind the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, those who deliberate about justice are deprived of knowledge about characteristics whose distribution is morally arbitrary. In Dworkin’s proposal for resource egalitarianism, agents calculate the insurance policy they would hypothetically ask for, were they denied knowledge of what talents they will draw in the birth lottery. Compensation for unequal talents is, according to Dworkin, properly made by taxing and transferring income according to the way it would have been distributed as a consequence of such insurance. Dworkin’s veil of ignorance is thin, because agents in the appropriate posture for deliberating about income distribution know their preferences and attitudes toward risk, but not their talents. For both Rawls and Dworkin, the self-ownership premise is challenged by constructing a veil of ignorance in which people are deprived of knowledge of certain personal characteristics, knowledge of which would bias their opinions, from a moral viewpoint. (shrink)