Equality of outcome is a controversial political concept which describes a state in which people have approximately the same material wealth or, more generally, in which the general conditions of their lives are similar. Achieving this requires reducing or eliminating material inequalities between individuals or households in a society. This could involve a transfer of income and/or wealth from wealthier to poorer individuals, or adopting other institutions designed to promote equality of condition from the start.
The concept is central to some political ideologies and is used regularly in political discourse, often in contrast to the term equality of opportunity. A related way of defining equality of outcome is to think of it as ‘equality in the central and valuable things in life.’ After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the political structure of the Soviet Union tried to emphasize equality of outcome as a primary goal.
An opposing view is that equality of outcomes is not beneficial overall for society since it dampens motivation necessary for humans to achieve great things, such as new inventions, intellectual discoveries, and artistic breakthroughs. According to this view, wealth and income is a reward needed to spur such activity, and with this reward removed, then achievements which would benefit everybody may not happen.
Equality of opportunity generally describes fair competition for important jobs and positions such that contenders have equal chances to win such positions, and applicants are not judged or hampered by unfair or arbitrary discrimination. It entails the ‘elimination of arbitrary discrimination in the process of selection.’ The term is usually applied in workplace situations but has been applied in other areas as well such as housing, lending, and voting rights. The essence is that job seekers have ‘an equal chance to compete within the framework of goals and the structure of rules established,’ according to one view. It is generally seen as a procedural value of fair treatment by the rules.
Equality of autonomy is a relatively new concept, a sort of hybrid notion of philosopher Amartya Sen and can be thought of as ‘the ability and means to choose our life course should be spread as equally as possible across society.’ It is an equal shot at empowerment or a chance to develop up to his or her potential rather than equal goods or equal chances. Sen’s approach requires ‘active intervention of institutions like the state into people’s lives’ but with an aim towards ‘fostering of people’s self-creation rather than their living conditions.’ Sen argued that ‘the ability to convert incomes into opportunities is affected by a multiplicity of individual and social differences that mean some people will need more than others to achieve the same range of capabilities.’
Equality of process is related to the general notion of fair treatment, and can be thought of as ‘dealing with inequalities in treatment through discrimination by other individuals and groups, or by institutions and systems, including not being treated with dignity and respect,’ according to one definition. Equality of perception is an uncommonly used term meaning that ‘person should be perceived as being of equal worth.’
In political philosophy, there are differing views whether equal outcomes are beneficial or not. One view is that there is a moral basis for equality of outcome, but that means to achieve such an outcome can be malevolent. Equality of outcome can be a good thing after it has been achieved, since it reflects the natural ‘interdependence of citizens in a highly organized economy’ and provides a ‘basis for social policies’ which foster harmony and good will, including social cohesion and reduced jealousy. One writer suggested greater socioeconomic equality was ‘indispensable if we want to realize our shared commonsense values of societal fairness.’
Analyst Kenneth Cauthen in his 1987 book ‘The Passion for Equality’ suggested that there were moral underpinnings for having equal outcomes because there is a common good––which people both contribute to and receive benefits from––and therefore should be enjoyed in common; Cauthen argued that this was a fundamental basis for both equality of opportunity as well as equality of outcome. Analyst George Packer, writing in the journal ‘Foreign Affairs,’ argued that ‘inequality undermines democracy’ in the United States partially because it ‘hardens society into a class system, imprisoning people in the circumstances of their birth.’ Packer elaborated that inequality ‘corrodes trust among fellow citizens’ and compared it to an ‘odorless gas which pervades every corner’ of the nation.
If equality of outcomes is seen as beneficial for society, and if people have differing levels of material wealth in the present, then methods to transform a society towards one with greater equality of outcomes is problematic. A mainstream view is that mechanisms to achieve equal outcomes––to take a society and with unequal wealth and force it to equal outcomes––are fraught with moral as well as practical problems since they often involve force to compel the transfer. And there is general agreement that outcomes matter.
In one report in Britain, unequal outcomes in terms of personal wealth had a strong impact on average life expectancy, such that wealthier people tended to live seven years longer than poorer folk, and that egalitarian nations tended to have fewer problems with societal issues such as mental illness, violence, and teenage pregnancy. Authors of the book ‘The Spirit Level’ contended that ‘more equal societies almost always do better’ on other measures, and as a result, striving for equal outcomes can have overall beneficial effects for everybody.
