The Friedmans on Equality of Outcome
The ethical issues [in equality of outcome] involved are subtle and complex. They are not to be resolved by such simplistic formulas as “fair shares for all.” Indeed, if we took that seriously, youngsters with less musical skill should be given the greatest amount of musical training in order to compensate for their inherited disadvantage, and those with greater musical aptitude should be prevented from having access to good musical training; and similarly with all other categories of inherited personal qualities. That might be “fair” to the youngsters lacking in talent, but would it be “fair” to the talented, let alone to those who had to work to pay for training the youngsters lacking talent, or to the persons deprived of the benefits that might have come from the cultivation of the talents of the gifted?
This is from Milton and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose, p. 136.
When I read that, I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s “Harrison Bergeron,” his short story that is a reductio ad absurdum of equality of outcome.
Sep 2 2021 at 2:47am
The response to this is: Moneyball.
It’s entirely possible that there are difference in human aptitudes. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s likely, even. But we know two things from history: (1) Even professionals who are given money specifically for the job of working out who is good at an absurdly limited spectrum of human activities (throwing a ball, hitting a ball, running) just aren’t very good at it. (2) We know for a fact that there has always been, and still is, lots of discrimination because of factors that have nothing to do with aptitude, like race, gender, attractiveness, height, agreeableness, political affiliation, etc., etc.
So given those two facts, even though there probably is some variation in human aptitudes, I have very little trust in any existing institution to accurately identify it. Ontologically, if you want to claim the variation is there, I’ll stipulate. But epistemologically, I think it’s irrelevant, because we don’t know who’s the best.
(Incidentally, the Friedman vision sounds like a pretty gross Gattacca/Brave New World style vision of people’s futures being apparently determined by their genetics. No music training for the epsilon semi-morons!)
Funnily enough, the solution is still freedom: give everyone the opportunity to do whatever they want. I agree with that. And most of those opportunities should be provided through private allocation. But for things like school, or use of public spaces, or public broadcasting channels, there should be outreach and more given to he that does not have, because that helps break down entrenched patterns and create new possibilities.
(I’m just in the middle of translating a book about “digital transformation,” which is all about this stuff. In the private sector the need to pick apart (or even cut through) institutional knots is well-recognized.)
Sep 2 2021 at 9:15pm
It is funny you cite to Moneyball given that the story was a GM discovering a flaw and getting better because of competition. Isn’t that kind of the point — competition breeds innovation which breeds better outcomes.
I don’t think Friedman (or Becker) would make the claim that there is no discrimination; simply that the market will generally correct towards less discrimination.
Sep 2 2021 at 10:24pm
That gross world you’re describing is, I believe, called ‘reality.’ Intelligence is more genetic than environmental. Musical talent is about 50% genetic. And normatively, I don’t think Friedman is envisioning some dystopia; I think he’s just envisioning something like, well, our real world, where more effort is invested in helping future Mozarts and Einsteins achieve their potential than trying, implausibly, to bring the rest of us up to their level, which is as it should be, and is very much to all our benefit. I would hate to live in a world where we’d somehow managed to take the same amount of musical talent we have and make it more evenly distributed.
Sep 2 2021 at 10:24pm
Meant to be inreply to Phil H, sorry.
Sep 3 2021 at 2:07am
I know what you mean, but my question is, when you say, “getting better,” what kind of “better” is that? It’s a very contingent, historically and situationally determined kind of “better.” If you remember the Moneyball story, one of the arguments they had early on was that the new system would pick up boring players that no one wanted to watch. Because baseball talent isn’t actually the valuable thing – it’s the ability to command ticket sales, and at any given point in history, that may or may not correlate exactly with sporting ability.
I believe that markets are discovery systems that discover exactly one thing: what sells best in this market today (and to be clear, I think that is very much worth knowing; markets are great). My problem with Friedman’s argument is that he thinks markets discover other things, things like talent, quality, value, or worth. And he then wants to use these concepts to help him decide things like who deserves more or less musical training. He wants to use markets to make judgments about people. That’s what I don’t think is OK by a long stretch.
