“Oh no, I don’t support equality of outcome, I support equality of opportunity!” This is a popular sentiment among normie liberals, “reasonable moderates,” “cuckservatives,” and the like. Allegedly, “equality of opportunity” is the golden mean between equality of outcome on the far left, and total inequality on the far right. At first glance, the idea of equal opportunity seems appealing. After all, who wouldn’t want everyone to have a fair shot at life? Even some libertarians have adopted “equal opportunity” rhetoric, viewing it as a way of expressing support for a pure meritocracy. But is equality of opportunity truly compatible with libertarian principles?
What Libertarianism Is
First, what are these libertarian principles? Libertarianism is based on the private property ethic, which holds that each person owns his physical body over which no one else but himself can exert direct control, and that each person also has the right to exercise exclusive control over any external resources that he has acquired either by first use or voluntary transfer from the previous owner. From this ethic the non-aggression principle is derived. In the words of Rothbard, the non-aggression principle holds that “[n]o one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively or retributively against an aggressor. In short, no violence may be employed against a non-aggressor.” Taken to their logical conclusion, these principles make up the philosophy of anarcho-capitalism – a political philosophy prescribing a stateless society based on the absolute sovereignty of private property owners and governance by private law.
So, is equality of opportunity compatible with these principles? The answer to that depends entirely on what one means by “equality of opportunity.” If all that is meant by the phrase is that everyone should have the legal right to exercise exclusive control over their own bodies and any justly acquired external resources, then yes, “equality of opportunity” is libertarian. But if that is what one means when one invokes the phrase, there are surely better and more specific ways of expressing such an idea (e.g. private property norms, non-aggression, rule of law, universal ethics, etc.). This becomes especially apparent when one realizes the above understanding is most certainly not what most people mean when they express support for “equality of opportunity.”
The Ethics of Equal Opportunity
As opposed to libertarian property ethics, what normie liberals (and even some “conservatives”) mean when they support “equal opportunity” is that every single person should ideally be dealt the same hand of cards at the start of life, and if that is not the case, then redistributionist measures such as progressive income taxation and social policies such as affirmative action, mandated paid parental leave, and increased funding for state education are required to rectify this “inequality of opportunity.” The principle behind this view is the belief that it is unfair for some people to be given inherited (“unearned”) advantages over others, whether due to being raised in a wealthy, intact family, growing up in a safe and affluent neighborhood, attending an elite private school, or any number of circumstances that could theoretically lead to a difference of outcome between two similarly skilled/intelligent/hard-working people. Thus, these normie liberals support state intervention and redistribution to “level the playing field.” Hans Hermann Hoppe, in the fourth chapter of his book “A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism,” describes this line of “reasoning”:
The idea is to create, through redistributional measures, a situation in which everyone’s chance of achieving any possible (income) position in life is equal— very much as in a lottery where each ticket has the same chance of being a winner or a loser—and, in addition, to have a corrective mechanism which helps rectify situations of “undeserved bad luck” (whatever that may be) which might occur in the course of the ongoing game of chance.
One might argue that such a goal is desirable because it would produce a pure meritocracy. However, libertarianism is not based on a blanket, abstract commitment to meritocracy itself, but on the private property ethic. The private property ethic cannot be derived from such nirvana-esque propositions as the desire to create a perfect world. As has been witnessed throughout history, such utopian sentiments often lead to mass atrocities such as the Reign of Terror in France and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The ends cannot justify the means.
The private property ethic is ultimately derived from the need to resolve conflicts over the rivalrous use of scarce physical resources, not based on someone’s idealistic notion of what a “fair” society should look like. The rhetoric that drives supporters of “equal opportunity” is almost always driven by the latter, and has no basis in rationally derived ethics. Hoppe elaborates:
To develop the concept of property, it is necessary for goods to be scarce, so that conflicts over the use of these goods can possibly arise. It is the function of property rights to avoid such possible clashes over the use of scarce resources by assigning rights of exclusive ownership. Property is thus a normative concept: a concept designed to make a conflict-free interaction possible by stipulating mutually binding rules of conduct (norms) regarding scarce resources. It does not need much comment to see that there is indeed scarcity of goods, of all sorts of goods, everywhere, and the need for property rights is thus evident. As a matter of fact, even if we were to assume that we lived in the Garden of Eden, where there was a superabundance of everything needed not only to sustain one’s life but to indulge in every possible comfort by simply stretching out one’s hand, the concept of property would necessarily have to evolve. For even under these “ideal” circumstances, every person’s physical body would still be a scarce resource and thus the need for the establishment of property rules, i.e., rules regarding people’s bodies, would exist. One is not used to thinking of one’s own body in terms of a scarce good, but in imagining the most ideal situation one could ever hope for, the Garden of Eden, it becomes possible to realize that one’s body is indeed the prototype of a scarce good for the use of which property rights, i.e., rights of exclusive ownership, somehow have to be established, in order to avoid clashes.
