• Dawson Vosburg

What Should Be Equal?

We have argued multiple times that equality is a central concept for Christian thought about economic life, and we have grounded this in the biblical conception of human beings as God-commissioned co-rulers of the world with him. But this brings up a crucial question: what should be equal? The typical framing is between equality of opportunity, which is imagined to be achievable (and perhaps already exists in places like the United States), and equality of outcomes, which is painted as a ridiculous fantasy that would require so much coercion as to completely destroy human freedom and almost certainly make everyone equal only in poverty. I think there is an alternative way of thinking about this question that requires neither tyrannical coercion nor acceptance of the level of inequality we have right now.

Opportunity or Outcome?

First, I think we need to clarify the stale opportunity vs. outcome debate. This might seem like a clear distinction at first, but it is actually not at all clear what counts as an “opportunity” and what counts as an “outcome.” What would it take for two members of a society to be starting at the same point? One person’s starting point is their family’s “finish line” as it were—in other words, “opportunity” for a child looks a lot more like an “outcome” for their parents. If your parents are massively wealthy—say, if you’re an inheritor of the Walton fortune—you have far, far more opportunity than someone whose parents are Walmart checkers. How would “opportunities” be equalized between a Walton child and the child of Walmart checkers?

Those who argue for equality of opportunity often point out that it’s absurd to try to control how someone’s life ends up given the wild diversity between human beings. Not everyone can end up a star NBA player because not everybody has those abilities. But almost the exact same thing can be said about opportunities. It’s impossible, because of human diversity, to make the exact same options available to everyone. Any problems meaningful “equality of outcome” has with the massive changes it would require, “equality of opportunity” also shares—imagine the size of redistribution necessary to make the opportunities of a Downs syndrome child born to poor parents equal to the children of celebrity musicians. Too often, “equality of opportunity” is assumed to already exist, and this is simply a way to hand-wave any attempts to make society more equal.

What’s Most Important

For the most part, the “opportunity” and “outcome” distinction misses the core of the question of equality for Christians. This core is that human beings have the dignity of God’s creatures, and that we have been tasked with the responsibility of being his images in the world. Not just some of us, but all of us. As Christians, then, our primary social concern ought to be with regards to the ability of human beings to live a flourishing life such that they can exercise their God-given role in the world. Practically, this means that everyone should have, as the late Erik Olin Wright put it, equal access to the material and social means to live a flourishing life.

What economic implications does this kind of equality have? First, this means that we ought to be able to ensure that everyone is able to meet all of their physical needs. This means, at a minimum, doing as much as possible to eradicate poverty. The current system, as a matter of course, produces quite high poverty which cannot be solved without a welfare state, as we have written before.

But it means much more than this. Essential to being a co-ruler with God is participating together in the rule of the world, not simply leaving it up to unaccountable, powerful people. This kind of equality requires that people have a say in how life is lived together, including having a say in the economic world. As it is, some people have massive power over economic life, while others are subject to their unaccountable power. An equal society in the sense I’ve been talking about would give ordinary people a much more equal share in the economic production of society and concomitantly much more say in how economic life is done.

There is, of course, a lot more to be said about how societies can ensure equal access to the means to live a flourishing life, but this is a far better and far more Christian place to begin than the abstractions of “opportunities” or “outcome.” We can know when an economic order meets this standard by asking to what degree the means to live a flourishing life are available to everyone.