Sep 4 2021 at 12:11pm
This, I would argue, is a feature, not a bug, of the system. I would abstract one level further from the ability to sell tickets – the valuable thing, I think, is the ability to entertain fans of baseball. That is how you sell tickets. If you want to sell tickets, you have to produce something people will buy tickets to see, after all. And you’re right that baseball skills don’t perfectly correlate with entertaining fans and thus selling tickets. There’s certainly a connection between them, but they aren’t identical. There are other factors that matter as well – showmanship, and sportsmanship, for example.
But that’s all for the good, as far as I can tell. Imagine if it suddenly turned out Vulcans from Star Trek were real, and a group of them came to Earth to play baseball. Vulcans are smarter than humans, can think faster, are physically stronger, have greater endurance, better coordination, etc. Let’s say that in terms of skill at baseball, the Vulcan team trounces human teams ten times out of ten. But, well, they behave like Vulcans. They don’t seem to have any fun playing the game. A player never registers any joy at hitting a home run that wins the game for their team. They seem indifferent to their fans. They don’t cheer each other on or encourage each other. They just play the game stoically and stone faced.
Let’s just say that this team garners very few fans and ultimately goes bankrupt. A person could say that this means the market failed here because clearly it failed to select for the greatest baseball skill. To which I would respond, so what? It’s not as if the Objectively Correct Goal is to Maximize Sporting Ability. The goal is to supply the demands of consumers. To some extent, probably a large extent, that involves players with great ability, but to the extent it also involves other factors fans care about too, that’s also good. That’s the sort of thing Milton Friedman had in mind when he said “Indeed, a major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it gives people what they want, instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want.”
Sep 2 2021 at 10:14pm
I think Milton Friedman recognized that in a free market discrimination costs money. If you don’t hire the person best suited for the job because of race, gender, etc, then productivity will be reduced. Moreover, your competitor may hire the better suited worker and now take away your marketshare. There is no free lunch!
Sep 4 2021 at 9:10am
It’s been a good minute since I’ve seen Gattaca, so I might be misremembering. But if I recall correctly, Gattaca depicted a society where central authorities determined what opportunities would and would not be made available to people based on what they considered to be “relevant information,” in this case genetics. That is, Gattaca depicted at least a labor market that was a planned economy. If anything, I took Gattaca to be a sort of reductio of the planned economy idea – it showed the rule of “experts” trying to “rationally” allocate opportunities according to the “relevant information.” Nothing in Friedman’s writings suggests he’d approve of a society where someone wouldn’t be allowed to pursue the career path of their choice, regardless of their background. He was a strong advocate of people being, well…free to choose!
I think part of the context in which Friedman’s discussion is taking place that’s missing from your assessment is revealed when you point out (correctly) that there are all kinds of factors besides talent which impact long term outcomes like attractiveness etc. But in 1980, when the book was initially published, basically all political philosophy discussion was occurring in the shadow of John Rawls. (In his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, published a few years earlier, Robert Nozick had commented that “Political philosophers now must either work within Rawls’ theory or explain why not.”) And one of the key claims of Rawls’ theory was that even if you assume away all the other factors you mention, if the world was restarted from scratch from a place where there was no benefit to attractiveness or agreeableness or race and all the rest, in that world, people who were naturally talented and hard working and smart would get better results in life than people who were unskilled and lazy and unintelligent, and this was unjust. That was the zeitgeist Friedman was pushing back against – the idea that getting better results in life as a result of being smart and hard working is in and of itself an injustice that requires redress.
I must admit, I’m also unsure about how you square what you’re saying today with something you said the other day. Here, you seem very skeptical of the ability to figure out who is “good at an absurdly limited spectrum of human activities” and that even for so limited a task we “just aren’t very good at it” to the point that you consider the very idea of differences in skill and talent to be “epistemologically…irrelevant” and as a result you “have very little trust in any existing institution to accurately identify” aptitude. But just the other day, on the question of market outcomes more generally, you suggested that the correct approach to get desired outcomes from the market is that we simply need to “decide what markets there are, and set up markets to deliver the kinds of distribution that we want.”
I’m not sure how on the one hand you can be so skeptical of the ability of institutions to identify things as simple as “aptitude in sports” that you consider the very existence of such differences in aptitude to be epistemologically irrelevant, but on the other had think it’s plausible to decide in advance what we think market outcomes are supposed to look like, and just structure markets in a way that will deliver those pre-determined outcomes and distributions. To me that sounds a bit like saying “We’ll never achieve heavier than air flight, the technology is too complex, but we can create a warp drive for faster than light travel.” If you think structuring institutions to identify aptitude at baseball is a task beyond our powers, structuring entire markets to deliver pre-determined distributions and outcomes across an entire civilization should seem unthinkably impossible.
