Equality of opportunity may not be fair (Ha-Joon Chang’s Thing 20)

23-things-they-don-t-tell-you-about-capitalism“Equality of opportunity is the starting point for a fair society. But it’s not enough. Of course, individuals should be rewarded for better performance, but the question is whether they are actually competing under the same conditions as their competitors. If a child does not perform well in school because he is hungry and cannot concentrate in class, it cannot be said that the child does not do well because he is inherently less capable. Fair competition can be achieved only when the child is given enough food – at home through family income support and at school through a free school meals programme. Unless there is some equality of outcome (ie., the incomes of all the parents are above a certain minimum threshold, allowing their children not to go hungry), equal opportunities (ie., free schooling) are not truly meaningful.

…We cannot, and should not, explain someone’s performance only by the environment in which he has grown up. Individuals do have responsibilities for what they have made out of their lives.

However, while correct, this argument is only part of the story. Individuals are not born into a vacuum. The socio-economic environment they operate in put serious restrictions on what they can do. Or even on what they want to do. Your environment can make you give up certain things even without trying. For example, many academically talented British working-class children do not even try to go to universities because universities are ‘not for them’.  This attitude is slowly changing, but I still remember seeing a BBC documentary in the late 1980s in which an old miner and his wife were criticizing one of their sons, who had gone to a university and become a teacher, as a ‘class traitor’.

While it is silly to blame everything on the socio-economic environment, it is equally unacceptable to believe that people can achieve anything if they only ‘believe in themselves’ and try hard enough, as Hollywood movies love to tell you. Equality of opportunity is meaningless for those who do not have the capabilities to take advantage of it.”

Ha-Joon Chang (2010), 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, p.210-211, 217.

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