Philosopher John Rawls, in his ‘A Theory of Justice’ (1971), developed a ‘second principle of justice’ that economic and social inequalities can only be justified if they benefit the most disadvantaged members of society. Further, Rawls claims that all economically and socially privileged positions must be open to all people equally. Rawls argues that the inequality between a doctor’s salary and a grocery clerk’s is only acceptable if this is the only way to encourage the training of sufficient numbers of doctors, preventing an unacceptable decline in the availability of medical care (which would therefore disadvantage everyone).
Analyst Paul Krugman writing in ‘The New York Times’ agreed with Rawls’ position in which both equality of opportunity and equality of outcome were linked, and suggested that ‘we should try to create the society each of us would want if we didn’t know in advance who we’d be.’ Krugman favored a society in which hard-working and talented people can get rewarded for their efforts but in which there was a ‘social safety net’ created by taxes to help the less fortunate.
In a lamp assembly factory, for example, equality of outcome might mean that workers are all paid equally regardless of how many lamps they make. This can be contrasted with a payment system such as piece work, which requires that every worker is paid a fixed amount of money per lamp.
Both equality of outcome and equality of opportunity have been contrasted to a great extent. When evaluated in a simple context, the more preferred term in contemporary political discourse is equality of opportunity, because it is considered the nicer or more ‘well-mannered’ of the two terms. Equality of outcome is seen as more controversial and connotes socialism or possibly communism and is viewed skeptically. The two terms are somewhat mutually exclusive in the sense that striving for either type of equality would require sacrificing the other to an extent, and that achieving equality of opportunity necessarily brings about ‘certain inequalities of outcome.’
For example, striving for equal outcomes might require discriminating between groups to achieve these outcomes; or striving for equal opportunities in some types of treatment might lead to unequal results. Policies that seek an equality of outcome often require a deviation from the strict application of concepts such as meritocracy, and legal notions of equality before the law for all citizens. ‘Equality seeking’ policies may also have a redistributive focus. The two concepts, however, are not always cleanly contrasted, since the notion of equality is complex. Some analysts see the two concepts not as polar opposites but as highly related such that they can not be understood without considering the other term.
In contemporary political discourse, of the two concepts, equality of outcome has sometimes been criticized as the ‘politics of envy.’ However, one theorist suggested that an over-emphasis on either type of equality can ‘come into conflict with individual freedom and merit.’ The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche did not like either type of equality and was opposed in principle to democracy, and he associated equality with what he termed ‘slave morality.’
Critics of equality of opportunity note that while it is relatively easier to deal with unfairness for people with different races or genders, it is much harder to deal with social class since ‘one can never entirely extract people from their ancestry and upbringing.’ As a result, critics contend that efforts to bring fairness by equal opportunity are stymied by the difficulty of people having differing starting points at the beginning of the socio-economic competition. A person born into an upper-middle class family will have greater advantages by the mere fact of birth than a person born into poverty.
One newspaper account criticized discussion by politicians on the subject of equality as ‘weasely,’ and thought that terms using the word were politically correct and bland. Nevertheless, when comparing equality of opportunity with equality of outcome, the sense was that the latter type was ‘worse’ for society. Equality of outcome may be incorporated into a philosophy that ultimately seeks equality of opportunity. Moving towards a higher equality of outcome (albeit not perfectly equal) can lead to an environment more adept at providing equality of opportunity by eliminating conditions that restrict the possibility for members of society to fulfill their potential.
For example, a child born in a poor, dangerous neighborhood with poor schools and little access to healthcare may be significantly disadvantaged in his attempts to maximize use of talents, no matter his work ethic. Thus, even proponents of meritocracy may promote some level of equality of outcome in order to create a society capable of truly providing equality of opportunity.
While outcomes can usually be measured with a great degree of precision, it is much more difficult to measure the intangible nature of opportunities. That is one reason why many proponents of equal opportunity use measures of equality of outcome to judge success. Analyst Anne Phillips argued that the proper way to assess the effectiveness of the hard-to-measure concept of equality of opportunity is by the extent of the actual and easier-to-measure equality of outcome. Nevertheless, she described single criteria to measure equality of outcome as problematic: the metric of ‘preference satisfaction’ was ‘ideologically loaded’ while other measures such as income or wealth were insufficient, according to her view, and she advocated an approach which combined data about resources, occupations, and roles.
To the extent that incidental inequalities can be passed from one generation to another through substantial gifts and wealth inheritance, some claim that equality of opportunity for children cannot be achieved without greater equality of outcome for parents. Moreover, access and opportunity to various social institutions is partially dependent on equality of outcome. Proponents argue that rigging equality of outcome can be a force preventing co-optation of non-economic institutions important to social control and policy formation, such as the legal system, media, or the electoral process, by individuals and coalitions of wealthy people.
