Opportunity hoarding, a concept developed by Richard Reeves, occurs when parents act to give their children advantages in ways that are harmful to other children. In the previous essay I examined income mobility in the context of opportunity hoarding and I now turn to the ethics of competition.
Before getting into this, I will try to pre-empt the obvious strawman attacks on what I will be arguing. I will not be arguing that parents should be generally forbidden from doing the best they can for their children. As a specific example, I will not be arguing in favor of anything like a ban on parents helping their children with homework. I will also not argue that the state should use its compulsive power to force, Harrison Bergeron style, the equality of children. Nor will I argue for the elimination of competition. Now, on to the discussion—one that will afford plenty of opportunity for criticism.
From a moral standpoint, the matter of opportunity hoarding raises two important moral concerns. The first is the moral issue of what opportunities should be a matter of competition. The second is the moral issue of what means are fair and what are foul within the realm of competition. This essay focuses on the first issue.
While some might argue that there should be no competition for opportunities, this position suffers from two obvious defects. The first, and most obvious, is that in a finite world opportunity must always be limited. As such, if there are more people than opportunities, there must be competition—if only in the form of a lottery. This limit need not be anything malign. For example, many people might desire to be trained by a skilled running coach, but because of human limits she cannot coach everyone. As another example, many people might wish to learn at a specific university, but the faculty of the university can only grade so many students—even with the assistance of graders. While there obviously can be other coaches and other schools, there will always be people who prefer one over the other—even when they are equally good. There is, of course, the legitimate moral concern that certain opportunities are being limited for unethical reasons—I do not want to be taken as suggesting that all limits on opportunity are warranted simply because there will presumably always be some unavoidable limits. To illustrate, it is morally fine for a coach to limit her efforts to certain number of runners. It would not be morally fine for a coach to refuse to coach runners because they were, for example, Christian or Moslem.
The second is that there should be competition for opportunities because this is morally right. The easy and obvious argument is that if opportunities are limited (and the limit passes ethical muster), then they should be distributed on a competitive basis. In the usual terminology, the opportunity should be earned. The obvious analogy is to sports: the awards in a 5k should be earned by those who run the fastest. To hand out the awards randomly or based on some standard other than performance would be unfair and thus wrong.
Even if the notion of competition for opportunity is accepted, there arises the moral and practical problem of deciding the basis for deciding the competition. In some cases, this will be obvious. For example, it makes sense that the varsity cross country slots should go to the best runners on a team. In other cases, deciding who wins is more complicated—such as determining who should be admitted to a desirable university. As would be expected, vast volumes can (and have) been written about the ethics of how such competitions should be resolved.
While people do debate about resolving competitions over opportunity justly, there is also the question of what opportunities should be a matter of competition. While there are always finite resources to create opportunities, there is also always a finite number of people seeking these opportunities. In many cases we, as a people, can decide how many people can avail themselves of these opportunities by deciding how we allocate resources. To use an obvious example, Americans could decide that we want all our public schools to be well-funded so that all children can attend a good school. This would obviously not eliminate competition for schools—even if all schools were well funded and properly supported, there would be schools that would still be better because of various factors, such as having truly exceptional faculty. But people would not need to compete to buy houses in wealthy neighborhoods in order to get their children into good schools—they could live anywhere and still get into a good school. This would come at a cost—the well-off parents would need to contribute to the general education of children rather than paying the property taxes that benefit only their school. But if we value equality of opportunity for all children, then this could be a price worth paying.
This essay cannot, obviously, provide details about each opportunity. A reasonable starting point for broad moral choices is, of course, the utilitarian approach: looking at the cost and benefits for all, what would generate the most good and the least evil? This series continues in the next essay.