Compensating for Unequal Luck

 Posted by on 21 June 2010 at 7:00 am  Ethics, Luck, Politics
Jun 212010

Back in January, I wrote a blog post entitled No Kindles on Campus: All Must Be Blind. It concerned the news that three colleges seeking to experiment with using the Kindle rather than expensive textbooks were forbidden from doing so by the Justice Department because they’re not fully functional for blind students. In writing that post, I cut the following few paragraphs from it when I decided that I wanted to go in a different direction. However, I liked them so much that I saved them. When I ran across them yesterday, I decided to make a quick blog post out of them. Without further ado…

To assert that supposedly lucky people are obliged to sacrifice for supposedly unlucky people — even just for the sake of equal opportunities — means penalizing people for their virtues, effort, and success. How so? Of course, we cannot possibly equalize people’s luck. That would require making everyone’s life like a video game, such that each person played experienced the same world, faced the same obstacles, and possessed the same capacities and tools. That’s absurd — and impossible. Yet implicitly, that is the egalitarian ideal, as best exemplified by John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance.”

So what does the egalitarian of opportunity actually advocate? He advocates sacrificing better-off people to worse-off people. Consider how opportunities might be equalized. People living in wealthy neighborhoods might be taxed at higher rates to support schools in poorer neighborhoods, so as to give children similar educations regardless of the wealth of their parents. People who earn more might be taxed more (whether in absolute numbers or percentages) to find welfare programs, so that even poor children might not suffer from the poverty of their parents. The most qualified person for some position might be passed over for a promotion, so that a person with a pitiable background might not suffer doubly from that.

To adopt any of those policies is to penalize people because they are better off — meaning for their virtues, effort, and success. It’s not compensation for luck, as that cannot be isolated. It’s inflicting sacrifices on the good because they are the good. Ultimately, just as in Kurt Vonnegut’s story Harrison Bergeron, that’s the only way to make people equal: degrade and burden the more rational, capable, and ambitious people until they cannot do any better than than the irrational, the inept, and the shiftless.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha