This post appears at Libertarian Home (with a picture of Kylie Minogue).
Because I am anything but “perfectly comfortable” with arguments that differences in endowments (basically upbringing and inborn talent),” – or what we might call luck – “mean that there is a case for redistribution between individuals”, it is extremely unlikely that I will be offered a job at a leading free market think-tank any time soon. Of course, whether this is a piece of undeserved good luck or a piece of undeserved bad luck is one of those “in the eye of the beholder” things that makes handicapping people to ensure their equality such an incredibly messy business. On the one hand, through no fault of my own, I miss out on a career opportunity and the chance to appear on Newsnight. On the other, I won’t have to knock about with people who have spent the past thirty-odd years tirelessly promoting “efficient” government. Hmmm…
You may have guessed, reader, that I myself lean towards calling it good luck. But should I be allowed to be a judge in my own case? Should any of us? If we are to be punished for our undeserved good fortune, only a fool would say of the things he likes “Yes, I regard this as the result of good luck, please take it off me”; and vice versa only a fool would not say “I consider myself hard done by, please make my life easier”. Obviously these things can’t be left to each of us to decide for ourselves; some authority or other must work out whether we are better off than we should be, and act accordingly. Sadly, the unavoidable arbitrariness involved in the calculations, and in the choice of relevant material to perform them on, can produce a result no more “objective” than the subjective opinions that made the introduction of an authority seem necessary in the first place.
This is not simply a de gustibus non est disputandum thing (although it is that too, of course). Even if there was an intersubjectively valid “good/bad luck”, deciding which was which would be ultimately arbitrary. Being “born lucky” in a society that handicaps those who are born lucky is surely a piece of undeserved bad luck which ought to be compensated for by some manner of redistribution. Likewise being “born unlucky” in a society that rewards those born unlucky is surely a piece of undeserved good luck which ought to be adjusted by some manner of redistribution. Who, then, is deserving of being handicapped? Those lucky enough to be born unlucky, or those unlucky enough to be born lucky? How can we even pretend to answer the question objectively? In such a society, who is lucky and who is unlucky can only be settled by referring to the opinion of whoever is in charge – or flipping a coin; the one has as much validity as the other.
We might try to avoid (ignore?) this problem by limiting the kinds of “luck” that are allowed to count as “luck”. Presumably things like being born into a wealthy/poor, a well/ill-educated family should be taken account of, whereas things like being born tall/short, attractive/plain should not be. But why should these latter not be worthy of compensation? Being short is hardly a trivial matter to the man who has been mocked his whole life, nor is being plain a trivial matter for the homely girl who is passed over by the hunks and dreamboats time and time again. Nor must we forget that luck does not begin and end at birth, but is an ever-present factor in our lives. If redistribution ought to occur at the beginning, surely it ought to occur later, too. Some people, for instance, through no fault of their own don’t have very exciting lives, while other people, albeit through no virtue on their part, do. Should we outlaw the telling of interesting anecdotes at parties in order to level the playing field? As any limitation on what “counts” is open to the charge of arbitrariness, it seems we must.
Where this all leads will hardly put off the more serious egalitarians, but the ‘free market’ types who, for whatever reason, advocate this “equality of opportunity” nonsense might not be so keen on its results. Attempting partial egalitarianism of this sort is doomed to failure, in that it must lead to the dreaded “equality of outcomes”. Imagine two women A and B, who are about to have a race over a given distance. Due to various undeserved advantages A is always four seconds faster than B over this distance. Once we have, by applying the relevant handicaps, eliminated everything that gives A an undeserved advantage over B (the “inequalities”, in other words), the only possible result is a dead heat. Anything other than this is proof that undeserved advantages continued to exist and operate. If the initial conditions are genuinely equal, the end result must be absolute equality.
We might also ponder how it comes to be that we can deserve to be handicapped for our undeserved good fortune. This, to me, seems a little unfair, to say the least. But the most fundamental problem is this: Why is inequality something to be rectified at all? Although it is pretty much unthinkingly accepted today that this is the case, it is far from obvious that inequality per se actually requires a solution.
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