A sharp, divisive cultural debate in the United States is that of equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome.
In the early 20th century, in support of equality of outcome, Soviet communist dictator Vladimir Lenin coined the phrase, “Who, Whom.” The concept was simple. In a socialist society, where equality of outcome takes precedence over equality of opportunity, a critical question arises: who plans, directs, and redistributes the resources of a society, and to who is the beneficiary, or victim — the object, the “whom” — of said redistribution? Politically speaking, the central maxim is to represent “disenfranchised” groups, provide them with monetary resources and government or state positions, and reshape any imbalances of power that have come to exist. The catch is that once power is given to central planners to initiate such action, “there will be no economic or social questions that would not be political questions in the sense that their solution will depend exclusive on who wields the coercive power” (Hayek, p. 138). In other words, the question of Who, Whom is what equality of outcome hinges upon. All internal struggles are squashed.
In a society structured to foster equality of opportunity, three things tend to determine how successful someone is or isn’t: intelligence (or skill), industriousness, and luck. On the surface, these things may seem unfair. For example, someone born into a family that promotes and develops education, who was taught about the value of hard work and had resources and connections on hand, would clearly have an enormous advantage over someone born into a split or uninterested family, enduring a failing public school system, with few or no mentors. Despite this, the equality of opportunity has two overwhelming advantages: first, success, or the lack thereof, is not predetermined by any bureaucracy or person in charge but instead by one’s own ability and fortune. Second, it is the only guarantee that we have freedom to own property and control our own lives, whereas with equality of outcome, all properties and liberties must be tightly regulated by the bureaucrat. As Hayek notes, “In a planned society we shall all know that we are better or worse off than others, not because of circumstances which nobody controls, and which it is impossible to foresee with certainty, but because some authority wills it” (p, 138).
Who would these bureaucrats then be in a landscape that promotes equality of outcome? One thing is for certain: it can never be the most qualified, honest candidates, as they would always promote meritocracy and the ability to achieve positive results as a primary criterion for redistributing resources. Instead, tribes must be used or created to “be able to obtain the support of the docile and the gullible, who have no strong convictions of their own but are prepared to accept a ready made system of values if it is only drummed into their ears sufficiently loudly and frequently” (p. 160). The bureaucrat must then be a person who collectivizes individuals based upon skin color, sex, orientation, or other superficial traits. The bureaucrat must then create and enforce policy that is based solely on a) those superficial traits as a lowest common denominator to b) be able to rally behind the political establishment in sufficient to secure elections and power. Equality of outcome, then, seeks not equality at all, but special privileges.
Professor Jordan Peterson notes that the confusion of how to properly seek and apply equality lies in a philosophical disagreement between individualists and postmodernists. Peterson claims that individualists seek to create hierarchies of competence — to produce the best brain surgeons, plumbers, carpenters, etc. — and to reward them based upon that competence. Conversely, a postmodernist believes that hierarchies can exist only via power and is thus willing to use pure political power to seek his objectives.
If true, this is a dilemma that can be addressed not just politically, but philosophically. Politically speaking, it’s worth noting that an emphasis on utilizing the 10th Amendment of the Bill of Rights, giving states powers not specifically given to the federal government, can act as a bulwark to protect citizens from the equality of outcome mindset with the totalitarian consequences that come with it. Philosophically, it’s critical to educate and continually reinforce the notion that, in fact, the smallest minority is the individual himself. Protect the individual, and one comes closer and closer to achieving equality of opportunity while preserving the liberties of U.S. citizens. Failure to do so results in the ever increasing power and scope of the federal government.
In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek laments that “twenty-five years ago there was perhaps still some excuse for the naive belief that ‘a planned society can be a far more free society than the competitive laissez faire order it has come to replace’. But to find it once more held after twenty five years of experience and the reexamination of the old beliefs to which this experience has led, and at a time when we are fighting the results of those very doctrines, is tragic beyond words” (p. 209). The fact that this fight has become existential over a half-century since that statement was made, in the most free, prosperous nation ever to exist to boot, adds a whole new dimension to the word “tragic.”
Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom. Edited by Bruce Caldwell, University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Peterson, Jordan. Equality of Outcome vs. Opportunity. Youtube, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnOUFS3lUpEr
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