Against Equality of Opportunity by Matt Cavanagh

Time to stop knocking opportunity
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Attacking equality of opportunity is an English sport. On the left it is condemned because by rewarding ability, viewed as mere luck in the genetic lottery, it makes equality of outcome harder to achieve. On the right, it is seen as an interference with liberty that does nothing to improve the well-being of the poor. For both, it is a muddled ideal, a murky compromise between more attractive positions.

This consensus should be an object of suspicion, since it is unlikely to be the result of intellectual rigour. It mirrors our segregated schools. We are alone among European countries in the degree to which access to higher education is skewed in favour of pupils from the private sector. The peculiar English hostility to meritocracy is an alibi for doing nothing about an educational system no other European country would tolerate.

Antipathy to meritocratic ideas is as much a commonplace of English life as delayed trains, but Matt Cavanagh writes as if he were a beleaguered dissident, quixotically pitted against a powerful ideology. In purely academic terms, it is true that Against Equality of Opportunity is a contrarian book – and all the better for that. For a generation, academic political philosophy has been dominated by egalitarianism. Thinkers such as John Rawls have taken it as self-evident that there is something fair or rational in equal distribution of social goods. One virtue of Cavanagh's book is its demonstration of the sheer silliness of this orthodoxy.

Cavanagh demolishes the egalitarian belief that the relative distribution of social goods matters in itself. We do not help the sick because the gap between the sick and healthy is too wide, but because sickness is an injury to the wellbeing of the sick. More generally, many of the redistributive policies of welfare states have nothing to do with equality. They spring from a concern to diminish suffering.

As Cavanagh observes, much egalitarian rhetoric expresses universal moral principles rather than concern about people's relative position. If we seek to ban torture, we do so because we think it is always wrong, not because it leaves some people worse off.

This is not a novel view. It is part of a reaction against academic orthodoxy, in which principles about what is right are supposed to have priority over conceptions of the good. The moral irrelevance of distributive questions is a feature of the work of several contemporary philosophers. Cavanagh adds little to the critique of the idea that egalitarian principles are fundamental in morality developed by Joseph Raz over a decade ago. Even so, in setting out clearly the argument that equality in distribution has no inherent moral importance, this book performs a valuable service.

In the narrow terms of political philosophy, Cavanagh swims against a powerful tide. In any larger context, he reinforces commonplace prejudices. Much of the book focuses on questions about the allocation of jobs – as if the gross distortions that go with a two-nation schooling system had not skewed opportunities long before anyone enters the job market. Like most British philosophers who write on social justice, Cavanagh prefers to ignore the evidence. Partly this is a result of his analytical style, which uses thought-experiments in lieu of knowledge of social facts. But it also reflects his polemical intent.

Like many others, Cavanagh finds the rhetoric of meritocracy employed by the present government irritating. He justifies this with the argument that equal opportunity is not a single ideal but a slogan that covers a range of disparate values. This is true enough, but it is not a special disability. Every worthwhile political ideal harbours conflicts of values. In one of his few positive proposals, Cavanagh suggests we replace talk of equal opportunity with the slogan "Opportunity for All". It is a mark of the ingrained English mistrust of talk of equal opportunity that he seems to believe that junking it in favour of this supremely woolly slogan would enhance the intellectual rigour of public discourse.

The reviewer is Professor of European Thought at the LSE