The trouble with levelling playing fields

As a follow up to I should be so lucky?, here’s a passage from Anthony de Jasay’s essay ‘The bitter medicine of freedom’ (available in Justice and Its Surroundings).

A distribution of resources and advantages is both an end-state and a starting position leading to a new distribution. The object of a particular initial distribution D, offering equal opportunities, is to have the freedom of contract to produce just outcomes. However, whatever outcome D’ it did produce will differ from the initial equal-opportunity distribution D; some people will have gotten ahead of the position—in terms of wealth, skills, reputation, place in the social network—assigned to them in the equal-opportunity distribution, others will have lagged behind it. (Countless handicap races have been run on the world’s race courses but despite the best efforts of expert handicappers, there is to my knowledge no record of a single race ever producing a dead heat of all the runners.) We need not decide whether this is an empirical law or a logical necessity. Such will be the just outcome of the first round; however, this just end-state represents a new distribution D’ of assets and advantages that, unlike the initial D, no longer offers equal opportunities for the second round. Equality of opportunity must be restored by redistribution, positive discrimination, and so forth. The just end-state D’ generated by equal opportunities and freedom of contract in the first round offers the participants unequal opportunities for the second round, and must be overridden to secure the justice of the end-state to be generated in it, and so on to the third and all subsequent rounds to the end of time.

(pp 293-295, Justice and its surroundings)


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