Sep 14 2021 at 12:03am
Sorry, it’s taken me ages to remember to look back at this post. This was a great reply, thank you.
In particular: “skeptical of the ability of institutions to identify things as simple as “aptitude in sports”” vs. “plausible to decide in advance what we think market outcomes are supposed to look like” – this is a great point, and I’m going to have to think pretty hard about it before attempting any kind of an answer.
Sep 2 2021 at 10:51am
Sep 2 2021 at 2:23pm
In Scandinavia, we have The Law of the Jante. The law was described in 1933, but generally recognized to have been in effect for centuries.
Sep 2 2021 at 10:05pm
Genetics is vastly more complicated than what people understand. It doesn’t just matter that you have a particular gene. It also matters how that gene is expressed. And that can depend on what other genes you have, as well as what experiences or exposures you may have had. I think Hayek said something about how little people understand about what they think they can design…
Sep 2 2021 at 10:12pm
We can also look at equality of outcome in reverse. How do we know how many engineers, doctors, librarians, police officers we need? If we believe that all people are equal regardless of aptitude and that all jobs should pay the same to prevent income inequality, then how would we fill jobs? Would we really have enough doctors if you can study half as much and make the same as an accountant? Why become a garbage man when you can earn the same working as a sales clerk?
Sep 3 2021 at 12:53am
Here’s another quote from the book which I think is insanely important and relevant to the topic of “equal outcomes”:
Life is not fair. It is tempting to believe that government can rectify what nature has spawned. But it is also important to recognize how much we benefit from the very unfairness we deplore. p. 137
When you go to a doctor, do you go to the best doctor you can get, or the doctor whose life story appealed most to admissions committees? This is not a hypothetical nitpick. Patrick Chavis was used as an example of successful “affirmative action” – until his medical license was suspended after one of his patients suspiciously died. Later it was totally revoked when his “treatment” of other patients was investigated. Then he conveniently became an isolated example that doesn’t disprove affirmative action.
Would you be offended to have your life saved by someone who easily became an excellent surgeon because he was born to a rich family and had the best education money could buy?
Maybe things could have been different with Chavis had he been born in different circumstances. “There, but for the grace of God go I.” Even if you’re secular it applies in a secular sense of luck, and sadly there is no doubt that many of us are unlucky when it comes to our circumstances. But that does not mean we should abolish or penalize the grace of God in the name of equality!
To paraphrase another point from Thomas Sowell, a graduate of a selective high school and selective college might go on to do great things, like create a polio vaccine (Jonas Salk). Maybe he got admitted to college or even high school over someone else who was less academically qualified but had to overcome more handicaps to get to where they were. But the key question is: Is that less qualified student equally likely to create a polio vaccine? To return to the Chavis example, what incentives would there be to become better doctors – to become more productive – if skin color (affirmative action) or life stories are accepted substitutes for productivity? If someone’s “background” didn’t prepare them to be a doctor or lawyer (assuming it is the background’s fault), then why should that misfortune be multiplied as the misfortunes of his patients or clients?
I think many people don’t understand this wise observation from the Friedmans. I think many people don’t realize that lowering standards does not have a good track record; Affirmative Action Around the World is just one source demonstrating the perverse effects of lowering standards, and those effects strongly suggest that Chavis is not an isolated example.
If we want to share our good fortune, share the sources of it – human capital, the ability to produce wealth. School choice helps do that. Productivity has helped the poor more than redistribution. But here’s something tragic. The government is failing in something as fundamental as education despite spending mountains of money, and yet people still think government schools and more money are going to improve the education system. For me that’s definitive proof the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Sep 3 2021 at 6:52pm
Sorry for messing up the spacing 🙁
Sep 5 2021 at 10:26am
Great quote and write up. As a young guy that concept was hard for me to wrap my head around in that (large) government’s attempts to overcome the innate unfairness of life through regulation (limiting vs expanding), redistribution and money injection inevitably compounds those same issues over time. Creating an arena with the most opportunities possible is always the most “fair” (in an unfair world) path.
