Christine Sypnowich makes a powerful argument that egalitarians should not settle for better, fairer opportunities but rather campaign for equal outcomes. I agree that equalizing opportunity doesn’t equalize well-being, but I get there by a different route—one that leads me to quite different policy suggestions. My vehicle is not philosophy but the social science of inequality and public opinion; I offer a critique not of the morality of the opportunity approach but its practicality. These considerations also raise concerns for Sypnowich’s preferred approach.
At one point, Sypnowich asserts that “equal outcomes are in fact what we really care about.” The “we” may cover most readers of this magazine, but it excludes most Americans. (I write here only about what I know, which is the United States.) Americans perceive widening economic inequality and complain to pollsters about it, but as sociologist Leslie McCall shows in The Undeserving Rich (2013), they overwhelmingly prefer expanding opportunities for upward mobility as the solution. (Americans’ major objection to unequal outcomes seems to be that it undermines equal opportunity—not that inequality is in itself immoral, inefficient, or injurious.) Americans were “luck egalitarians” avant la lettre and remain so.
But luck egalitarianism offers a weak strategy for attaining equality. For one thing, most parents game every selection system so as to improve their children’s life chances through SAT training, multicultural experiences, do-gooder projects, enrichment classes, family connections, funding unpaid internships—whatever it takes. (Sociologist Annette Lareau vividly documents these practices in her 2003 book Unequal Childhoods.) Because advantaged parents do these things more and better than disadvantaged parents, expanding opportunities does not do much to weaken intergenerational inequality.
The quest to counterbalance such advantages, to make the race for success ever fairer, leads down a rabbit hole. Recent generations have come to view conditions once thought intrinsic to a person’s deserved outcome—race, gender, family background, neighborhood, physical or mental disability, and so on—instead as extrinsic, a matter of luck, a factor that ought to be removed, corrected, or compensated to make the race truly fair. Even economist and former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke described “genetic endowment” as a matter of luck. We increasingly explain variations in ability, tastes, motivation, and even character—e.g., “grit”—as products of biological, environmental, or social luck. (One might well ask: Stripped of all these arbitrary conditions, what is left as the “self” that deserves the fair chance?) As our notion of luck expands, the quest for a luck-free race is never-ending.
More critically, even the fairest race to success yields unequal—increasingly unequal—outcomes. The highest-paid baseball player of 1970, Willie Mays, made eleven times the minimum Major League Baseball wage at the time; the highest-paid player of 2021, Mike Trout, made sixty-five times as much. In modern societies inequality largely resides in the differential rewards for winning or losing, not in the competition itself.
What, then, is a better approach to more equality? Sypnowich insists that we guarantee equal flourishing. How shall we do that? How shall we get consensus to equalize outcomes and find the means to do so? The United States, feared by European elites in the nineteenth century for its distinctive leveling, is now increasingly, distinctively unequal. Economic and institutional structures support that inequality. And so does public opinion.
In 1993 the General Social Survey asked:
Some people think America should promote equal opportunity for all, that is, allowing everyone to compete for jobs and wealth on a fair and even basis. Other people think America should promote equal outcomes, that is, ensuring that everyone has a decent standard of living and that there are only small differences in wealth and income between the top and bottom in society. Which do you favor: promoting equal opportunity or promoting equal outcomes?
Respondents favored the opportunity option seven to one. Since 1984 the quadrennial American National Election Study has asked whether “Our society should do whatever is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed,” and over 85 percent of respondents across all years have agreed. (Partisan polarization started to divide the consensus recently.) Only about half have regularly thought that unequal opportunity is a large problem. Surveys show that Americans want to facilitate upward mobility but insist that the assisted be “deserving” of help. At the same time—a Catch-22—Americans typically assume that unsuccessful people are responsible for their failures and are, therefore, undeserving.
American culture poses another problem for Sypnowich’s approach. She raises the concern that people may misuse their opportunities and fail to flourish. Her solution, honestly admitted, is to promote citizens’ choices in the direction of flourishing—but as decided by whom? The wine, symphony, and hiking crowd, or the beer, wrestling, and gun-range crowd it so often looks down upon? America’s democratic spirit still insists that the everyman’s judgment is equal to his lordship’s. This stance breeds more resistance to the equal flourishing agenda.
In sum, between the power of the powers that be, the grudging luck egalitarianism of Americans, and pushback against a we-know-better elite, how is an equal flourishing agenda to move forward in this country?
One direction is to find ways of leveraging equal opportunity initiatives to effect equal outcomes. Right-wing critiques assert that many purported equal-opportunity moves—affirmative action, eliminating SAT requirements, and the like—are really devices to equalize outcomes. Such techniques have had limited success in doing just that and have also generated backlash against egalitarianism.
Sypnowich nods toward another strategy by concluding, “In short, the egalitarian ideal requires socialism.” Good luck with that. Even modest welfare and statist programs are under assault in the West. While socialist urges have found public support—witness the Bernie movement—modest steps taken during the COVID-19 crisis, such as a child allowance, have been terminated with little public blowback. As for the two former bastions of state socialism, China has embraced authoritarian capitalism and Russia has become a brutal kleptocracy.
More pragmatically, American egalitarians could draw on the experiences of nations with more equal human flourishing. In a few books, including Social Democratic Capitalism (2019) and Would Democratic Socialism Be Better? (2022), sociologist Lane Kenworthy has argued that the Nordic nations provide feasible models that could be replicated here. Denmark and Norway may not be nations of equal flourishing, but with stronger interventions in the market to protect wages and worker well-being and with heavier taxation to sustain income security, universal health care, public child care, and the like, they are a lot closer to that ideal than is the United States.
An agenda focused on public goods—both strengthening them and broadening the category—also has promise. No matter how ideologically conservative, Americans have accepted some social provisioning as public necessities: universal education, national parks, and old-age security, for example. More is possible, from health care to housing and perhaps even guaranteed employment. Successful philosophical justifications for such programs are more likely to be found in the universalist language of human rights than in Marxist-flavored egalitarianism.
While Americans endorse egalitarianism in rights, dignity, and opportunity, they still want competitions that result in inequality. That fact, along with other realities, calls for modesty in goals and programs. An American welfare state that looked more like Northern Europe—where Mike Trout would be more like Willie Mays—would not be a utopia, but it would be better for many people.
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