So there’s a big difference between equality and equity. Equality suggests, “oh everyone should get the same amount.” The problem with that, not everybody’s starting out from the same place. So if we’re all getting the same amount, but you started out back there and I started out over here, we could get the same amount, but you’re still going to be that far back behind me. It’s about giving people the resources and the support they need, so that everyone can be on equal footing, and then compete on equal footing. Equitable treatment means we all end up in the same place.
The above text is the script of a video circulated on Twitter by Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris. It’s fair to say it has raised a few eyebrows among conservative, libertarian, and even soft liberal commentators, especially given the Biden campaign’s theme that it is for moderation in politics.
The initial reaction has focused on the very end of the final sentence, taking it as an endorsement from Harris for achieving “equality of outcome” via government policy. Andrew Sullivan, for example, tweeted ““Equitable treatment means we all end up in the same place.” That’s equality of *outcomes* enforced by the government. They used to call that communism.” As Friedrich Hayek once wrote, “There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal. While the first is the condition of a free society, the second means, as De Tocqueville described it, ‘a new form of servitude.’”
This interpretation of Harris’s video is not the only one we can take away from the actual text, however, nor even the most generous. One alternative, I suspect, is closer to her view and goes something like this: “if we give everyone genuine ‘equality of opportunity’ [what she defines as equity] then there’s no real reason to expect that outcomes between people or different groups will be drastically different.” Indeed, the starting point for much progressive politics is the idea that differences in representation or income or wealth between different groups owes itself to societal and policy discrimination, rather than different free choices between individuals. Eliminate the discrimination and disadvantages, they think, and those gaps will disappear.
Now, there are two big problems with this line of thinking from a libertarian perspective. The first is that “equality of opportunity” is itself a principle without limit. Is it the idea that all people should be able to use their talents, absent coercive state‐imposed constraints, to pursue their ambitions? Is it that any state actions or policies should treat all individuals as equal under the law? Maybe some the term that way, but sadly neither represents how it is used in wider political parlance—usually as the idea that the government should come in and make up for “disadvantages” some suffer relative to others.
The problem is, taken to its logical end point, the desire to equalize opportunity is just as totalitarian as attempts to equalize outcomes. Why? Well, some people will always have advantages over others, including genetic inheritances such as looks or height, even before we think about finances, or better parenting, or being brought up in a decent neighborhood. Attempting to eliminate all of these gaps in opportunity is impossible and, from the perspective of liberty, deeply undesirable. Such an agenda would, in effect, ban altruism, families caring for their children, and prudent behavior.
And, by and large, even progressives accept this. Yes, you get the harder left pushing for confiscating all inheritances and providing government‐delivered childcare from birth. But most in politics pay homage to the principle of equal opportunity, while declining to act on its most extreme forms. Yes, there is a stated desire to ensure that all kids get good schooling, but very few seek to ban parents reading to their kids as some kind of unfair “advantage” that other children do not have. At the very least it is accepted that, past a certain age, the government doesn’t have a responsibility for eliminating all “disadvantages,” especially if they are a result of free choices.
The second problem with Harris’s outlook, however, is that it is empirically untrue that when given equity in terms of opportunities, people end up in the same place. There is absolutely no reason to expect different individuals and therefore different groups, on average, to achieve the same economic outcomes or even be equally represented when everything else about their upbringings, education, work experience and more is the same.
Thomas Sowell documents this brilliantly in his book Discrimination and Disparities, in which early on he explains how success requires many prerequisites, such as intelligence, effort, and living in a place with good institutions. This can lead to a highly skewed distribution of outcomes, even if extensive measures are taken to equalize opportunities and no discrimination exists.
We see this in labor markets today. Progressives often tend to talk as if statistical gender pay gaps exist solely because of discrimination by employers, or in the attitudes of society that shape government policy. Yet even on the Uber platform where discrimination is not possible, a 7 percent “gender pay gap” exists between men and women, partly because of how male and female drivers broadly use the app, the areas they drive in, and the speed that they drive at.
Likewise, a study of gender pay gaps on Mechanical Turk, which is an anonymous platform, even controlling for experience and education, found a male‐female pay gap of over 10 percent existed, because of the tasks that the sexes, on average, chose to select. Again, the nature of this platform makes discrimination impossible.
None of this is to deny that discrimination exists elsewhere in society. And as my colleague Michael Tanner has explained brilliantly in his book The Inclusive Economy, often government policies themselves restrict the opportunities of the poor or other groups. Eliminating these bad policies–providing the double dividend of more opportunity and improved life chances–is a goal we can all share.
But generally, there is no reason to expect that even if “equitable treatment” could be achieved, in the way Harris defines it, that we would all “end up in the same place.” And if the absence of equality of outcomes is taken everywhere and anywhere as evidence of inequities in life chances requiring government action, then not only will politicians like Harris be perennially disappointed, but we will suffer a ratchet of liberty‐restricting government interventions in pursuit of an unattainable goal.
Outcomes are often unequal, and if due to the free pursuit of our ambitions, that’s ok.