Sep 6 2021 at 12:51pm
The fundamental mistake is to assume that productivity can be easily measured in a non-biased way. I like to think of myself as a good coder, but it’s manifestly obvious that in my boss’ eyes over the decades, the real skill was being someone who conformed to my bosses’ image of what a valued programmer should be.
Of course I felt it was all my productivity when I was younger, but when I noticed I was being picked over my non-male, non-white, non-native english speaking colleagues who clearly had more talent and more knowledge than I did, it became hard to ignore.
So, I’d say the first problem is pretending that skin colour or life stories don’t affect our perception of productivity.
And of course, your illustration is a nice example of the biases our brains our prone to (obligatory XKCD cartoon) when looking at anything out of the ordinary.
Sep 7 2021 at 3:24am
Your bosses may or may not be having a hard time measuring workers’ productivity. Will third parties (in government or elsewhere) be able to do it better? They would have no personal stake in or personal knowledge in the bosses’ situation.
Your boss might have been discriminating, but with all due respect it might be that your “clearly” more talented co-workers were not so talented after all and that came out during the interview process. I’m going to assume the boss is bigoted for the sake of argument since you might have information I’m unaware of that strongly suggests discrimination.
Of course there are racists and sexists. But it is not “our” but “their” perception that is defective. That is, it’s not necessarily the case that discrimination will be common or even effective; one reason why is because discrimination isn’t free. As for the xkcd comic, it probably would never occur to its illustrator that it is they who are exercising prejudgment – prejudice – rather than the guy reacting to the girl.
How? Assuming bad intentions, that the reaction of the guy to the girl must be wrong and can only happen because of sexism (“Women can’t do math as well as men”) rather than because of personal experience (“Nothing inherently stops girls from doing math as well as boys, but girls don’t tend to do as well”). From what little I’ve looked into when it comes to math score differences (e.g., here) it seems there really are differences in performance. Sadly, denouncing and morally one-upping other people not only feels good, but easily goes wrong because of how fallible all of us are.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I might seem very… unwilling to adopt an “it’s because of discrimination” answer even when that is the supposedly “obvious” explanation such as with your boss. Of course I’m unwilling. How could I be otherwise when people have cried wolf on discrimination issues time and time again? Even apparently obvious cases of discrimination have fallen apart like a house of cards. Maybe your case is a big misunderstanding just like the Rodney King case.
Sep 7 2021 at 11:48pm
Before I start my screed, my claim is there is, of course, outright bigotry, but that a substantial amount of discrimination also occurs in any setting where there is a minority without specific intent. And it is the latter that I’m discussing in this comment. Assume everyone I’m talking about has no animus towards any particular group. And as such, they assume they don’t have to worry about being discriminatory.
Higher level brains are designed to find patterns in almost anything, and a natural consequence of this function is discrimination. Our brain puts things in groups and then tries to determine rules for those groups. This applies to just about any brain from mammal on up. In almost all cases, it helps keep us alive. (Think about how we discriminate about what we choose to eat.)
*Not* discriminating takes type 2 thinking, and our brains are designed to minimize type 2 thinking. There’s a reason that almost all discrimination takes place based on simple-to-observe characteristics. Creating groups based on anything else takes too much mental effort and is avoided by our brains.
The commenter of the XKCD cartoon is obviously meant to be a creep, but I’ll claim he’s mostly just following instinct. He sees a male mathematician – and doesn’t see a group because in mathematics males aren’t a group any more than 4-legged cows. So he does what we’re wired to do and sees an individual, who is bad at math. However, because women mathematicians are rare, they do form a group “women” and an observation about the group is assumed to apply to the whole group. Same as if one hardly ever sees elephants and then sees an elephant perform an action – one naturally assumes this is a characteristic of elephants. The XKCD cartoon is an illustration of how our brains naturally work unless we spend significant effort to counter-act it.
So, I don’t hold the usual animus against people who discriminate if they’re not obvious bigots. We’re simply designed that way. The boss I described never though “Women can’t be tech leads”. He simply followed what his brain and instincts told him were the correct way of determining a tech lead without giving it all that much thought.
