Media Briefings

TOWARDS EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY: New economic analysis

  • Published Date: June 2018

Any social arrangement in which just one person has no opportunities is the worst possible outcome. That is one of the conclusions of research by Marco Mariotti and Roberto Veneziani, published in the June 2018 issue of the Economic Journal.

Their analysis of how opportunity should be distributed in society measures opportunities as ‘chances of success’. This means that people with more opportunities are defined as having more favourable circumstances and tend to succeed more frequently. In contrast, if a social group is seen to succeed less than others, this is interpreted as a signal that the group has fewer opportunities.

This matches how policy-makers see opportunity. For example, President Kennedy in 1963 noted that ‘The Negro baby born in America today… has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year’.

But while it is generally agreed that giving people opportunities is a good thing, it is not clear what this means in practice and how it should be pursued. In a world of finite resources, increasing opportunities for some may lead to restricting it for others – so how should such trade-offs be resolved?

The new study starts from a classical liberal principle of non-interference – the ‘harm principle’ – the basic idea of which was explained by John Stuart Mills as follows: ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’.

The researchers show that, surprisingly, this principle leads towards a partial form of equality of opportunity. It does not imply that opportunities should be exactly equalised, but it does imply that strong inequalities, even concerning a few individuals, must be absolutely avoided. Any social arrangement in which even one single person is ‘left behind’ is the worst possible outcome.

While the form of equality of opportunity implied by the harm principle is partial, it is completely unconditional, which means that even individuals that have not behaved responsibly are entitled to some degree of opportunity.

An example is access to healthcare for heavy smokers. Where it is conditional, equal opportunities to health are only provided if individuals have been responsible in their behaviour and not been smoking more than the average in their social group. In the new analysis, heavy smokers would still have the right to benefit from some opportunities for health.

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Opportunities as Chances: Maximising the Probability that Everybody Succeeds’ by Marco Mariotti and Roberto Veneziani

Marco Mariotti is a Professor of Economics, and Roberto Veneziani a reader in Economics, at Queen Mary University in London.

For further information: contact Roberto Veneziani on +44 (20) 7882 8852 (email: r.veneziani@qmul.ac.uk); Marco Mariotti on +44 20 7882 3373 (email: m.mariotti@qmul.ac.uk); or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: romesh@vaitilingam.com; Twitter: @econromesh.