Does ‘expanding equality of opportunity increase inequality’?

by Grace

It seems that expanding opportunity leads to increased inequality.  Would higher taxes be a good solution?

Since “families are the primary transmitters of human capital”, does it follow that “expanding equality of opportunity increases inequality because some people are simply better able than others to exploit opportunities”.  This is the premise explored by George Will in a Washington Post opinion piece last year.

If America is to be equitable, with careers open to all talents and competent citizens capable of making their way in an increasingly demanding world, Americans must heed the warnings implicit in observations from two heroes of modern conservatism. In “The Constitution of Liberty” (1960), Friedrich Hayek noted that families are the primary transmitters of human capital — habits, mores, education. Hence families, much more than other social institutions or programs, are determinative of academic and vocational success. In “The Unheavenly City” (1970),Edward C. Banfield wrote: “All education favors the middle- and upper-class child, because to be middle or upper class is to have qualities that make one particularly educable.”

Some lucky, privileged “people are simply better able than others to exploit opportunities”.

Elaborating on this theme, Jerry Z. Muller, a Catholic University historian, argued in the March-April 2013 issue of Foreign Affairs that expanding equality of opportunity increases inequality because some people are simply better able than others to exploit opportunities. And “assortative mating” — likes marrying likes — concentrates class advantages, further expanding inequality. As Muller said, “formal schooling itself plays a relatively minor role in creating or perpetuating achievement gaps” that originate “in the different levels of human capital children possess when they enter school.”

Would raising taxes on rich people reduce inequality?

Recognizing that a meritocracy doesn’t always work very well for people lacking supportive families or other advantages, Matt Yglesias proposes that the government should tax rich people and “give the money to poor people” as a way to make everyone happy.

Should we guarantee everyone a “great” life?

,,, When you think about physical disabilities this becomes particularly clear. We try to help out people who are blind or who lost a leg in Iraq or who are born with a congenital heart weakness not because providing such assistance accords with a principle of merit, but precisely because people who lack “merit” in the field of seeing or walking or not dying as a child due to heart failure are the people who need help. But lots of people suffer from less visible problems, be it a genetic weakness for alcoholism or the below-average intelligence that afflicts exactly 50 percent of the population. Those people should have great lives, too.

More money is not the solution.

The rich already “pay an overwhelming majority of the taxes in the United States”, but presumably Yglesias means their taxes should be increased.  As much money as we throw at them, I don’t think we can provide every disadvantaged person with a great life.  Add on the problem “that you eventually run out of other people’s money”, and this doesn’t seem like a good solution.  Money can sometimes help improve lives, but it must be spent wisely.  Politicians and bureaucrats don’t have that part quite figured out, and it seems that the more money we give them to control the less effectively they spend it.

Related:  Changes in marriage patterns have affected poverty and income inequality (Cost of College)

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