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"Equality of Opportunity" Is Overrated

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Tags PovertyProtectionism and Free Trade


It’s become quite fashionable for members of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) like Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, and Jordan Peterson to decry equality of outcome as a thinly veiled guise for tyranny and oppression. However, in pleading against the doctrine of equality of outcome, these digital intellectuals inevitably defend the insidious doctrine of equality of opportunity.

What?! How could you be against equality of opportunity! Isn’t America the land of the free?! Isn’t equality of opportunity the literal meaning of freedom?


In fact, to stand for equality of opportunity is to stand against what economist Ludwig von Mises called “the fundamental social phenomenon:” the division of labor.

The division of labor is the product of a naturally occurring social regularity, what Mises called “the Ricardian Law of Association” (158). The law of association is based on the English economist David Ricardo’s insight that for any two countries A and B where A is more efficient than B in producing both goods p and q, both countries are better off if both countries specialize in producing exclusively that in which each is relatively more efficient. Mises writes:

“Ricardo was fully aware of the fact that his law of comparative cost, which he expounded mainly in order to deal with a special problem of international trade, is a particular instance of the more universal law of association.

If A is in such a way more efficient than B that he needs for the production of 1 unit of the commodity p 3 hours compared with B’s 5, and for the production of 1 unit of q 2 hours compared with B’s 4, then both will gain if A confines himself to producing q and leaves B to produce p. If each of them gives 60 hours to producing p and 60 hours to producing q, the result of A’s labor is 20 p + 30 q; of B’s, 12 p + 15 q; and for both together, 32 p + 45 q. If however, A confines himself to producing q alone, he produces 60 q in 120 hours, while B, if he confines himself to producing p, produces in the same time 24 p. The result of their activities is then 24 p + 60 q, which, as p has for A a substitution ratio of 3/2 q and for B one of 5/4 q, signifies a larger output than 32 p + 45 q. Therefore it is manifest that the division of labor brings advantages to all who take part in it. Collaboration of the more talented, more able, and more industrious with the less talented, less able, and less industrious results in benefit for both . The gains derived from the division of labor are always mutual” (emphasis added).

Put differently, even though country (or individual A) can produce p and q faster than B, it still makes sense for A and B to specialize. Where Mises uses the language “substitution ratio” to explain why, you can also think in terms of what economists call opportunity cost. What Mises is showing in his example is that the opportunity cost to produce p is lower for B than it is for A.

This is the essence of the law of association. It’s the corner-stone of the division of labor. Furthermore, it isn’t just that we can all prosper in terms of greater total production despite the uneven, unequal distribution of talents and opportunities. It’s because of our differences that specialization within the division of labor according to the law of association that everyone is better off cooperating and trading.

To protest against equality of opportunity is to contest what Mises calls the natural conditions determining man’s life and effort. Mises states clearly, these “natural facts are: First, the innate inequality of men with regard to their ability to perform various kinds of labor. Second: the unequal distribution of the nature-given, nonhuman opportunities of production on the surface of the earth” (emphasis added).

We are unevenly, unequally distributed in nature. Therefore, the productive opportunities confronting us are always unequal. To call for equality of opportunity is just as much a plea for the tyrannical, forceful transformation of man’s uneven, unequal natural situation as the call for equality of outcome is a plea for the tyrannical, forceful redistribution of wealth.

As a matter of fact, man is inherently unequal in both opportunity and outcome. In contrast to the presumptions of the far-left and other economic illiterates, mankind’s inequality is the active ingredient in progressive, prosperous social transformation. That is, this inequality can be harnessed to make everyone better off. Mises writes, “If the earth’s surface were such that the physical conditions of production were the same at every point and if one man were as equal to all other men as is a circle to another with the same diameter in Euclidean geometry, division of labor would not offer any advantages for acting man” (emphasis added).

A close reader might object: “Mises is talking about nonhuman opportunities, things like geography and natural resources. Equality of opportunity is about equality of human opportunity!”

But this, too, misses the mark. First, consider the logistical impossibility of offering equal opportunity to every human task. Is the shop-owner expected to offer his available cashier position to every person equally, i.e. at the same time and in equally intelligible language across the planet?

Second, equality for so-called human opportunity would amount to an outright elimination of the essence of property ownership — that is, the right to determine not only what to do with one’s property, but the right to decide how to determine what to do with it! Suppose for the purpose of efficiency, or of mere arbitrary whim (or of whatever reason he chooses!), the shop-owner decides only to advertise his open cashier’s position to college-age students who live within five miles of his storefront. What “solution” would the tyrannical marchers for equality of opportunity recommend in order to remedy this supposed injustice?

The plea for equality of opportunity is a bourgeois virtue signal against the much-maligned boogieman of discrimination. My egalitarian friends fail to realize that the menace of equality does not quietly confine itself to modern racial and ethnic sensibilities. To the contrary, it bleeds throughout the culture whereby, in time, the mere acknowledgement of the biological differences between male and female constitutes an act of discriminatory “hate speech.” Paradoxically, free speech activists who apologize for equality of opportunity in order to justify their distaste of equality of outcome risk their own primary cause.

Fortunately, no affirmation of equality of outcome nor of opportunity is necessary to defend a free, collaborative, prosperous society. Economics, and economics alone, demonstrates otherwise. Mises writes,

“Neither history nor ethnology nor any other branch of knowledge can provide a description of the evolution which has from the packs and flocks of mankind’s nonhuman ancestors to the primitive, yet already high differentiated, societal groups about which information is provided in excavations, in the most ancient documents of history, and in the reports of explorers and travelers who have met savage tribes. The task which science is faced in respect of the origins of society can only consist in the demonstration of those factors which can and must result in association and its progressive intensification. Praxeology solves the problem. If and as far as labor under the division of labor is more productive than isolated labor, and if and as far as man is able to realize this fact, human action itself tends toward cooperation and association; man becomes a social being not in sacrificing his own concerns for the sake of a mythical Moloch, society, but in aiming at an improvement in his own welfare. Experience teaches that this condition – higher productivity achieved under the division of labor – is present because its cause – the inborn inequality of men and the inequality in the geographical distribution of the natural factors of production – is real. Thus we are in a position to comprehend the course of social evolution (emphasis added).

Advocates of a peaceful and prosperous society, or of free speech — as appears to be the unifying mission of the IDW — need not protest the uneven, unequal nature of mankind. Rather, they need only turn to economics to see that inequality is the nexus conjoining man’s natural condition of antagonistic poverty to collaborative prosperity.

Ryan Griggs is a business consultant. He blogs about finance, economics, and liberty on his Medium page.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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