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Equality, outcomes, and opportunity

By Cameron Murray - posted Friday, 28 August 2009

The Federal Government’s Close the Gap campaign is extremely racist but surprisingly popular with the Australian electorate. This brief essay aims to highlight why such a campaign is bad for Australia, and why supporting this campaign is a simple case of misdirected guilt, rather than a genuine compassion for Australians of all races. Pushing for equal outcomes, especially in obscure measurements such a life expectancy, is never a good idea. To cover this point more completely, two further examples of misguided equality are considered.

Rather than starting with the paradigm that all equality is a good thing, and therefore the normative proposition that improving equality is akin to constructing a highway to utopia, one should take a step back and ask why equality is to be expected.

Imagine a campaign for more white blokes in professional basketball teams, or for more black guys in swimming? There appears to be no cries of outrage when women in sport never seem to make the speeds, heights, or distances of the men; or even fury over gay (in the homosexual sense of the word) chaps being far more fashionable than the average straight guy. How does society suddenly decide that equal outcomes are important when it comes to other things? And would society be happy to see equal outcomes in sport if opportunities where unequal: if women could run downhill, if white guys could wear springs on their shoes playing basketball, or black guys wear flippers while swimming?


For a start, only outcomes can be observed, not opportunities, and as a caring society, it is equal opportunity that is important. There appears to be no concerns that women in athletics have the same opportunity as the men to perform amazing feats of physical strength and endurance.

But when only outcomes can be observed, how can equal opportunity be assured? For example, looking at nationwide income data, it is impossible to know how many women chose to work less, chose not to continue their education, or chose to do more housework. There was recent “media outrage“ over a survey showing that women in Australian households do more housework than men. But no sane person would expect the division of household chores to ever come close to some theoretically equal arrangement. It does not make sense.

So how does concern for equal opportunities strangely become misdirected guilt? Simple really. It occurs when the difference between opportunity and outcome is forgotten. Remember, people are all different, and not everyone will choose the opportunities others decide are better for them. There is no reason to feel guilty if outcomes remain unequal, even when opportunity has become equal.

A spotlight on Close the Gap

In keeping with the rhetoric of this essay, a suitable starting point is to ask why life expectancy of a single race should be equal to the average life expectancy of all other races in society combined. Surely if any race is segregated in this way, and their life expectancy used as a measuring stick of equal opportunity, then many divergences would be discovered.

The data exists to make a real comparison of the role of race on life expectancy. Using simple multi-regression, race could be isolated from a number of other factors which have a large impact on life expectancy, such as alcohol and tobacco consumption, hours of exercise per week, occupation, family history of illness, location and so on. This type of analysis has not been done. After considering these other factors, race is unlikely to have any impact on life expectancy.

Advocates of Close the Gap would agree that it is not race in particular that is the cause of shorter life expectancies (because if it is, there is nothing anyone can do about it); it is all those other factors that are more prevalent among Aboriginal people. But that is no justification for race-based intervention, as the key social factors that determine life expectancy exist to varying degrees in people from all races. This campaign is only about improving conditions for Aboriginal people. Closing the gap gets a lot more difficult if you are helping the other races as well.


But replacing the Close the Gap campaign with a less racist Live longer campaign does not appeal to the misdirect guilt of those who wish for equal outcomes to be the direct result of equal opportunities.

If Aboriginal people choose to live in shanty towns in the desert, choose not to seek medical attention, choose to abuse alcohol and smoke like a chimney, than who are we to intervene? And yes, these are choices. People from poor backgrounds, with abusive and alcoholic parents do make their own choices, whatever their race. Many choose not to become like their parents. Many choose to escape from childhood communities.

More on outcomes and opportunities

When it comes to other social issues, misdirected notions of equality can be particularly startling. Those people who oppose markets in human organs probably epitomise misdirected notions of equality. They imagine for example, that a world in which kidneys must be donated, and where 1,000 people (these are arbitrary figures) die each year awaiting a donor organ, is better that a world where kidneys are bought from willing donors and where only 100 people die waiting for a kidney. Critics cry that rich people will have an advantage over poor people for access to kidneys. True. But that is no different from the markets for food, clothing or housing. The point is that donors will be able to accept rewards, thus encouraging donations. And every extra kidney will go to someone, rich or poor. Objectively, when every person, rich or poor, is considered equal, the world where fewer people die waiting for a kidney must be better.

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About the Author

Cameron Murray is an economist with a broad range of interests. Cameron runs a blog site Observations of an economist environmentalist where he aims to challenge conventional wisdom, and make readers think twice.

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