How equal should we be? Should personal differences matter? Should we manage opportunity or outcomes?
How we answer those questions can help us understand policies that will work or not.
If we need not be equal on any particular metric, income, happiness, health or whatever, then there is no real discussion. Sadly, that is not how society is currently organized.
For example, there is a great deal of discussion about income and wealth disparities. Can you treat that disparity as indicating anything without also recognizing the disparities that lead to the observed differences? Wealth is a hard one to deal with so let us begin with something easier.
I want to be a professional basketball player. I want to be the equal of Steph Curry. We are about the same height, but he is substantially lighter. Why should the 50 pounds of me that has never played basketball count against me? He is in shape; I am not. No discrimination based on disabilities please. He is less than half as old, but age discrimination is not permitted. He has well developed skills that I might have too if I practiced and had good instruction. I have neither had instruction nor practiced. Perhaps I am a victim.
With that overview I will call the Warriors and explain why I should be on their roster. Might not work, agree? If not, should someone tax away some of Steph’s skills so we are equal?
How would the comparison be very different if I picked Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or Warren Buffett as my foil. They worked longer, harder, smarter and with a better initial set of skills than I. Just like Steph Curry. If I cannot be an NBA basketball player, because the inputs and effort are different why then should I expect to have equal wealth or income with any of the wealthy folks?
I think equality of opportunity is a reasonable standard. Perhaps I should start with a personal inventory of attributes, attitudes and skills and see how they fit with the needs of the world and go from there.
There is inequality in the world and some of it matters. I like that not everyone can be a practicing surgeon or dentist or nuclear engineer. I like the idea of testing pilots. I enjoy the warmth of knowing that food is safe. Why should unsafe food be kept from market. Is that fair?
I think we should have competency testing for politicians and voters alike. If I must take a course and write a test to get a license to be an aroma-therapist, would it not make sense to require politicians to have some provable skills and attributes?
Perhaps an eight month course to get a license. Like for a hairdresser.
Equality is an over-rated attribute. Competence is better, but it leads to unequal outcomes.
Maybe we should just accept those.
Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.