Editors’ Note: This forum is featured in our spring 2023 issue. Order a copy here.

It is testimony to the power of the ideal of equality, and to the extent to which liberal democratic societies are failing to achieve it, that this forum has attracted such a range of outstanding responses.

The contributors and I all agree that we live in societies marked by inequality, that this is wrong, and that something should be done about it. But we have different ideas about how to understand those convictions. I argue that the idea of equality of opportunity, a foundational principle of much egalitarianism, is inadequate. It leads to distributive policies guided by the principle that only individual choice should affect people’s share of goods and that therefore widely diverging lots in life can be just. In other words, equal opportunity is consistent with significant inequality in income, health, education, and many other sources of well-being. Instead of equality of opportunity, I argue, we should focus on how well people are doing—that is, whether they are flourishing.

One group of critics insists that equality of opportunity is more radical, at least potentially, than I give it credit for. John Roemer, one of its leading progressive exponents, says that properly understood, equality of opportunity is “neither left- nor right-wing,” as its redistributive potential depends on the goals that a society decides to set. Choice is of negligible importance if social conditions largely consist in circumstances beyond people’s control, particularly in the case of children, whose inequalities should be understood solely as a matter of circumstance. Martin O’Neill makes a powerful pitch for Rawls’s idea of “fair equality of opportunity,” which, he contends, promises far-reaching egalitarian polices, such as aggressive taxation of inheritance and capital transfer and, indeed, the “abolition of social class.” Gina Schouten also persuasively contends that equality of opportunity can set a high bar for egalitarianism—converging with that envisaged by a focus on outcomes—and, moreover, can have flourishing as its object.

A second group of critics, such as Claude Fischer and to a lesser degree Leah Gordon, reflecting on the inhospitable American scene past and present, provide sobering counsel that a focus on outcomes could be political suicide. Given the popular appeal of ideas like merit, private property, and social mobility, it is only prudent for egalitarians to adopt modest goals and focus on equality of opportunity. Schouten similarly stresses the need to build “a democratic constituency,” which may mean lowering our sights. A common theme is that liberal democratic societies have not even attained the amelioration of disadvantage promised by the opportunity principle, so complaining that opportunity approaches are too modest looks utopian.

The two lines of criticism are in tension. If equality of opportunity is really so radical, why does it appeal to political realists? In my view, if we heed the realists’ advice, we risk capitulating to a grudging outlook that is unwilling to remedy disadvantage that, though ostensibly the result of free choices, is mired in unchosen and unjust social conditions. It is important not to obscure the distinction between what is feasible and what justice requires. That a robust egalitarian policy does not find favor in public discourse or at the polls does not necessarily tell against its merit. Ravi Kanbur warns that if a seat at the policymaking table involves embracing more widely palatable but inadequate views, that could serve to undermine the spirit of egalitarianism altogether.

If equality of opportunity is really so radical, why does it appeal to political realists?

My view that human flourishing should be the focus of our egalitarianism is also controversial. Yet it is endorsed by two quite contrasting perspectives. William Paris makes an eloquent appeal for cultivating the “art of equality” and the utopianism of the egalitarian ideal. At the same time, Kanbur agrees with me that outcomes matter, providing a strong case for the importance of functionings rather than opportunities to function. It is pleasing to see that the flourishing approach garners the approval of both a self-avowed utopian as well as an exponent of the dismal science (not so dismal in Kanbur’s hands!).

Anne Phillips and Nicholas Vrousalis, however, balk at what they see as the paternalism inherent in talk of flourishing, counseling that egalitarians should instead tackle the structural inequalities of capitalism and respect the freedom of people—particularly the oppressed—to make their own choices. That socialists harbor liberal anxieties about affirming visions of the good is surprising. I agree that structural inequalities give people little in the way of real choice about how their lives should go, but surely we draw that conclusion in light of the poor outcomes that people are forced to live with. It is because putatively “free” choices produce such appalling outcomes that the structural inequalities of capitalism should stand condemned. Marx’s understanding of socialism was not so squeamish; it involved, besides the elimination of material deprivation, the cultivation of creative activity, solidarity, and liberation from alienation.

Zofia Stemplowska raises the important worry that questions about plans of life are too controversial to be decided by a community on behalf of its members. Who is to say that music is more central to human flourishing than parenting—IVF assisted, if necessary? Yet in fact, liberal democratic capitalist societies, for all their inequalities, do seek to foster human well-being in a range of public policies. The arts are subsidized. Public libraries lend books for free. IVF treatment is in fact funded, at least in part, by socialized medicine in Canada, the UK, and other European countries. For those students whose families cannot afford or are disinclined to lay on music lessons, the experience of choir, musical theater, or the school band can be life-changing. Their provision in publicly funded schools is recognition not just, as Gordon and Roemer stress, that we should tackle disadvantage among children, but also that human flourishing attends certain pursuits. In contrast to the doctrines of many liberal theorists, liberal democratic societies are often prepared to take a stand on what contributes to human flourishing and is properly within the purview of public provision, prohibition, and subsidy.

Moreover, shouldn’t the “chancers,” as Schouten puts it, who mess up repeatedly, nonetheless have their needs met? The suggestion that anti-vaxxers who failed to take appropriate precautions be denied medical treatment if they caught COVID-19 was an understandable reaction, especially given the scarcity of medical resources, but it did not pass egalitarian muster. Of course, no one in the present company is against guaranteed essential medical treatment, as Stemplowska points out. Yet this raises the question of what work ideas of choice, responsibility, and opportunity are doing in a properly generous understanding of the egalitarian ideal.

Unconditional, free medical care for all is a significant achievement of the Nordic model extolled by Lane Kenworthy (and noted by utopia-wary Fischer). This model involves universally available programs and services, from health care to parks—a strategy that meets the needs of all members of society but also fosters solidarity, which in turn strengthens citizens’ commitment to these policies. As Kenworthy points out, public goods approaches are remarkably successful. Of course, they depend on a preparedness to determine the good that should be provided publicly—in other words, deciding what in fact contributes to human flourishing.

To conclude, it seems a sad comment that the egalitarian project is so often understood as a matter of determining the terms of competition for hierarchically distributed positions and rewards. Such a view seems a betrayal of the idea of an egalitarian community committed to the well-being of each member. I hope to have rekindled radical hope for the socialist values demanded by a robust understanding of equality. Nonetheless, in this dispiriting time of profound inequality, poverty, homelessness, and the deterioration of many people’s standard of living, it is gratifying to see the compelling arguments of this forum which, however diverse, share a passionate commitment to the egalitarian ideal.

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