What Does Jordan Peterson Mean by “Equality of Opportunity”?

The psychologist Professor Jordan Peterson is usually exceptionally careful with his definitions and language. So it is with trepidation that I challenge his commitment to “equality of opportunity” as a desirable goal.

Yet in an otherwise excellent and thought-provoking EconTalk podcast with Russ Roberts he repeated the assertion from his Channel 4 interview with Cathy Newman that “equality of opportunity” is a desirable societal ambition.

Perhaps I have missed some lecture where he has elucidated further. But if listeners like me who share his disdain for outcome egalitarianism are confused, it is worth pinning down exactly what he has in mind. For it seems to me that someone who truly rejects outcome equality should also regard “equality of opportunity” as either trivially self-evident or wrong.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition of “equality of opportunity” starts by suggesting it is the opposite of a caste society. It clearly would be undesirable if all positions in life were determined purely by social status. We want a dynamic society where individuals are able to rise and fall to a large extent according to competitive processes, and for hard work and talent to be a route to success.

Yet in truth “equality of opportunity,” as commonly articulated, is much stronger than favouring a society where hard work and talent can affect our positions in hierarchies. Indeed, the very last part of the Stanford definition indicates the potential expansiveness of the idea. It reads (my emphasis):

“In contrast, when equality of opportunity prevails, the assignment of individuals to places in the social hierarchy is determined by some form of competitive process, and all members of society are eligible to compete on equal terms.”

What does “equal terms” mean here? 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, but sadly neither of these concepts represent how it is used in wider political parlance.

No, the reason I oppose “equality of opportunity” as an aim is because the “equal terms” part of that sentence is instead widely used to justify a vast array of government interventions, which often hinder the ambitions and preferences of free people in ways very similar to the pursuit of equality of outcome.

In UK debates, I have heard it said that the existence of inheritances mean children do not compete on equal terms, as justification for 100% inheritance taxes. Some claim that pushy parents bestow unfair educational advantages on their children as justification for rigid, state-imposed comprehensivisation of education, a banning of private schools and variants of affirmative action. In recent years it has even been said that the fact some infants enter school aged 4 more advanced than others is evidence of the need for state-run universal childcare provision.

So here’s my problem with Professor Peterson’s language here.

There are in essence two variants of “equality of opportunity”. There’s a soft one, which merely means a society where people can rise and fall according to their hard work and talent; and there’s a hard variant which says that people’s positions in life should only be determined by their hard work and talent, and that other factors which could influence success should be controlled for, eliminated, or compensated for to equalise opportunity. The latter is inimical to a free society.

A free society will never deliver exactly equal opportunities. But trying to correct for this offers up a particularly intrusive form of government, which can at times be more totalitarian than one seeking to equalise income or wealth. A society fiercely committed to “equality of opportunity” at all costs is one where the role of family, friends, and civil society groups—those little, unequal platoons much-discussed by Burke and others that affect our lives and bestow us with advantages—are severely curtailed. Taken to extremes, it eliminates the very concept of non-state enforced altruism itself in favour of pure meritocracy.

Whereas in a market economy, how much we earn is determined by the interaction of supply and demand, a meritocracy requires someone to make value judgments on what outcomes reflect individual initiative and what opportunities are “fair” or “unfair”. If enforced through the state, it makes the government itself the main arbiter of whether an outcome is just and reflective of fair application of our talents and work ethic.

Right now our plights are determined in large part by these factors but also by upbringing, circumstance and luck. At any given time, some of us are doing well and others not so well. Having the state seek to disentangle these and correct for things that do not reflect our own pathways as individuals is both impossible and undesirable. In fact, seeking to ensure “equality of opportunity” in this way would be truly totalitarian.

It would be interesting to hear Professor Peterson explain further then what he means by “equality of opportunity”. From where I am sitting, the concept as often applied can be used to justify much of the identity politics and unequal treatment under the law that he commonly rails against.

Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.