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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Equal outcomes or Equal opportunity: responding to Faithful Progressive

My friend Faithful Progressive has written an interesting post today about the differences between liberals (or is the term progressive now?) and conservatives as it relates to fairness. I think that this is an excellent issue to discuss, as it is often misunderstood, particularly in economic terms.

FP says:
"One of the chief differences between conservatives and others is that moderates, progressives and liberals believe that one role of government is to make things relatively more fair, whether in economics (tax policy/minimum wage/EITC ) or in relative social advantage (anti-discrimination/affirmative action). Meanwhile conservatives tend to “assume a level-playing field” and then leave it to the market to let benefits “trickle down” to the less fortunate. They also leave it up to the efforts of the individual to overcome major obstacles such as poverty and discrimination."
I don't agree with the characterization that conservatives tend to "assume a level-playing field". I think a better way to describe the differences is that those on the left believe that there should be equality of outcomes whereas conservatives believe in equality of opportunity. This is huge distinction. A collolary to this idea of equality of outcomes is that often those on the left look at various inequalities and assume that equal opportunaties were not available. This assumption is incorrect.

Let's look at an example that just came out today -the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz reported today that 72% of college professors are liberal. What should we conclude about this data? A leftist critique of such information would lead us to believe that widespread discrimination exists against conservative academics. Afterall, from a leftist perspective, inequal outcomes equal inequal opportunity. There are some conservatives who will take this same position in regards to university hiring practices but I believe that they are incorrect.

This is a classic example of the "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy. That is, the idea that "after this therefore because of this". (yes, I took five years of Latin). This is the fallacy when it is assumed that because one thing follows another that the one thing was caused by the other.

The classic example of this fallacy used by those on the left is pointing to income inequalities as proof of inequalities of opportunity. There may certainly be inequalities of opportunity in this country, but it does not logically follow that these result in income inequalities.

Additionally, I believe that Thomas Sowell has very accurately described the type of fairness often desired by those on the left:
"...there’s a widespread notion of “fairness” in some cosmic sense—not in the sense of treating everyone the same, but in the sense of trying to redress pre-existing inequalities."
(For more information on Sowell's notion of "cosmic justice", check out his outstanding book, The Quest for Cosmic Justice or check out this article by Walter Williams.)

Is it fair that I am not 6' 8" and unable to dunk a basketball and play in the NBA? In some sense I suppose this isn't "fair", but most people would agree that this is a poor use of the word.

Let me ask another question about fairness. If everyone in the world had plenty of food to eat and adequate shelter, would it be fair that some had more?

Perhaps what most disturbs me in this discussion of fairness is the hubris of many on the left to think that we could even redress certain inequalities such as the fact that some people are rich and some are poor. Don't get me wrong - I certainly believe that we should do a lot to alleviate the suffering of the poor. But do we help raise their standard of living of the poor or do we bring down those more wealthy so that there is more "equality"?

Update: Here is the complete text of a speech that Thomas Sowell gave on the issue of cosmic justice.

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