John Roemer is right: Equality of opportunity is a swindle. The so-called “playing field” is never level, and simply providing people with access to open competition will not guarantee equality of results. The horses in the Kentucky Derby depart from the same starting gate, but one of them always wins the race, if only by a nose. The winner has swifter legs, a better trainer, a better jockey, more heart, or simply a better day. The loser has slower legs, a less good trainer, an incompetent jockey, less will to win, or an off day. These differences take no account of what Roemer, following Ronald Dworkin, calls “brute bad luck” — say, the loser trips or has surreptitiously been administered a drug that makes him groggy. But even if brute bad luck does not intervene, one horse will still win, in part because he has enjoyed some advantages before ever reaching a starting gate that purportedly evens the chances of winning. Fillies rarely win the Derby, although from time to time one does. Non-thoroughbreds do not even enter it. And a thoroughbred whose owner cannot afford a quality trainer or jockey has poor chances indeed.

As with the Derby, so with life. None of us starts precisely equal to any other, and our advantages and disadvantages have a disquieting tendency to compound along the way. “To him that hath shall be given.” Life regularly confirms the parable of the talents, no matter how deeply it offends our sense of fairness or, more accurately, charity. For the truth remains, we do not think very clearly about what we mean by fairness. Roemer attempts to clarify our thinking by exposing the inconsistencies and bad faith that inform prevailing notions of equal opportunity. At the core of his argument lies the insistence that people who are unequally endowed, whether by genetics or social and economic situation, do not enjoy equality of opportunity. Thus if two children start first grade in the same public school and one has parents who have regularly read to her while the other does not, the children do not have equal opportunity to learn to read, much less to become enthusiastic readers. The conditions and attributes that compound our inequalities could be multiplied indefinitely, but the conclusion is inescapable: multiple reasons beyond our control affect the starting point from which we compete with others.

Roemer argues that we may — and probably should — attempt to compensate for inequalities of condition and attributes to ensure genuine equality of opportunity. The compensations he proposes amount to providing the child whose parents do not read to her with pre-school exposure to reading, presumably Head Start, possibly new parents. Such compensations, he insists, do not deny the importance of personal responsibility to make the most of one’s opportunities or personal responsibility for failing to do so. He insists upon the importance of personal responsibility in order to fend off anticipated charges that, under the guise of equality of opportunity, he is promoting equality of outcome. The gambit is ingenious and has a certain philosophical coherence, but, in the end, it fails. For Roemer blandly assumes that we may accurately, or fairly, calculate the conditions and attributes that invalidate formal equality of opportunity.

Roemer’s case, in other words, rests upon the assumption that it is possible to effect substantive equality of opportunity by compensating for the myriad of factors that make every individual unequal from every other. His strained example of children within a family exposes the extraordinary illusion of mastery that undergirds his thinking. Who, even a father, can really determine what accounts for one child’s fantasies, much less decide if equality of opportunity requires that the musically average child who wishes to become a concert violinist be humored? Does social justice require that we attempt to provide non-thoroughbreds with an equal chance to win the Derby? By what arrogance do we suppose that if we provide the non-thoroughbred with the best trainer, the best jockey, and all the rest, he would even then have a chance to win the Derby? Is that a better use of our resources than providing a poor child with the opportunity to learn to be a jockey who might one day ride a through-bred? Which of us, even assisted by the ultimate computer, is capable of such calculus?

One might, as many have, make a case for greater equalization of material resources. This principle supports the graduated income tax and might be invoked to support other redistributive taxation schemes. Material resources alone will not determine the use that individuals and families make of opportunities. We all know that some will spend welfare payments on drugs and others will spend them on advantages for their children. An honest person might argue that the risk that some welfare money will be spent on drugs is one we must take to provide others with the opportunity to spend it otherwise. But the notion that we may so accurately calculate the probabilities of an individual’s response to the complexity and indeterminacy of life, even when we calculate on the basis of types rather than individuals, bears a disconcerting resemblance to the attempt to play God. And Roemer’s protestations notwithstanding, it moves the politics of equality of opportunity a giant step closer to a self-defeating politics of an unrealizable equality of outcomes.