Sunday, January 27, 2013

Equality of Opportunity

            One of the long-running, but still unresolved, debates in politics and the social sciences involves the relation between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes.  It would be convenient if equality of opportunity produced, at least approximately, equality of outcomes.  In that case, the only required political step would be to level the playing field.  There would be no need for direct intervention to influence the distribution of outcomes (assuming that equality of outcomes is a desired goal).  However, what, if anything, should be done if outcomes turn out to highly skewed across different groups of people despite equality of opportunity?  That is the difficult question we often choose to avoid.

            I bring up this age-old question because of an article I recently read in Track and Field News.  You have to be a bit a track nerd to read this magazine because it covers the sport in what most people would find to be mind-numbing statistical detail.  The January issue, the one I was reading, ranks the top 41 men in each event for the previous year.  My favorite event happens to be the marathon, so I turned immediately to the marathon rankings.  The results for 2012 were astonishing.  The top 41 male marathon runners consisted of 21 Kenyans and 20 Ethiopians.  And even that amazing statistic overstates the extent of diversity.  Kenya and Ethiopia are both ethnically and culturally diverse societies.  Virtually all the world class marathon runners come from highland tribes that are ethnic minorities in each country.  In short, given a global population of over 7 billion, all the top marathoners come from ethnic minorities within two relatively small African countries.  This is hardly an equality of outcome.

            Unfortunately, the skewed outcome cannot be explained by inequality of opportunity because historically it was the Kenyans and Ethiopians who were denied the opportunity to compete.  In the early years of marathon running, a combination of poverty, a heritage of colonialism, and political instability made it virtually impossible for Kenyans and Ethiopians to compete at the Olympic level.  Ironically, marathon champions during those earlier years were a much more diverse group.  As the barriers to entry came down, and Kenyans and Ethiopians entered the competition, the outcomes became much more skewed leading to the present state of total domination.  Equality of opportunity lead directly led to inequality of outcomes.

            While marathon running may be a unique example, it nonetheless serves as a warning.  It is not safe to assume that equality of opportunity will lead, even approximately, to equality of outcomes.  Similarly, it does not follow that inequality of outcomes is necessarily evidence of inequality of opportunity.  Marathon running has such skewed outcomes precisely because of equality of opportunity. 

1 comment:

Zach Rivkin said...

There is equality in opportunity for marathon running, but this is not a good predictor of outcome (in)equality. Instead we should look at 'comparative opportunity' -- which we can define to be the opportunity analogue to 'comparative advantage' in microeconomics. Through this lens, Kenyans and Ethiopians are more represented in marathon running outcomes because they have significantly more comparative opportunity than Europeans.

Similarly, there are proportionally more non-PhD baristas than PhD baristas because the lesser educated workers have more comparative opportunity (despite near equality in 'absolute opportunity').

I thus posit the following rewrite of the post's original last paragraph:

While marathon running may be a unique example, it yields a strong insight. Equality in comparative opportunity implies equality in outcomes. Similarly, if there is inequality of outcomes despite equality of absolute opportunity, there necessarily must be inequality of absolute opportunity elsewhere. Marathon running has such skewed outcomes precisely because there is inequality of opportunity in non-running activities.