The conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson, recently managed to put his entire foot in his mouth.  If you’ll pardon the pun, that’s no small feat.  Johnson said:  “Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85 ….”

Boris Johnson Scarecrow

Boris Johnson Scarecrow

Conservative British chancellor, George Osborne, who, like Johnson may be in line to succeed David Cameron as the Tory leader, distanced himself from some but not all of Johnson’s remarks.

Osborne said:  “I wouldn’t have put it like that and I don’t agree with everything he said. Where I think there is increasingly common agreement across the political spectrum is that you can’t achieve equality of outcome but you should be able to achieve equality of opportunity. You should give everyone wherever they come from the best chance and actually education is the absolute key to this.”

Common agreement?  Do you agree?  Let’s poke at this a little, shall we?

First, let’s note that Osborne’s views seem to allow a whole lot more compassion to enter the discussion than we hear from the right-wing in the US.  I’m not at all familiar with British politics but in the US we hear an endless stream of calls from the right to privatize education.  When you try to bring market economics to the nation’s common wealth, you most certainly will not provide equality of opportunity let alone equality of outcome and you’ll weaken the country in the process.

What should be society’s obligation?  Should we set a goal to provide “equality of opportunity” and let the chips fall where they may after that?  Is it undesirable or at least naïve to believe that we can guarantee “equality of outcomes”?

Johnson staked out his position on the issue:  “I stress – I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.”

There it is … greed is good.  Nothing was offered about lifting up all boats.  The soul of competition is to drown the people in the little boats with the wake of your big boat.  Those without boats shouldn’t be swimming around in your waters in the first place.  Let them go somewhere else.

The truth is, though, that I actually agree that absolute economic equality is not possible.  In any system, some will fare better than others.  Conservatives fail, however, when they refuse to recognize that it is not necessarily wrong to set the impossible as an objective.  Put another way, just because we might never achieve perfect equality in our society doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recognize the importance of pursuing equality.  To quote the new Pope:  “Inequality is the root of social ills.”

You can parse inequality into “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcomes” but, in the end, inequality is inequality.  There is no yin and yang here.

Let’s do a little more poking at this “equality of opportunity” business.  Is such a thing even possible in a world in which inequality of outcomes persists?  The argument is to give each child an equal educational opportunity and then allow them to compete on a level playing field as adults.  Put simply, it’s nonsense.  Even public schools are not funded equally.  A disgracefully small percentage of public education is funded by the federal government.  Many schools are badly in need of repair.  Schools in poor neighborhoods suffer from high student-teacher ratios.  They lack funding for books, computers and other resources.  They suffer disproportionately from many of society’s ills such as gang violence, drugs, nutritional deficiencies and many other problems.  Perhaps worst of all, they suffer from the hopelessness and despair that poverty almost necessitates.  The war on poverty has truly transformed into a war on the poor.

So, when conservatives like Osborne use their folksy little phrase “equality of opportunity”, exactly how equal do they plan to make things for those living in poverty?  The truth is that they have no intent to truly provide equal opportunity for all.  Their real intent is to dismiss society’s obligation to care for the poor.

Finally, let’s take a look at the issue of “equality of outcomes”.  Personally, I don’t think most of us would like to live in a society that is so heavily regulated that each and every citizen would have exactly the same amount of wealth.  Somewhere, somehow, it seems desirable to allow for some degree of personal achievement and reward.  Taken to extremes, even the most egalitarian impulses become perverse.

But, again, merely because in its most extreme poles something is impossible or undesirable does not mean we shouldn’t recognize its underlying value.  The goal should be to temper extreme gaps in wealth but not eliminate all gaps in wealth.  It is those who call for untempered free markets and the unlimited acquisition of capital who are the extremists.  When we allow great disparities in wealth, we allow great disparities in access to government which inevitably leads to an inequality of opportunity.  When we allow no disparities in wealth, we imbue our government with too much power over the lives of individuals.  Finding the right balance is key.

To what degree should we seek to move towards an equality of outcomes?  The right balance occurs when the poorest citizens have the resources to live humanely and to live with hope for a better future and when the wealthiest citizens no longer possess so much wealth that they are able to spend freely to exert a disproportionate influence over the government.

“Equality of opportunity” can never exist if we don’t make substantial efforts to create reasonable “equality of outcomes”.  To espouse any belief that disassociates the two is at best naïve and at worst disingenuous … and dangerous.  The two aspects of equality are integrally intertwined.

Photo from Mazzy Bolero licensed under Creative Commons