The other week I wrote about how ‘fair chances’ are not necessarily ‘equal chances’, spurred by writings of the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson. In one of those satisfying coincidences that happen from time-to-time, these ideas helped explain a conundrum that Karen Rowlingson presented at a conference session a matter of days later – showing empirical data on the difference between fair chances and equal chances. I’m now convinced that people don’t believe in absolute equality of opportunity; instead, they hold close the ideal that people have a good enough chance of getting on in life.
What the data show
Karen Rowlingson argued that there is a contradiction between two different accounts of social mobility attitudes (Karen is one of the main researchers of attitudes to inequality in the UK, and one of those people whose work is consistently interesting). On the one hand, Bamfield & Horton (in a study I’ve previously written about) found 69% agreed that ‘There is enough opportunity for virtually everyone to get on in life if they really want to. It comes down to the individual and how much you are motivated’. This seemingly shows that people believe that Britain is a fair country.
Yet at the same time, Rowlingson own analysis (with Michael Orton and Eleanor Taylor ) of the invaluable British Social Attitudes data shows that people believe Britain is unequal (the report is also available here, for a fee):
- 80% agree that ‘children from better off families have many more opportunities than children from less well-off families’
- 68% agree that ‘some people have higher incomes than others because they are born to rich parents and have advantages from the start ‘
- 62% agree ‘there can never be equal opportunities in a society where some people have higher incomes than others’
- And only 27% believe ‘people in Britain today have similar opportunities regardless of their income’
At the Social Policy Association conference, Rowlingson argued that these data contradict one another – and that this might be explained by the lower quality of the survey in Bamfield/Horton (using an online panel).
Yet to my mind, there is no contradiction between these survey results. The public generally believe some people have advantages over others – but ‘there is enough opportunity for virtually everyone to get on in life if they really want to’. In other words, some people have better chances than others, but everyone has a pretty good chance that allows them to succeed if they work hard enough.
Researching fair chances
With a little extension, we can say that public opinion is pretty close to Elizabeth Anderson’s considered view that I described in the previous post:
“What is important is not that everyone has equal opportunities to acquire resources and fulfilling jobs, but that everyone has ‘enough’. The ideal of democratic equality specifies how much this is: enough to secure the conditions of citizens’ freedom and civic status as equal to other citizens.”
To be clear: I don’t want to argue in favour of this point of view. My own opinion is that (i) some people have barriers that are so severe that they don’t have a ‘reasonable’ chance; and (ii) that even for people that do have reasonable chances, the advantages that some people have are sufficiently great to constitute a great unfairness.
Yet if the public do believe that societies like the UK are unequal but fair, then this helps explain a number of questions that vex researchers: why inequality is so widely tolerated, and why their research appears to make so little headway in challenging it. It also explains why Leon Feinstein’s ‘killer chart’ that fell from grace was so influential: there’s lots of evidence on inequalities, but this was evidence of a substantial inequality that appeared to violate the idea of ‘reasonable chances’.
I take two things from this. First, like Daniel Goldberg, I think we need to consider the relationship of inequalities to injustices, a connection that lies just beneath the surface of much research but which only sporadically rises to the surface. And second, public opinion will not be swayed by evidence of the existence of inequalities, but rather will only demand action if these inequalities pass some threshold of unfairness.
None of this is that surprising – it simply reflects what people tell us, in research and in more informal conversations. But at least for me, it’s proven surprisingly easy to forget this in the drive to document the existence of inequalities per se. Elizabeth Anderson’s arguments and the Rowlingson/Orton/Taylor data are a welcome reminder here.