So we can see that the reality of economic scarcity is the reason why property norms in general are necessary. Hoppe explains in detail throughout the rest of the book why the libertarian property ethic (a.k.a private property ethic) in particular described is the only ethically and economically feasible one for dealing with the problem of scarcity. Perhaps his most crucial argument, though, is that the libertarian property ethic is ultimately irrefutable because the very act of argumentation presupposes the social norms which make up this ethic. Chase Rachels summarizes this concept in the first chapter of “A Spontaneous Order”
If one proposes an ethic which contradicts the necessarily presupposed ethics of discourse, then this proposed ethic must necessarily be rendered invalid by his own action (the fact that he engaged in argumentation). Thus, the ethical norms presupposed in the making of any proposal must themselves be the logical benchmark by which all future ethical proposals are evaluated. If a given ethic runs counter to the presupposed ethical norms of proposal making, then it cannot be valid.
Argumentation ethics are a logical extension of the a priori of argumentation. The purpose of any argument is to establish a proposition as being true and/or justified, or conversely to show a given proposition to be false/unjustified. Argumentation, then, is by its very nature persuasive and non-coercive. If one were to attempt to use physical coercion in the course of an argument, this would undermine the intent of discovering truth or falsehood, thereby precluding such an act from being compatible with argumentation. As such, for someone to engage in argumentation with another would require an implicit acceptance that the other party has the right to exclusive control over his own body.
Thus, Self-ownership (which falls under the umbrella of private property norms) must be presupposed for an argument to take place. This means arguing against self-ownership while engaging in an act that presupposes self-ownership (argumentation) would cause one to fall into a performative contradiction. But what about the acquisition of external resources as property? Rachels goes on:
A practical precondition for argumentation is that the actors involved are alive. To be alive, and to even argue, requires the right to exclusively control and consume external resources. Naturally, one must also have the right to occupy a given amount of physical space with his body before he may be able to argue at all. Rothbard supplements this argument:
“Now, any person participating in any sort of discussion including one on values, is, by virtue of so participating, alive and affirming life. For if he were really opposed to life, he would have no business continuing to be alive. Hence, the supposed opponent of life is really affirming it in the very process of discussion, and hence the preservation and furtherance of one’s life takes on the stature of an incontestable axiom.”
This argument should not be misconstrued as saying that people are entitled to having a particular set of scarce resources, but rather that it is within their right to own them provided that they are acquired via just means. The distinction here may seem trivial but the implications are vastly different. For instance, if one is entitled to a particular resource, this would mean that he would have a right to it and that if this right is not fulfilled, then physical force or the threat thereof would be justified in either fulfilling it or seeking retribution for its violation.
This is what is known as a positive right. For a positive right to be fulfilled, someone is required to take an action in order to fulfill it. For example, if I had a right to healthcare, this would oblige someone else to provide this service to me or to at least provide me with the funds necessary to purchase it. Thus, “positive rights” necessarily conflict with private property rights, as they limit to some degree a person’s right to exclusive control over his own body or external property.
In contrast, having the right to own something simply entails that others may not commit aggression against this owned good or make threats thereof. For that to be fulfilled requires no action taken on the part of anyone else. These types of rights are known as “negative rights.” In contrast to positive rights, negative rights simply preclude others from taking certain actions, whereas positive rights oblige others to act.
