Amongst the many concepts of equality, probably the most widely known and accepted concept of equality is ‘equality of opportunity’. Equality of opportunity in the fundamental sense means a type of society in which all the positions available in the society should be open to everyone and the means to occupy that position should also be open to everyone.
This is generally known as formal equality of opportunity and another variant of its is known as substantive equality of opportunity in which special provisions are made to ensure level playing fields amongst the people. We will first discuss the format equality of opportunity before moving to the substantive one.
The fundamental assumption behind the equality of opportunity is that it accepts the existence of hierarchies in the society. It recognizes the fact that there exists special posts in the society which confer certain special benefits on the people occupying those posts. The reason for the existence of hierarchies can be biological, social or political.
To understand it in simple way, let’s take the example of a parliamentary democracy in which PM has special privileges. Proponents of formal equality of opportunity in absolute sense would say that anyone should be eligible to contest for the post of PM who is a member of that political society or citizens. But does it happen in the reality? One needs to fulfill requirements related to minimum age, not being convicted for certain types of criminal offences etc. even though it’s open to everyone theoretically.
If we are imposing a criterion of minimum age, aren’t we violating the concept of non-discrimination on the basis of biological factors? One way to resolve this conflict is to argue that since everyone would theoretically cross the minimum age threshold at some point of time, it’s not really a form of discrimination.
Equality of opportunity is often contrasted against traditional societies in which public posts were not open to everyone and the ones who were born in specific families had distinct advantages. When the son of military general was chosen to succeed his father, it was a case of eligibility of certain posts being decided on birth than merit. It’s tempting to ask here if having a democratic society is prerequisite to enforce formal equality of opportunity.
I had read a Twitter thread written by a propaganda handle of Chinese Communist Party arguing that China practices its own nature of democracy based on equality of opportunity. His argument was that every Chinese citizen to free to join Chinese Communist Party, rise through the hierarchy and occupy the top position. So, even in a totalitarian political system, if the position of dictator is theoretically open to everyone without any restrictions on birth, gender or race, it will still conform to the ideals of equality of opportunity.
Over the time, it was realized that formal equality of opportunity was not enough. It was not enough because even if the available posts are open to everyone, everyone is not equipped to compete on equal terms owing to their different socioeconomic status. For example, if there are two students A and B who have equal aptitude in Maths, Physics and Chemistry while A is born in a family of professor while B is born in a family of peasant, does both of them have equal opportunity to qualify for IITs? IITs just require you to clear JEE Mains and Advanced. Proponents of substantive equality of opportunity will tell that A has advantage over B owing to his socioeconomic status and special measures are needed to ensure that A and B have equal opportunity.
The role of state in enforcing formal equality of opportunity was limited, but the state has to take additional steps to ensure substantive equality of opportunity. There is also another challenge of differences in not only individuals but amongst the groups.
In India, it was reasoned that certain castes suffer from social and economic backwardness and they can compete with other castes on equal terms only when they’re given special privileges. Hence, reservation was given to them to achieve substantive equality of opportunity. In US, affirmative action was implemented to have quota for some racial groups such as Blacks and Hispanics.
(This article was published on the author’s blog and has been reproduced here in full.)