Slate's Yglesias Demands Redistribution: 'Idea of Equal Opportunities Is Toxic'

January 30th, 2014 6:00 PM

For some liberals in the media, working to ensure equality of  opportunity just isn’t enough. They want to see every American achieve an equal outcome and government have an active role in redistribution of wealth.

Matthew Yglesias, business and economics correspondent at Slate, made such a contention in a Thursday article titled “Sorry, Equal Opportunity Isn’t Good Enough.”

Yglesias was upset at what he considered President Obama's focus on opportunity over inequality in his State of the Union address. Yes, he was hitting Obama from the left. Yglesias complained bitterly that, “Democrats and Republicans may disagree about just about everything, but they both love equal opportunity.” He then offered his thesis:

[T]he idea of equal opportunities is a toxic blend of the incoherent and undesirable. It makes no sense whatsoever as a social objective. After all, what would it mean for a society to have equal opportunities?

Yglesisas then dug into his imagination to try and visualize what equal opportunity would look like. His first idea was rather cartoonish: he pictured a society in which economic resources were randomly distributed, so that everyone’s chances of becoming rich or poor would be entirely dependent on chance. It was easy for him to knock down that straw man:

[A] society of randomly distributed unequal outcomes would be perverse. For one thing, it would be terrible for incentives. Why work hard or hone skills if outcomes are going to be randomized anyway?

A good question, Matthew, and it’s one that democratic capitalists might ask of people like you who want equal outcomes. Why work hard or hone skills to try and get ahead if everyone is going to arrive at an equal outcome anyway?

Next, Yglesias pondered an equal-opportunity society in which the “winners” don’t benefit from unfair advantages, such as family connections. He summarized the implications: “So equal opportunities might mean a meritocracy. A society in which the best people succeed.”

And what exactly is wrong with the best people succeeding? Yglesias used the example of long-distance running, which is dominated by East Africans because of their genetic predisposition toward the traits of successful distance runners. He asked his readers:

But would we want all of society to look like that? After a couple of generations, a true meritocracy would simply be a society in which the adopted children of the elite fare no better on average than anyone else, but their biological children grow up to be elites themselves. Not because of connections or special favors, but because of their inborn talents.

Shouldn’t we celebrate the triumph of inborn talents over connections or special favors, no matter what the person’s background? Also, the example of distance running does not apply to such things as a person’s ability to learn. Any child has the capacity to learn; there is no need for a genetic predisposition. In the absence of any unfair advantages, which was part of Yglesias’ premise, every child should have the same capacity to learn and work toward a better life for themselves and eventually become an “elite.” Such an equal-opportunity society would provide the chance for everyone to improve their situation in life.

Near the end of the piece, Yglesias complained:

A perfectly fair race is, in at least one important way, the same as a rigged race: Both have a first-place finisher and a last-place finisher. The question of what happens to the person at the bottom genuinely matters.

And yet, Yglesias admitted that the people at the bottom in America have come a long way over time: “Today, even poor people are able to take advantage of things like electricity and antibiotics that were rare or nonexistent 100 years ago. That’s the kind of opportunity that matters—the opportunity for everyone to enjoy a better life.”

Then what is Yglesias complaining about? Our poor in the U.S. are better off than the poor -- and indeed, the middle and upper classes -- in many other parts of the world. If they are enjoying a better life along with everyone else, then perhaps Yglesias’ arguments comes entirely down to his desire to see everyone achieve equal outcomes regardless of whether they have earned it or not.