Tuesday, July 21, 2009
There have been a series of articles in the British press recently discussing the report by Alan Milburn on class barriers and inequality in the UK. As a UK citizen and someone moving to the UK soon (from Italy) I think I'm 'entitled' to comment.
One of the most interesting quotes for me came from an article in The Guardian, 'Student fees for those who live at home should be axed'. The article quotes Milburn as saying, "Some universities are taking the context of pupil's educational achievement into account in deciding who gets a university place … a kid in a struggling inner-city comprehensive who manages to get one A and two Bs has probably had to work harder than a kid who gets the same result in a wealthy part of town." This is pure Roemerian theory of 'equality of opportunity'. John Roemer articulated his theory in his book Equality of Opportunity. The basic idea hearkens back John Rawls and other political philosiphers when they articulated the different approaches to 'equality of opportunity'.
Equality of opportunity can be separated into two distinct ideas. First, a non-discrimination principle (i.e. your colour, creed, orientation should not affect the commutative justice that you receive when engaging in contracts with others (employment, exchange, etc). Miller (2003, 76) characterizes this well saying, "Justice is a matter of each individual person being treated equally...a central aspect of justice is that people must be treated in a non-arbitrary way: there must be consistency in how one person is treated over time and there must be consistency between people." Second, a 'leveling the playing field' principle in which the goal is to ensure that each person, as much as they can, faces the same 'playing field' that each other person faces. Roemer's theory fits into this second discussion.
When you discuss 'leveling the playing field' you need theory to deal with several different aspects of individual motivation. The two pertinent ideas here are the endowments and ambitions of the individual. Your endowments are those things you are 'given' when you arrive in this world: genetics, parents, social economic status, etc. The exact scope of endowments often differentiates the extent to which people agree or disagree on a particular policy. For example, if I have 'poor' genetics (for which I am surely not responsible) and I have something like sickle-cell anaemia as a consequence, many people would argue that there is then scope for a central body (government) to assist me in dealing with this disadvantage. But what if I live in a single parent household and my parent is alcoholic? Am I, as a child, responsible for that? To what extent should the state attempt to help me 'rectify' that endowment? It becomes hazy. What we try to establish is an area in which we have clarity about what an individual does and does not have control over.
Having established an area of control, we can introduce the second ingredient for adequate policy on leveling the playing field: 'ambition sensitivity'. Ambition sensitivity means that our policies must be sensitive to individuals, who, in given circumstance, choose to exert effort to obtain an outcome. Take South Africa. Observe children growing up in 'black', two parent homes, where both parents have 8 years of education, and they live in a township. Let's say that all of these things are 'out of the child's control'. We then assess the levels of effort asserted by these children, say while attending school. There should be some variation over how much effort is expended. We could say that it would be just to reward those children who exert more effort, given their circumstances. The 'measured outcome' of their effort could be 'high school marks', where those who exerted the most effort get Cs on average, whereas those who exerted less effort received Ds or did not finish high school. Contrast this with children growing up in a 'white', two parent household, where both parents have university level education. Again, we say these things are out of a child's control. We observe the children's effort levels. We see some exert a lot of effort, obtaining As, others, Bs, Cs, Ds, and some do not complete high school. Should we reward those children who obtained Cs in the first circumstance in a similar manner to those who obtained As in the second circumstance? Should we reward similarly those people lower in the distributions, given their circumstances and the effort they exert?
Roemer (1998, 6) argues as follows, "equalizing opportunity for educational achievement requires redistributing educational resources in such a way that the differential abilities of children to turn resource into education achievements are compensated for, where those abilities are determined by circumstance beyond the control of the individual." So he would say, reward the Cs as the As and equivalently down the distribution. Now, the problem becomes an empirical one, how do you divide people into types? How do you measure effort? How is effort distributed in groups? All of these are important, but the intuition of rewarding those who expend effort given a certain level of endowments seems to be at the core of this policy proposal and why I thought a brief discussion of it worthwhile.
For those interested, similar work can be found in Meritocracy and Economic Inequality (Arrow, Bowles & Durlauf) and Unequal Chances (Bowles, Gintis & Osborne-Groves). There are tons of books on the subject, but those consider some of the relevant empirics and theory.