Is it your fault you’re not president? Individuals vs. populations, conservatives vs. liberals, and how we define equality of opportunity

by Alan Cohen

The great US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” I love this quote, but I have another to match it: “The central conservative truth is that, by holding individuals responsible for their successes and failures, we can make a more successful society. The central liberal truth is that population processes affect the probabilities of individual success or failure, and society can affect these processes and improve individual success.”

These philosophical differences are clearest with a concrete example of the job that is sometimes perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be the pinnacle of individual success, president of the US. In US history, many presidents have risen from modest backgrounds, including Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton. This clearly demonstrates the conservative truth: in a free society (whatever that may mean precisely) competent individuals can become anything they want, and it is therefore fair to put responsibility for success or failure on individuals, regardless of their class or background. But it also demonstrates the liberal truth. There are a disproportionate number of presidents who have come from privileged backgrounds: Jefferson, FDR, Kennedy, and the Bushes, for example. So the probability (but not the possibility) of becoming president does depend on your class background. Furthermore, not everyone can be president. If we are defining success (rather extremely) as becoming president, we can’t very well hold everyone at fault for not becoming president if there are only a few people who can become president.

(A caveat before we proceed. Many readers may have noticed that I am using a very narrow definition of success here: even expanding beyond the presidency, I am talking about financial and career success. This is not because I believe this is the best definition, but because it is the pertinent definition for economic discussion of societal productivity and redistribution of wealth. In fact, I think we should define success as being happy, honest, surrounded by loving family and friends, and fulfilled in life. This may depend to some extent on career and financial success, but Americans have an awful tendency to confound the two.)

This example of the president demonstrates a core philosophical difference between left and right. The right views individuals as responsible for their own actions. Genes or a poor upbringing are no excuse for crime or a failure to succeed financially. There are plenty of individual success stories of people rising from poverty, so each individual could succeed if they were sufficiently talented and motivated. This demonstrates that there is equality of opportunity. More than that, when society provides incentives for people to succeed, more of them will try and more of them will. Too much welfare decreases the incentives for people to succeed (why not just sit back and enjoy your welfare check after all?) and is an unfair resdistribution of wealth from those who earned it to those who have not.

The left, in contrast, emphasizes ways that “the system” affects the outcomes of individuals – this is what I call a population perspective, as opposed to the right’s individual persepctive. In a population perspective, probabilities matter. Yes, some people make it out of the ghettos to become rich. But not many. It is thus not fair to claim there is equality of opportunity based on the exceptional cases when the probabilities are vastly different. We know that schools in poor neighborhoods are underfunded and have less competent teachers, and that this affects the chance of success later on. There are specific things that affect the probability of success, and that society can change, though often at a financial cost via taxes on the better-off. From the left’s perspective, this is justified because the wealth of the rich cannot be considered “earned” without equality of opportunity (defined probabilistically).

In addition, the left would argue that the success of the rich depends on many societal structures that facilitate success, as Obama argued recently, to great controversy. Infrastucture helps communications and moves goods to markets. Public education provides an educated workforce. Diplomatic, military, and government structures provide stability. Just try building a Fortune 500 company in a place without a functioning government, like Somalia or Afghanistan… At the same time, societal structures still prevent full equality of opportunity. There are many people who come from modest backgrounds and are honest, bright, and hardworking, but who fail to have enough  money to afford the basics, either due to bad luck, a single past mistake, or societal biases.

Both the perspectives of the left and right have more than a grain of truth to them, and both of them miss the grains of truth in the other’s. In particular, the conservatives are right that giving individuals incentives to work hard results in a more productive, rich, and stable society. Liberals are right that probability matters in defining equality of opportunity, and that society is structured so that not everyone can succeed even if they all work hard.

One way to think of this – a bit simplistic, but right in principle – is that there is a trade-off between overall wealth in a society and how that wealth is distributed:

A more free-market approach (blue) increases the average wealth or income, but also increases the numbers of people at the extremes, including the very poor. As limits are imposed on the free market and social programs are installed, average income may go down, but there are also fewer people at the very bottom. Societies must choose where they wish to be on this spectrum.

There are a couple caveats to this graph. First, as I have argued before, the value of a dollar depends on how rich you are – it is worth more to a poor person than a rich person. This means that the graph above, measured in dollars rather than value, underestimates the cost to society of having more poor people. Second, most developed countries have a narrower gap between rich and poor than developing countries, suggesting that over long timescales the trade-off does not apply, and raising the possibility that wealth redistribution may even aid economic development long-term (though the causal arrow might also go the other way).

While I often find myself somewhat on the left of the political spectrum, I appreciate the principle of giving people incentives to work hard. In Quebec where I live, the roads are falling apart. There are many reasons for this, but one of the big ones is that the construction labor unions are so strong here that no one can get fired and that incompetent people must be hired if the union demands it. Salaries are high, so construction costs a lot. Less roads can be repaired, and when they are they are not repaired well. Just over the border in Vermont or Ontario, it’s another world, with nice clean roads. I’m not happy that my tax dollars go to pay inflated salaries of unmotivated or incompetent workers who don’t get the job done, and I don’t mind if some of them lose their jobs in order to have a system that works better.

Where I disagree with the right is in imposing a moral judgement on those who have succeeded less in society. This might be fair if we had true equality of opportunity (in the probabilistic sense), and if we had enough good jobs that anyone who worked hard could  have a comfortable, stable life. But the left is right that society is not structured that way. We can’t all be president, or CEOs, or doctors, and many competent people who work hard will not be. Many of us grow up in environments that make it very hard to succeed. And these things are not about to change any time soon.

And if we don’t impose a moral judgement on those less well off, then we have a moral imperative to help them. Those who are rich may have partially earned it, but they also partially got lucky and partially got help from society. So their income should be partially kept and partially redistributed to help those who were less lucky and less helped maintain some minimum standard of living.

Let me note as well that this left-right difference illustrates well one of my favorite points about statistics: that we like to dichotomize things and see them in black and white when the reality is a bunch of probabilities of of being different shades of grey. Conservatives are wrong that one example of a poor person succeeding demonstrates equality of opportunity: it is the probabilities that are important. This is not to say that liberals are better at statistics, but the population perspective is critically important for a good understanding of the world, even if many liberals may not realize that is what underpins their beliefs.

What do you think? Does this individual versus population distinction capture well the differences between left and right? Where should the balance be?