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Liberty Versus Equal Opportunity*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2009

James S. Fishkin
Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin


Liberalism has often been viewed as a continuing dialogue about the relative priorities between liberty and equality. When the version of equality under discussion requires equalization of outcomes, it is easy to see how the two ideals might conflict. But when the version of equality requires only equalization of opportunities, the conflict has been treated as greatly muted since the principle of equality seems so meager in its implications. However, when one looks carefully at various versions of equal opportunity and various versions of liberty, the conflict between them is, in fact, both dramatic and inescapable. Each version of the conflict poses hard choices which defy any systematic pattern granting priority to one of these basic values over the other. In this essay, I will flesh out and argue for this picture of fundamental conflict, and then turn to some more general issues about the kinds of answers we should expect to the basic questions of liberal theory.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 1987

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1 For a similar interpretation of the liberal tradition as a continuing dialogue about liberty and equality, see Gutmann, Amy, Liberal Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).Google Scholar Throughout this essay, I rely on arguments I developed more fully in justice, Equal Opportunity and the Family (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983). The latter portions of this essay are also developed in greater detail in “Do We Need a Systematic Theory of Equal Opportunity?” a paper presented at the Center for the Study of Values, University of Delaware. I am grateful to Norman Bowie, Brian Barry and others at the Delaware conference for their helpful comments.

2 See, for example, Schaar, John H., “Equality of Opportunity and Beyond,” Pennock, J. Roland and Chapman, John W., eds., Nomos IX, Equality (New York: Atherton Press, 1967).Google Scholar

3 Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), p. 263.Google Scholar

4 ibid.

5 ibid., p. 264.

6 ibid., p. 160.

7 A representative list can be found in Nozick, Anarchy, p. 10.

8 See, for example, Thurow, Lester, Generating Inequality (New York: Basic Books, 1975), pp. 170181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 Williams, Bernard, “The Idea of Equality,” Laslett, Peter and Runciman, W. G., eds., Philosophy, Politics and Society, Second Series (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962).Google Scholar My use of the warrior society analogy does not require a centralized competition nor does it require a fixed number of positions. The same argument would apply if there were a series of competitions, decentralized in both time and space. Furthermore, the number of positions can easily be imagined to vary with diverse incentive effects. So long as it is plausible to rank the available positions in terms of their desirability, the exact number available does not affect the argument.

10 Rawls's principle of fair equality of opportunity approximates strong equality, but without confronting the implications for family autonomy. See Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), especially pp. 7374.Google Scholar For a discussion of some of the ambiguities in Rawls's account, see my Justice, pp. 154–158. For an empirical study of the extent to which males fall short of equal life chances, see Jencks, Christopher et al., Who Gets Ahead? (New York: Basic Books, 1979).Google Scholar Jencks equates equal opportunity with equal life chances on p. 82.

11 By “qualifications” I mean criteria that are job-related in that they can fairly be interpreted as indicators of competence or motivation for an individual's performance in a given position. Education, job history, fairly administered test results, or other tokens of ability or effort might all be included. Inferences that because one is a member of a group which generally does poorly, one is unlikely to do well would not be included within my account of qualifications. Such inferences would constitute statistical discrimination.

12 By a “native characteristic,” I mean any factor knowable at birth that could be employed to differentiate adult persons of at least normal health and endowment. As I note in Justice, these characteristics are not necessarily unalterable: “Even though native characteristics can be I ascribed to an individual at birth, they are not necessarily unalterable, as cases of sex change I illustrate dramatically” (p. 28 n. 20). What do I mean by “arbitrary”? A native characteristic will be considered arbitrary unless it predicts the development of qualifications to a high degree among children who have been subjected to equal developmental conditions. Race, sex, ethnic origin and family background are considered arbitrary here. I employ the characteristic liberal assumption that under equal developmental conditions, knowledge of these factors would not permit us to reliably predict qualifications of individuals for desirable positions in the society. I am giving liberalism the benefit of the doubt here, since my point is to establish the conundrums of the trilemma under optimistic conditions for a liberal thought experiment.

13 By “essential prerequisites,” I mean the physical and psychological health of the child and his or her knowledge of those social conventions necessary for participation in adult society. Literacy, the routines of citizenship, and other familiar elements of secondary education would count among the essential prerequisites (absence of which could justify coercive interference by the state).

14 Barry, Brian, Political Argument (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), pp. 9899.Google Scholar

15 For details see Bakke v. Regents of University of California, 553 2d. 1152, at 1158, n. 8.

16 See Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'rith, “A Study of Post-Bakke Admissions Policies in Medical, Dental and Law Schools,” Rights, vol. 10, no. 1 (Summer 1979), pp. 11–12.

17 Fishkin, James S., Beyond Subjective Morality (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984).Google Scholar

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