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inequality of opportunity

Machine learning and the measurement of injustice

Daniel Mahler's picture

Machine learning methods are increasingly applied in the development policy arena. Among many recent policy applications, machine learning has been used to predict poverty, soil properties, and conflicts.

In a recent Policy Research Working Paper by Paolo Brunori, Paul Hufe and Daniel Mahler (BHM hereafter), machine learning methods are utilized to measure a popular understanding of distributional injustice – the amount of unequal opportunities individuals face. Equality of opportunity is an influential political ideal since it combines two powerful principles: individual responsibility and equality. In a world with equal opportunities, all individuals have the same chances to attain social positions and valuable outcomes. They are free to choose how to behave and they are held responsible for the consequences of their choices.

Equality of opportunity for what?

Daniel Mahler's picture

Equality of opportunity is a popular policy objective around the world. It is deeply embodied in the American Dream and has resonated with politicians ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Nelson Mandela. It is also connected to the World Bank’s goal of shared prosperity; individuals with low opportunities should have a chance of growing and prospering in life.

Inequality of opportunity: the new motherhood and apple pie?

Adam Wagstaff's picture

On the face of it, questioning the usefulness of “inequality of opportunity” seems about as wrongheaded as questioning the merits of family vacations, Thanksgiving or dessert trolleys. What’s not to like about it? Well, as we argue in a recent World Bank working paper, the idea is not quite as useful as it might at first glance appear, and is in fact rather dangerous. But turned upside down, it might yet be useful.

A simple idea – let’s see some numbers

The idea behind inequality of opportunity is simple yet powerful. Not all inequality is bad. The bad bit of inequality (‘inequality of opportunity’) is the part that emerges because of factors over which we have no control (our 'circumstances'). By contrast inequality that emerges because of our different choices and efforts (holding constant our circumstances) is fine, and to be encouraged.