From Rachels’ summary of argumentation ethics, we see that the libertarian property ethic of self-ownership and the just acquisition of external resources as private property can be derived from purely rational arguments and basic irrefutable axioms. For if one either denies self-ownership or the right to justly acquire external resources as private property, then he would also be denying the norms that presuppose his own argumentative act of denial and would thus be caught in a performative contradiction. If one denies that external resources can only be justly acquired by original appropriation or voluntary transfer (i.e. the only two means of property acquisition that do not provoke conflict over rivalrous scarce resources), then this would entail sanctioning aggressive interference with property owners and their ability to acquire resources through the two aforementioned means. Such norms would generate conflict over rivalrous scarce resources, which is antithetical to the essential purpose of property norms. Moreover, such a denial would be a performative contradiction since (violent) conflict-provoking norms are likewise antithetical to the purpose of argumentation.
The rational basis for private property norms stands in stark contrast to that of those who support wealth redistribution for the purpose of achieving some utopian vision of a perfectly meritocratic society wherein all inherited advantages are eliminated. The pursuit of this goal cannot be justified in light of the self-refutation that inevitably results from arguing in favor of coercive wealth redistribution. Equality of opportunity, therefore, when defined as the elimination of inherited advantages via the coercive redistribution of wealth, is entirely incompatible with the irrefutable libertarian property ethic of self-ownership and acquisition of external resources through first use or consensual exchange.
(For a more in-depth explanation of argumentation ethics, see the seventh chapter of “A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism.” or “Argumentation Ethics: The Ultimate Proof For Libertarianism“)
The Economics of Equal Opportunity
The other problem with “equal opportunity” is that there is no principled difference between it and the goal of equal outcome, and thus results in the same types of economic consequences. As mentioned earlier, the only way for “equal opportunity” advocates to achieve their goal of eliminating “unfair” inherited advantages and “leveling the playing field” is to coercively redistribute wealth from affluent families to poorer families. The idea is that each child should start life under the same socio-economic conditions so that any differences of outcome that result are due purely to merit rather than to some allegedly “unearned” or “unfair” advantage. However, a necessary consequence of such a policy is the disincentivization of parents to work hard and save resources for the betterment of their children’s lives. That is, the unproductive lifestyles and poor decision-making of parents with high time preferences would be subsidized at the expense of those parents with low time preferences who have worked hard and saved to build a better future for their children. Economic wisdom tells us one will always get more of whatever one subsidizes, and less of whatever one taxes. It is clear, then, that any attempt to enact “equality of opportunity” by prohibiting the inter-generational transfer of accumulated wealth will systematically raise societal time preferences. Orwell N’Goode explains this in his article here:
One’s time preference refers to how much he values present consumption over future consumption. Someone with a relatively high time preference generally prefers to consume now as opposed to later, even if foregoing immediate consumption would result in a greater number and/or quality of future goods. A relatively low time preference is simply the inverse. Originally, the theory of time preference was elaborated by Eugen Bohm-Bawerk and William Stanley Jevons to explain interest rates on loans in the free market. Interest rates are prices determining how much the creditor wishes to forgo present consumption for future profit. Currently, interest rates are manipulated by central banks, disregarding time preferences, which causes other problems such as setting the boom/bust cycle (a.k.a. business cycle) in motion.
Time preferences dictate our lives and the behavior of society in general. Time preferences can make or break civilizations. Society is merely the extension of the family and as Milton Friedman famously pointed out, we are a society of families and not individuals. Understanding this point is key to understanding why low time preferences construct civilization. Low time preferences elicit discipline, foresight, and strategy as the individual becomes more future-oriented. To ensure that a person’s children receives the best possible upbringing, parents must have low time preferences to save, pay bills and leave behind a formidable inheritance. A healthy society’s individual plans far beyond his own lifespan to provide for his offspring. Children motivate the individual to work hard, further his career, make well-aimed investments, and to provide his child with the best education. None of these things can be done without stringent self-improvement. If one is to rise through the ranks in his career or in his business, then he has to become a scarce and irreplaceable member of society through his indispensable specialization. This, of course, requires plenty of learning and avoidance of activities which may impede his self-edification. For the greater society, peaceful interactions with the local community and law-abidance also serve as indicators of relatively low time preference behaviors. Forming bonds takes time and patience. Big city life where individuals primarily exhibit high time preferences, tends to be more unpleasant than in rural areas. This is largely because of ethnic heterogeneity and less usable time to invest in fellow denizens.
