Conservative Reformers and Equality of Opportunity

Avik Roy argues in the National Review Online that

For many of today’s conservative reformers [e.g., Roy, Reihan Salam, or Ross Douthat], equality of opportunity — especially for the poor — is the highest moral and political priority. As AEI’s Arthur Brooks wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “the answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies.”

Ezra Klein is skeptical. He argues that the actual policies promoted by ‘opportunity’-focused Republican leaders such as Representative Paul Ryan would in practice promote inequality of opportunity.

On the Republican side, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) has taken the lead in arguing that conservatives should focus on opportunity. But his approach largely consists of cuts to the safety net. The policies enshrined in his budget suggest that the poor are held back by the government spending too much money to cover the uninsured and too much money on food stamps and too much money on education and too much money on childhood nutrition and too much money on daycare.

I share Klein’s concerns about the likely consequences of Ryan’s policies. Moreover, I agree with his view that in judging policies, what matters is the policies’ consequences rather than the principles that purportedly justify them.

However such considerations do not require us to believe that Roy’s commitment to equality of opportunity is just a change in messaging rather than moral substance. That would suggest that conservative reformers’ professions of egalitarian commitments are in bad faith. It is not only more charitable but also more likely that Roy simply believes that Ryan’s policies would promote equality of opportunity.

Moral argument is important and I am sure that Avik Roy and I still disagree about many things. Nevertheless, I was happy to read his paean to equality of opportunity. Finding moral common ground allows us to clarify our disagreements on policy. To the degree that we have common goals, we can focus debate on the means to those goals. These debates will be more empirical. We can argue about experimental data and its interpretation. That’s progress.


About Bill Gardner

A health care researcher and a child and quantitative psychologist by training. I am an American living in Canada and am Professor of Paediatrics, Obstetrics & Gynaecology, and Community Health & Epidemiology at Dalhousie University; and Professor of Pediatrics, Psychology, and Psychiatry at The Ohio State University. I also blog at The Incidental Economist ( and you can follow me @Bill_Gardner on Twitter.
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4 Responses to Conservative Reformers and Equality of Opportunity

  1. Paul says:

    Equality of opportunity is relevant primarily when there is a hierarchy of outcomes. There are two main reasons why we might tolerate such a hierarchy: liberty (“it’s what happens when we let the chips fall where they may”), and priority (“the inequalities that constitute the hierarchy create incentives that are useful for even the worst off”).

    This means equality of opportunity is not an ideal in a vacuum, but an ideal that has relevance only in the context of a prior moral ideal. It also means that its relative moral importance must always be assessed with an eye toward the independent moral considerations that justify hierarchies and that therefore make equal opportunity relevant in the first place.

  2. Bill Gardner says:

    Paul, that is clear and enlightening. I’m not sure whether or how it bears on my post.

  3. Paul Kelleher says:

    Sorry, yeah, I was oblique. I was just pointing out that Roy must give us more, since at least the liberty-oriented conservative gives us a fundamental ideal to work with. Since equality of opportunity cannot be an ideal in a vacuum, telling us that he is an opportunity-oriented conservative doesn’t yet tell us which prior moral ideal he wants operative alongside the ideal of equal opportunity. If it’s not liberty, then is it priority? It’d be nice to know.

  4. Bill Gardner says:

    Isn’t it also possible that some people could espouse ‘equality of opportunity’ because they thought it was the correct understanding of ‘fairness’? Fairness feels like something that people value for its own sake, not as something that has to be made sense of in terms of another prior moral ideal. So a person with that view might value equality of opportunity for its own sake. I can also see how you might come to equality of opportunity as a kind of compromise between ideal of fair outcomes and liberty.

    Is this getting at your point, or am I missing it?

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