Equal Chances for Equal Talent

The first part of Rawls’ Second Principle of Justice says, in Joshua Cohen’s words, “people who are are equally talented and motivated are to have equal chances to attain desirable positions, so far as this is consistent with maintaining equal basic liberties…”

This has always thrown me for a loop.

First, what little I know of economic sociology tells me that access to economic opportunities is deeply network-relative.

Take two college grads of similar intelligence and discipline, Anne and Betty. Anne’s best friend has a brother who just started a small technology company. He figures Anne would be a phenomenal project manager, and it turns out to be true. The company has a huge IPO and Anne ends up a rich executive in what turns out to be a glamorous firm. Betty doesn’t happen to know anyone whose brother runs a promising start-up. Does she have anything approaching an chance equal to Anne’s to get something like Anne’s highly desirable position? Obviously not. But how could she.

Second, desirable positions aren’t just boxes out there waiting to be filled. They are created, sometimes by the people who occupy them. And they may depend on contingencies of technology.

Let’s say it’s 1988. Robert gets into Yale as a legacy, goes on to Harvard Law, also like Dad, gets a clerkship on a district court, and gets a gig at a plush firm whose partners Dad sails with on weekends. Today he’s a partner and a bit of a big deal in Massachusetts Democratic Party politics, having years ago been a summer associate in DC with, and now an informal advisor to, the Governor.

Sudeep gets an academic scholarship to a local state school in Northern California. His immigrant parents want him to go pre-med, but he’s fascinated with computers and studies computer science instead. While in school, he designs some useful software for tracking inventories, and later starts a small business selling this software to stores. His business grows and grows until he sells it for $100 million in 1998. Since then he’s become a successful tech venture capitalist in Silicon Valley and philanthropist, worth half a billion. Politics mostly seems like a nuisance to him, and he stays out of it.

Did Sudeep ever have any realistic chance of becoming a partner at Robert’s firm, or an insider in state politics? No. But he’s also orders of magnitude wealthier than Robert, and his venture capital decisions help determine the path of future technology, which, let us say, will affect standards of living more than the Governor of Massachusetts ever will. Did Robert–an equally talented and motivated guy–have an equal chance at Sudeep’s powerful position? What would that even mean? Sudeep’s position didn’t even exist when Robert was clerking on the Fifth Circuit.

But, hey! There’s a future in which Robert runs successfully for State AG, becomes number two at DOJ, and finally gets appointed a judge on the Federal Court of Appeals. There is no future in which Sudeep has anywhere near this capacity to affect the laws of the land, no matter how much money he might choose to spend on political advocacy. So what would it mean for policy to have equalized access to political power between Robert and Sudeep? Given the technological contingency and social network aspects of opportunity, I don’t even know how to approach the question.

Maybe this is how you approach it, and I do wonder why we don’t see more proposals like the following from those egalitarians who do tend to see the desirable positions as more or less fixed… How about a quota system for firms that limits hiring from high-status schools and mandates a certain number from low-status schools, so that it’s better to be the best kid from the University of North Dakota than the median kid at Princeton? Radical high school-quality affirmative action quotas for college admissions. No Supreme Court justice can have more than one clerk from a top-ten law school. It is illegal ever to hire someone who is a relative, or a friend, or a friend of a friend. Randomized assignments to a vast network of national boarding schools. Combat self-reinforcing prestige by picking an athletic conference at random and then mandating that all Federal Reserve governors for the next ten years be professors at schools from that conference. (So Harvard and MIT econ depopulates as everyone rushes to Creighton and Indiana State. Etc.) Examples of this sort can be multiplied. So would these strategies be “consistent with maintaining equal basic liberties”? Are they necessary for maintaining equal basic liberties, but egalitarians are simply missing the real issue by going on and on about income redistribution?

That there be no systemic, structral discrimination that keep whole classes of talented, motivated people from attaining desirable positions strikes me as obviously desirable, and pretty feasible, too. We’ve made huge strides in just the past several decades. But that’s a point about everybody having a good chance of making the most of their talent and motivation, not an equal chance. Indeed, that’s a long way from the idea that people of similar talent and motivation ought to have something like an equal chance at a given position or office. That seems pretty obviously impossible, and I don’t see the point of it anyway. All I know is that I want a entrepeneurial, innovative, high-growth system in part because that’s the kind that increases the chances of landing a desirable position because new ones are always being invented and that diminishes the relative importance and power of many entrenched and exclusive networks. Elite networks can achieve only limited succeed in opportunity hoarding if new networks, new opportunities, and new hierarchies of prestige and status keep springing up.