Orwell’s point regarding the influence of children on time preference is key. By effectively prohibiting parents from being able to pass on their legitimately earned wealth to their children to give them an advantage in life, “equal opportunity” schemes also disincentivize parents (or even prospective parents) from extending their time preference schedules beyond the span of their own lifetimes. For if there is no advantage to be gained by saving and planning beyond one’s own lifespan for the benefit of one’s children, one will have much less incentive to defer gratification through productive and frugal behavior and greater incentive to consume resources rapidly in the near term. Such an outcome can only hinder the advancement of civilization since economic growth is driven by the process of long-term saving and investment in capital goods (i.e. low time preference behaviors).
In fact, such redistributive measures produce a dysgenic effect by subsidizing the birth rates of unproductive and lazy people whilst pushing down the birth rates of productive, hard-working, and frugal people. For under an “equality of opportunity” regime, the State assumes the duty of ensuring a “level playing field” for all children and is thus compelled to steal from families headed by productive parents to provide for the children of unproductive parents. As mentioned before, one will always get more of whatever one subsidizes, and less of whatever one taxes. Do we really want a society where the majority of children are being raised by lazy and irresponsible parents with high time preferences? If not, then the subsidization of high time preference behaviors and lifestyles must stop, and private property norms must be reestablished so that low time preference behavior will prevail. Equality of opportunity, being antithetical to the lowering of societal time preferences, must be resolutely opposed by any who value civilization.
The Politics of Equal Opportunity
The ideology of “equal opportunity” also has profound effects on a society’s political environment. Going back to Chapter Four of “A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism,” Hoppe elaborates on said effects:
Taken literally, of course, this idea [of equal opportunity] is absurd: there is no way of equalizing the opportunity of someone living in the Alps and someone residing at the seaside. In addition, it seems quite clear that the idea of a corrective mechanism is simply incompatible with the lottery idea. Yet it is precisely this high degree of vagueness and confusion which contributes to the popular appeal of this concept. What constitutes an opportunity, what makes an opportunity different or the same, worse or better, how much and what kind of compensation is needed to equalize opportunities which admittedly cannot be equalized in physical terms (as in the Alps/seaside example), what is undeserved bad luck and what is a rectification, are all completely subjective matters. They are dependent on subjective evaluations, changing as they do, and there is then—if one indeed applies the equality of opportunity concept—an unlimited reservoir of all sorts of distributional demands, for all sorts of reasons and for all sorts of people. This is so, in particular, because equalizing opportunity is compatible with demands for differences in monetary income or private wealth. A and B might have the same income and might both be equally rich, but A might be black, or a woman, or have bad eyesight, or be a resident of Texas, or may have ten children, or no husband, or be over 65, whereas B might be none of these but something else, and hence A might argue that his opportunities to attain everything possible in life are different, or rather worse, than B’s, and that he should somehow be compensated for this, thus making their monetary incomes, which were the same before, now different. And B, of course, could argue in exactly the same way by simply reversing the implied evaluation of opportunities. As a consequence, an unheard of degree of politicalization will ensue. Everything seems fair now, and producers and nonproducers alike, the former for defensive and the latter for aggressive purposes, will be driven into spending more and more time in the role of raising, destroying, and countering distributional demands. And to be sure, this activity, like the engagement in leisurely activities, is not only nonproductive but in clear contrast to the role of enjoying leisure, implies spending time for the very purpose of actually disrupting the undisturbed enjoyment of wealth produced, as well as its new production.
