What equality of opportunity are you owed?

Society does not owe me a fair opportunity to become the next Brad Pitt. And society does not owe any of us a fair opportunity to become a lawyer, doctor, or academic.

I will never be the next Brad Pitt. Even if I had the talent for acting (I do not), at 23 I would likely be starting too late. In any event, becoming an actor requires a huge degree of luck and perseverance, and I am unwilling to endure the years of working three side-gigs to make ends meet until I am noticed and land my first big show. Being an actor is a luxury job, a “status” job, a lifestyle job, just like being an artist or a supermodel or a politician. We all understand that you need to be a very specific kind of person to even compete to be the next Brad Pitt, and even then it remains a pipe dream. As we all know, “sensible people” do jobs like teaching or accounting or plumbing—jobs that most people can do with sufficient tenacity. So if we acknowledge that individuals are not owed an opportunity to become the next Brad Pitt, why do we think individuals are owed opportunities to become lawyers, or academics, or doctors, or any other high-status career?

Brad Pitt, 25 April 2020 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A traditional argument for equality of opportunity might go as follows. Citizens should not, by circumstances of their birth, be forced into poverty or social degradation. Society should therefore care deeply about improving the opportunities that those at the bottom of the social ladder have to climb it.[1] At a minimum, this means that every industrious citizen should have access to the education and resources to become (for instance) a teacher or an accountant or a plumber.

A broader conception[2] of opportunity might surpass mere material adequacy and argue that individuals should have a fair opportunity to access a life and career that is valuable to them. This argument is an important corrective: if an individual would be much happier as an accountant than as a plumber, then we should not be comfortable with that individual’s being denied access to the required education to tabulate expenses on the basis that they could reach material adequacy by installing sinks. But this broader conception runs quickly against constraints—unless I am willing to take on substantial risk and effort, I will never be the next Brad Pitt, even if that would grant me inordinately more meaning than any other career.

To spell this out explicitly: we do not consistently value equality of opportunity, and with good reason. What we appear to value is equality of opportunity for a life that is good enough. When someone has access to a career that is good enough and then instead chooses a life of precarity and risk to attempt a high-status, well-paid career like Hollywood acting, we note that they consciously made the decision to accept that risk and hardship and adjust our sympathy accordingly.

It is worth noting, then, how far above “good enough” the conditions of those in elite careers are. The life of a senior lawyer will often consist of intellectually stimulating work remunerated in the six figures and is a career that everyone acknowledges as prestigious and desirable (hence the popularity of shows like Suits and How To Get Away With Murder). Academics spend most of their career reading and thinking about interesting problems, again at salaries in the six figures and again with a high social status (who wouldn’t want to be Stellan Skarsgård from Good Will Hunting?). It is not at all surprising that there is intense competition for these roles—as with acting in Hollywood, once you’re “in”, it’s one of the best careers. Further, applicants to these careers would all have been able to access less competitive opportunities that offer stable and relatively interesting work from early in one’s career. Prospective lawyers could easily have become comfortably paid bureaucrats in the public service or the corporate world, prospective academics could easily have become high-school teachers, and prospective doctors could easily have become nurses.

As such, the complaints about poor conditions at the start of one’s career begin to ring slightly hollow. The conditions are so poor precisely because the end-conditions are so good for those who make it through (the starting salary is roughly AU$100,000 for academics[3] and doctors[4]), and the applicants choose to endure those risks and the hardships of the training because the end result is so good. If I were to read the complaint uncharitably, the complains seems to be “it’s unfair that I should have to endure hardship to obtain a job well above the average salary where I do work inordinately more interesting and high-status than I would be able to do anywhere else”.

It’s possible that you think my argument up till now is heartless and ignores people’s suffering on the basis that they opted into it. That is a fair criticism. But it is nonetheless clear that the equivalation between lack of fair opportunity for elite and low-skill occupations is not legitimate. Take this gem:

The fact that many of those [academic casual staff] are underpaid for the work they do only reinforces the extent to which our universities are now dependent on the same kind of exploitative labour practices that blight our economy more broadly, but especially in the hospitality industry.

Colin Long, the 2018 Victorian secretary of the (Australian) National Tertiary Education Union

Casualisation of supermarket or hospitality employment is wholly different to the casualisation of academic (or legal, or medical) work. We are concerned when hospitality or retail workers are placed in insecure employment because there may well not have been alternative options: we as a society may well be denying citizens the opportunity for a life that is good enough. But academics (or lawyers, or doctors) always had a safe and comfortable opportunity available. They simply chose not to exercise it in favour of a riskier but more promising option.

None of this is to say the system is fine as it is: I lament the overpaid executives in universities and law firms and hospitals; I wish that less of our taxpayer money funded bureaucratic bloat in these institutions. But, critically, even if we dislike aspects of the current system, that does not mean society owes anyone a comfortable road to an elite career[5], at least not in the way that we owe all citizens a good high school education or a comfortable road to material sufficiency. So, when the arguments for increasing the ease of obtaining these jobs involves an increase to taxpayer expenditure (e.g. increased funding for universities), we should be rightly sceptical. Society does not owe me a fair opportunity to become the next Brad Pitt. And society does not owe any of us a fair opportunity to become a lawyer, doctor, or academic.

To end, an appropriate Existential Comic:

Source: Existential Comics

This is a substantially edited version of the original piece, which was published under the title “People seem very confused about the merits of equality of opportunity”.

[1] I want to point out that I am only considering arguments here for equality of opportunity, not arguments for ensuring the fundamental dignity of every human life. This is not really intended as a policy post in any event, but as an aside, I’m really comfortable with unemployment insurance, public (i.e. single-payer) free healthcare, state-run disability insurance, and so on. But these are not broadly relevant to equality of opportunity so much as to ensuring the dignity of all human beings, and that’s a separate concern.

[2] Say, Sen’s capabilities approach.

[3] Link provided for the University of Melbourne. See p.41 for salary table and p.58 for the description of “Level B”.

[4] See Part 4, clause 16(h). When I say “starting”, I mean “beginning as a specialist”.

[5] There are obviously instrumental reasons to support offering access to high-status careers for certain individuals. We might, for instance, want to ensure affirmative action for women in a political party to signal that women (as a class) are politically equal to men. Or, alternately, we wish to ensure a minimum number of women on a corporate board to decrease the likelihood that the company would overlook concerns relevant to women (e.g. maternity leave policies). I accept that there are good reasons to believe any of these instrumental reasons. Critically, however, the instrumental concerns can be met with instrumental solutions: we need not necessarily care that Jane is denied the corporate board position if it is given instead to Jenny, since either will mean more female representation on the board. It does not appear that the lack of fair opportunity per se should be what bothers us.

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