Greater equality of outcome is likely to reduce relative poverty, purportedly leading to a more cohesive society. However, if taken to an extreme it may lead to greater absolute poverty if it negatively affects a country’s GDP by damaging workers’ sense of work ethic by destroying incentives to work harder. Critics of equality of outcome believe that it is more important to raise the standard of living of the poorest in absolute terms. Some critics additionally disagree with the concept of equality of outcome on philosophical grounds. A related argument is often encountered in education and more specifically in the debates on gifted education in various countries. According to that argument, people by nature have differing levels of ability and initiative which lead some to achieve better outcomes than others. Therefore, it is considered impossible to ensure equality of outcome without imposing inequality of opportunity.
The concept of equality of outcome is an important one in battling between differing political positions, since the concept of equality, overall, was seen as positive and an important foundation which is ‘deeply embedded in the fabric of modern politics.’ There is much political jousting over what, exactly, equality means. It is not a new phenomenon; battling between so-called haves and have-nots has happened throughout human civilization, and was a focus of philosophers such as Aristotle in his treatise ‘Politics.’ Analyst Julian Glover in ‘The Guardian’ wrote that equality challenged both left-leaning and right-leaning positions, and suggested that the task of left-leaning advocates is to ‘understand the impossibility and undesirability of equality’ while the task for right-leaning advocates was to ‘realize that a divided and hierarchical society cannot – in the best sense of that word – be fair.’
Analyst Glenn Oliver wrote that conservatives believed in neither equality of opportunity nor outcome. In their view, life is not fair, but that is how it is. They criticize attempts to try to fight poverty by redistributive methods as ineffective since more serious cultural and behavioral problems lock poor people into poverty. Sometimes right-leaning positions have been criticized by liberals for over-simplifying what is meant by the term equality of outcome, and for construing outcomes strictly to mean precisely equal amounts for everybody.
Commentator Ed Rooksby in ‘The Guardian’ criticized the right’s tendency to oversimplify, and suggested that serious left-leaning advocates would not construe equality to mean ‘absolute equality of everything.’ Rooksby wrote that Marx favored the position described in the phrase ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,’ and argued that this did not imply strict equality of things, but that it meant that people required ‘different things in different proportions in order to flourish.’
Libertarians such as Milton Friedman tend to see equality of outcome negatively and argue that any effort to cause equal outcomes would necessarily and unfortunately involve coercion by government. Friedman wrote that striving for equality of outcome leaves most people ‘without equality and without opportunity.’
Analyst Glenn Oliver suggested that liberals believed in ‘equality of opportunity and inequality of outcome.’ One liberal position is that it is simplistic to define equality in strict outcomes since questions such as what is being equalized as well as huge differences in preferences and tastes and needs is considerable. They ask: exactly what is being equalized? British prime minister Gordon Brown, a British mainstream liberal, took a balanced position and maintained that too much focus on equal outcomes had the effect of neglecting ‘the importance of rewarding effort and responsibility,’ and that the equal outcomes ideal was related to an association with social democracy with attendants elements of ‘conformity and mediocrity rather than the celebration of creativity, diversity, and excellence.’
In the 1960s in the United States, liberal president Lyndon Johnson, examining the plight of African Americans locked in poverty, argued for ending policies which promoted segregation and discrimination as well as steps to end ‘economic injustice’ by turning ‘equality of opportunity into equality of outcome,’ that is, with programs to transfer wealth in varying amounts. Fairness is emphasized; one writer expounding a centrist position wrote ‘people would neither be left to fend for themselves nor guaranteed equality of outcome – they would be given the tools they needed to achieve the American dream if they worked hard.’
There has been cynicism expressed in the media that neither side, including mainstream political positions, wants to do anything substantive, but that the nebulous term fairness is used to cloak the inactivity because it is difficult to measure what, in fact, ‘fairness’ means. Julian Glover wrote that fairness ‘compels no action’ and compared it to an ‘atmospheric ideal, an invisible gas, a miasma,’ and to use an expression by Churchill, a ‘happy thought.’
Socialists believe in ‘inequality of opportunity and equality of outcome’ according to Oliver. They often see equality of outcome as a positive good, and that policies such as the redistribution of wealth as well as less extreme measures such as progressive taxation are morally good if they achieve equal outcomes. Although only a small minority of socialist theories advocate complete economic equality of outcome in practice (anarcho-communism is one such school) and instead see an ideal economy as one where remuneration is proportional to the degree of effort and personal sacrifice expended by individuals in the productive process.