Since “equality of opportunity” is such an elusive and difficult-to-define goal, its pursuit will inevitably create an even worse degree of social politicization than simply an “equality of outcome” regime. One may already witness this in contemporary Western society with all the talk of “white privilege,” “male privilege,” “straight privilege,” and other forms of class warfare agitation, in addition to all the social justice warrior infighting that takes place between the different “oppressed” groups jockeying for the bottom spot on the oppression totem pole. Such politicization is meant to be perpetual, since even if it were possible to create a “blank slate” society where everyone had “equal opportunity,” it would be impossible to tell when we had reached such a state, so long as differences in outcome were still permitted. Since many of those who support “equal opportunity” policies also happen to be staunch egalitarians in their social philosophy (i.e. refusing to accept natural differences in ability between different demographics), they will never be convinced that “equality of opportunity” has been reached until equality of outcome has also been achieved. Thus in practice, “equality of opportunity” ends up being the same as “equality of outcome,” but with greater politicization. Hoppe has this to add:
But not only is increased politicalization stimulated (above and beyond the level implied by socialism generally) by promoting the idea of equalizing opportunity. There is once more, and this is perhaps one of the most interesting features of new social-democratic-socialism as compared with its traditional Marxist form, a new and different character to the kind of politicalization implied by it. Under any policy of distribution, there must be people who support and promote it. And normally, though not exclusively so, this is done by those who profit most from it. Thus, under a system of income and wealth-equalization and also under that of a minimum income policy, it is mainly the “have-nots” who are the supporters of the politicalization of social life. Given the fact that on the average they happen to be those with relatively lower intellectual, in particular verbal capabilities, this makes for politics which appears to lack much intellectual sophistication, to say the least. Put more bluntly, politics tends to be outright dull, dumb, and appalling, even to a considerable number of the have-nots themselves. On the other hand, in adopting the idea of equalizing opportunity, differences in monetary income and wealth are not only allowed to exist but even become quite pronounced, provided that this is justifiable by some underlying discrepancies in the opportunity structure for which the former differences help compensate. Now in this sort of politics the haves can participate, too. As a matter of fact, being the ones who on the average command superior verbal skills, and the task of defining opportunities as better or worse being essentially one of persuasive rhetorical powers, this is exactly their sort of game. Thus the haves will now become the dominant force in sustaining the process of politicalization. Increasingly it will be people from their ranks that move to the top of the socialist party organization, and accordingly the appearance and rhetoric of socialist politics will take on a different shape, becoming more and more intellectualized, changing its appeal and attracting a new class of supporters.
Here, Hoppe observes that the ascent of “haves” to the top of the political elite on the basis of “underlying discrepancies in the opportunity structure for which the former differences help compensate” is the logical conclusion of the “equal opportunity” agenda. However, from observing the makeup of these elites (especially in the academic world), it seems that he overestimates the extent to which leftists are actually capable of taking their own principles to their logical conclusion. While it’s true that the non-white male portion of the academic, social, and political elite is overwhelmingly leftist (their elite status being justified by their “oppressed” identities, as Hoppe observes), there are also many white male leftist elites who are still accepted by the left as long as they virtue-signal and self-flagellate hard enough about their “white male privilege.” Of course, the left’s acceptance of these white male elites conflicts with their egalitarian principles, but perhaps it should be expected given how much of a premium they place on moral posturing over moral practice.
The increasing politicization of society that inevitably results from the pursuit of an “equal opportunity” agenda has serious economic and social consequences. Hoppe observes in the third chapter of the book that as the distribution of wealth in society becomes more dependent on political developments and less dependent on the productivity of individuals, the incentive for people to become involved in politics will increase.
Accordingly, as people want to improve their income and want to move into more highly evaluated positions in the hierarchy of caretakers, they increasingly have to use their political talents. It becomes irrelevant, or is at least of reduced importance, to be a more efficient producer or contractor in order to rise in the hierarchy of income recipients. Instead, it is increasingly important to have the peculiar skills of a politician, i.e., a person who through persuasion, demagoguery and intrigue, through promises, bribes, and threats, manages to assemble public support for his own position. Depending on the intensity of the desire for higher incomes, people will have to spend less time developing their productive skills and more time cultivating political talents. And since different people have differing degrees of productive and political talents, different people will rise to the top now, so that one finds increasing numbers of politicians everywhere in the hierarchical order of caretakers. All the way to the very top there will be people incompetent to do the job they are supposed to do. It is no hindrance in a caretaker’s career for him to be dumb, indolent, inefficient, and uncaring, as long as he commands superior political skills, and accordingly people like this will be taking care of the means of production everywhere.
The socio-economic consequences of the politicization of society are quite similar to those that result from the institutionalization of high time preference. Both of these developments fundamentally change the character structure of society, where unproductiveness, wastefulness, stupidity, and dishonesty are rewarded at the expense of industriousness, frugality, intelligence, and integrity. It is clear then, that since an “equal opportunity” agenda furthers the ever increasing politicization of society, that it will ultimately lead to society’s demise as economic and social incentives become further and further perverted toward destructive ends.
Conclusion – Equality of Opportunity is NOT Libertarian
In view of the ethics, economics, and politics of “equality of opportunity,” the unavoidable conclusion for any principled libertarian is the unambiguous and emphatic rejection of such a concept. The siren song of “equal opportunity” may be appealing to the masses, but we libertarians must not succumb to its superficial allure. It is nothing more than socialism under the guise of meritocracy.