Why equality of opportunity is incompatible with liberalism

Last month, Matt Gillow set out, with the typical zeal of the convert, why he had taken up the cause of republicanism. The monarchy is “thoroughly illegitimate and wrong,” he argued, because it contravenes “liberty, property rights, and equality of opportunity”.

On the narrow question of the monarchy’s compatibility with liberalism, Ben Ramanauskas was quick to offer the counterattack. But the debate provokes a much bigger question, which is whether equality of opportunity is actually compatible with liberalism at all.

That might seem counter-intuitive at first. Equality of opportunity has long provided the liberal right with an easy rejoinder to the charges of the heavy-on-redistribution left: while they chase the unicorn of equality of outcome, we aim for the noble and much more realistic goal of giving everyone an equal chance to make the best of their lives.

But try to list the various factors which might create inequality of opportunity and not only will you find that the monarchy is a very long way down the list, but that the list itself is long indeed. 

For example, two children raised in two different parts of the country can very easily enjoy hugely disparate life chances. So, too, children raised in different home environments, educated in different systems, or even just different schools. The availability of extracurricular activities, the means to join them, and parental support to do so can all have a big impact, as can the diet you’re raised on.

And, not to stray too far into Gattaca territory, there are also numerous means by which our biology can affect our course through life too, often in quite profound ways. Then we have to consider how we set the scope of whom we are considering equality between. Is it just people of the same cohort? Or do we factor in intergenerational issues, such as the greater ease with which our parents could purchase houses?

Once the scale of the problem is comprehended, it is impossible to avoid acknowledging how vast a programme of social engineering would be required to try to address even a substantial portion of it. Such an effort would involve the state trying to impose uniformity on both school and home life, and mediating the resources invested in children across a huge spectrum to control for inequalities of wealth. Food, exercise, and screen time could all be centrally prescribed too. And that’s just sticking to the “nurture” questions.

To state this case, especially on a neoliberal website, is to acknowledge the absurdity of the undertaking. Nobody, least of all Gillow, is calling for such a programme. It would scarcely be less totalitarian than that required to achieve equality of outcome – in fact it might well be more so. 

But that means that equality of opportunity is no less a unicorn than equality of outcome, which in turn suggests that liberals should treat the former as they do the latter: commit to tackling absolute poverty of opportunity, accepting that the tidemark of “absolute” will rise and fall with the fortunes of society, while treating relative poverty of opportunity as the bottomless well of justification for authoritarianism that it is.

Abolishing the monarchy will make no meaningful difference to inequality of opportunity in Britain, any more than we could pay off the national debt by sacrificing chickens to our creditors. But, in light of the above, what if the very pointlessness of republicanism to the neoliberal cause is what makes it so attractive?

Actually engineering equality of opportunity involves significant infringements on those other cherished values of liberty and property rights. Creating a republic, on the other hand, transgresses these principles precisely to the extent to which it advances its stated goal, which is to say not noticeably.

The monarchy, therefore, becomes a sort of burnt offering. By making a theatrical sacrifice of an institution whose transgressions against our supposed values are themselves almost entirely symbolic, we can demonstrate to both the public and our uneasy consciences our emphatic commitment to equality of opportunity, without confronting the vast and ideologically incoherent task of actually doing anything about it.

But if we accept the more limited goal of tackling absolute poverty of opportunity, and recognise that being a liberal involves accepting that free people can only exist in conditions of imperfect equality, then we can set aside the zealot’s obligation to set fire to institutions which deviate even harmlessly from their principles. And when the monarchy’s ethereal sins are weighed against its many practical benefits, I believe that on any pragmatic accounting neoliberalism can be comfortably reconciled to the crown.

Written by Henry Hill

Henry Hill is a communications consultant and Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.