However, because human brain design has all sorts of flaws, humanity has always created rules to try and compensate and address the effects of those flaws. And as technology and society changes, different flaws become more or less important.
As we grow multicultural, it becomes more important to to address the flaw ( or mental shortcut) that causes discrimination. And that can be addressed in a variety of ways – education, culture and probably most importantly – simply exposure (which breaks the brain out of seeing only the group). And that takes society effort.
So, I agree, it costs to discriminate, but it also costs a lot *not* to discriminate and thus without consciously making the effort, we will discriminate for a long, long time.
Sep 10 2021 at 1:48am
Racial bigotry (which you call “discrimination”) as we both agree has a cost. But racial discrimination is not the same thing as statistical discrimination (“simple-to-observe characteristics” as proxies for information, which you also call that “discrimination”).
You seem to be pointing out that it’s easy to go wrong and overgeneralize. My point is that the people who say that never seem to apply it to themselves, when they’re talking about other people’s beliefs which they call “instinct” (which seems to imply a lack of thought).
The man might not be wrong about women tending to perform worse in math! He didn’t necessarily reach his beliefs without “giving it all that much thought.” Personal experience or other data (such as the article I cited earlier) might be the source of the beliefs. But we sidestep those considerations when we assume that it’s actually because of an unconscious and thus fairly thoughtless process.
Same thing with your boss. How do you know it’s because he’s not giving much thought about what he’s doing, rather than, say, because of info he has on the female candidates (e.g., poor interview performance) that you don’t have? No offense intended here, but I recommend reading my point about prejudgment – prejudice – again.
The real reason why statistical discrimination occurs is because information is not free. “Judging each person as an individual” as we both know is very costly, so people economize on information. For example, banks use credit reports because judging borrowers individually is too costly. Changing human brain design doesn’t do a thing about the underlying problem of information in banking or anywhere else. I know you’re not advocating anything like altering our brains. I mentioned this since it proves my point about the cause of statistical discrimination and because it helps us get a sense of how ignorant we are (if information is costly to acquire, then we might not have much of it ourselves).
In fact statistical discrimination has costs too, which is why it doesn’t happen all the time. There used to be “No Irish Need Apply” signs long ago. But they started going away long before anti-discrimination laws. Why? The benefits of individual sorting began to exceed the costs of doing so when the Irish started changing their behavior.
Since this post is a mouthful at this point, I’ll just ask you to elaborate on what you mean by your other suggestions, particularly “exposure.” If you mean in the sense of forced exposure/integration such as busing (from the 1970s) I totally disagree with you. It’s true that, as Eric Hoffer said, minds copulate wherever they meet. That is, minds get influenced by other minds, especially if the interaction is voluntary. But it doesn’t follow that forcing minds to have “intercourse” will have a similar influence, much less a good influence (because of backlash against the force).
Sep 14 2021 at 9:26am
Sadly, work obligations until Sept 20th prevent me from continuing at any length 🙁 I’ll have a go at actual statistical discrimination in some other topic where this comes up…
I’ll say that that a lot of “statistical discrimination” is often the result of “girls can’t do math” miscalculation that our brain is prone to. The other element I see is the “I’m hiring the median worker, but my impressions are based on the 4 SD above the mean worker”.
I guess my main point is our prejudices are self-reinforcing. We remember things that confirm our prejudices and discard data that challenges them. That is how our brains work, and for most of life, that’s optimal.
But when these brain inefficiencies cause massive welfare reduction, I will advocate for various measures to push back against the harm caused by our cognitive biases. But then I value the improvements to people’s economic lives (especially those below the mean) over maximizing freedom (which is why I lie on the left of the political spectrum)
Sep 17 2021 at 1:13am
Good luck with your work. I’m not sure whether we’ll continue this discussion since the disappearance of the reply button is making our responses more awkward to read. But please allow me to say this.
As I’ve already said, you’re right that confirmation bias exists. It makes it harder to see things correctly. But that’s easily even more true for third parties who have no personal stake and no personal knowledge, and pay no price for being wrong. The feedback of costs is weaker for third parties; since the costs are paid by other people, they’re out of sight and out of mind. How can third parties correct their beliefs more effectively than first parties, when they get less feedback from mistakes – which is also less decisive feedback?
You obviously value government intervention much more than I do. Out of curiosity, might I inquire as to why?
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