The estimable Norm Geras, likely the least-insane leftoid you will find, asks:

I just want him or someone else to spell out how you combine inequality as end product with fair opportunity as starting point; how you avoid that the former will be passed on from parent to child so that the next generation can’t enjoy fair opportunity, because some children will get from that prior-generation inequality advantages that other children won’t have. It’s not a deep point, but I’ve never seen anyone attempt to answer it.

You won’t see anyone attempt to answer it, either, because in those terms it’s a semantic null, more or less equivalent to “what shade of pink should the sky be?” or “how many legs should a horse have?”

Different people have different abilities, and as a result will succeed or fail to different degrees. Until and unless we adopt the Forever War solution — all humanity a single clone[1] with identical genetics — this will continue to be the case, and for so long as we continue to entertain the concept of “family” the offspring of the successful will enjoy advantages. Even if we dismantle families and raise all the children in creches with equal treatment, the offspring of successful people will enjoy genetic advantages over those of the less successful; tall people will likely have tall descendants.

When libertarian-oriented people speak of “equality of opportunity” we mean the elimination of artificial means of suppression. No person or group of persons is empowered to deny opportunity to anyone[2]. In that view, everyone is able to succeed according to whatever they started with, and the result will inevitably be inequality of result; and, in that view, equality of result and equality of opportunity are directly opposed to one another. If you have equality of opportunity, you will inherently have inequality of result. If you have equality of result, it is proof positive that you have inequality of opportunity.

The unfair advantage enjoyed by the offspring of successful people is handled in two ways: by the long view, and by exploiting them.

Here in the United States we for a long time had substantial equality of opportunity, at least for those who enjoyed any opportunity at all — no one is denying that the system was substantially less than what it claimed, but it did work for those it worked for. What we discovered was a curious thing, by ancient standards: the children of successful people are remarkably unlikely to be themselves successful, the grandchildren of successful people essentially revert to the mean, and even successful people do not, as a rule, remain successful for their entire lifetime. Forbes magazine maintains an annual list of the world’s richest people, and the amazing thing about it is how few Americans on any given year’s list come as high the next time, and how many drop of altogether, replaced by new ones, every year. It is also remarkable how few children and grandchildren of the very rich appear on the list once their parents pass.

This is a direct contradiction of the notion of a hereditary aristocracy, and confirms what the Founders believed: the children of the aristocracy are unlikely to be any better than those of the hoi polloi, and are frequently worse. Fortunes are temporary, lasting at most a single lifetime, except for a few extraordinary cases. Human genetics are too complex, varied, and randomly-distributed for the concept of “breeding” as applied to animals to work.

That being the case, the children of the rich (and, often enough, the rich themselves) are available to be exploited. In an industrial economy, it is necessary to gather the wherewithal — the capital — in order to build the means of production. It is further noticed that the vast majority of new enterprises do not succeed, because the product of the enterprise is not something people want or need, or because the enterprise itself is badly managed. Much of the wealth devoted to capital is wasted.

The children of the rich, having wealth at their disposal, are ready-made suckers for attempts at capital formation. They are easy to find, for the most part they are easy to bamboozle, and it isn’t necessary to flimflam as many of them to get the necessary as it would be if wealth were more evenly distributed[3]. Most such “investments” fail, leaving them less rich; the ones which succeed simply provide further pools of nascent capital for later con artists to extract.

Inheritors also tend strongly to be driven by fad, and thus serve as “first adopters” of most new technologies — the new product is ridiculously expensive because the production facilities are not yet fully developed, so only the rich can afford it until the managers of the capital assets “ramp up” to economies of scale; the rich provide early returns and feedback to let the managers know which products are wanted and which are not. Henry Ford would never have developed the production line if rich people had not spent two decades impoverishing themselves to validate the concept of the automobile.

When given a lemon, the saying goes, make lemonade. Inequality is inevitable. The question is not how to eliminate it, because you cannot, any more than you can make lions and sheep interchangeable, and the attempt is itself damaging. Market capitalism exploits inequality to the betterment of all society.


[1] “Clone” is properly all the genetically identical individuals. Haldeman’s novel postulates some several billions of them.

[2] This is why we despise levellers. In order to achieve equality of result, it is necessary to deny opportunity to those who would otherwise be successful.

[3] The inevitable riposte to this is central planning. It demonstrably does not work; demonstrations fill the history books, and the reasons why are too much for a short essay.