526332817_d5b031884b_oA thoughtful blog post from Adam Wagstaff pointed me to the World Bank’s Human Opportunity Index(HOI), which embodies to me the classic distinction between equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome. According to the HOI’s report, up to one half of income inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean is attributable to circumstances “endured during childhood” that fell “outside of their control…such as race, gender, birthplace, parent’s educational level and their father’s occupation.” The other half of inequality, apparently, is within our own control and thus not worthy of particular attention.

The HOI brings to mind two interrelated points. First, the distinction between that we seem so comfortable in making between the responsibility of children and adults for their life outcomes (discussed here). The second more fundamental point deals with HOI’s core assumption, which is that unequal outcomes are only unfair/unjust to the extent that they reflect differences in “exogenous circumstances” such as gender, birthplace, or race.

As Wagstaff quotes from the report on page 15, its authors believe that “in an ideal world, inequality in outcomes should reflect only differences in effort and choices individuals make, as well as luck.” I am likely a “softie” along with Wagstaff, but I question the extent to which, in an ideal world, we would allow stark differences in outcome that reflect differences in effort, choices, and especially luck. As Wagstaff points out, if someone makes a decision that turns out poorly, it doesn’t seem ideal to just let them suffer the consequences. If someone gets into a car accident, a caring, fair, equitable society would make some effort to help her heal. If some individuals are less successful in their efforts than others, we can come together and ensure that they maintain some minimum level of comfort.

In my mind, an ideal society would certainly take steps to ensure that people are not treated unfairly based on their class, caste, race, gender, or birthplace. Similarly, in my mind, an ideal society would take steps to ensure that all individuals had access to basic services and care, whether they were children or adults, whether they were successful or unsuccessful in their efforts, and whether they were lucky or unlucky in life.

Photo credit: Oxfam International