Here is Rawls' big picture (57):
||Principle of efficiency
|Equality as careers open to talents
||System of Natural Liberty
|Equality as equality of fair opportunity
What is equality of fair opportunity (EFO)? It's a state of affairs in which "positions are not only open in a formal sense, but all have a fair chance to attain them. ... those with similar abilities and skills should have similar life chances; ... those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system." (63)
Now "nature," "nurture," and "effort" cooperate in forming a person and his life's accomplishments. What then can the statement that "in all sectors of society there should be roughly equal prospects of culture and achievement for everyone similarly motivated and endowed" mean? It can surely mean one of three things: either (1) nurture should be the same; or (2) luck in life should be the same; or (3) the law should treat everyone equally.
As for (1), one can come up with all sorts of nightmare scenarios such as a world in which the family, local and regional cultures, nations, and even geographical differences are erased. Our author does not disappoint; for example, he is not fully happy even with liberal equality, because "the principle of fair opportunity can be only imperfectly carried out, at least as long as some form of the family exists" (64); and again "even when fair opportunity (as it has been defined) is satisfied, the family will lead to unequal chances between individuals. Is the family to be abolished then? Taken by itself and given a certain primacy, the idea of equal opportunity inclines in this direction." (448) That Rawls is even toying with such ideas indicates that he is either a madman or a lightweight.
What else? "Greater resources might be spent on the education of the less rather than the more intelligent" (86); and again "resources for education are not to be allotted solely or necessarily mainly according to their return as estimated in productive trained abilities, but also according to their worth in enriching the personal and social life of citizens, including here the less favored." (92) Rawls qualifies this by pointing out that "it is not in general to the advantage of the less fortunate to propose policies which reduce the talents of others" (92). This suggests that he'd like to level people up: promote equality by boosting the worse-off. Unfortunately, this is almost never possible, and in practice he will end up doing something much easier and leveling down. For example, schooling will have to be nationalized, private and home schools outlawed, and so on. Equality will be bought at the unseemly cost of the dramatic fall in the general level of moral and intellectual virtues in children. The wretched inefficiency of government schools is legendary, and so is their propensity for indulging in worthless propaganda and for corrupting the morals of the young. In fact, if our goal is not equality but simply to make knowledge and culture available to all, then there is no better means to that end than a regime of private property (including in schools) and free enterprise. As Mises eloquently argues,
The liberals do not disdain the intellectual and spiritual aspirations of man. On the contrary. They are prompted by a passionate ardor for intellectual and moral perfection, for wisdom and for aesthetic excellence.
But their view of these high and noble things is far from the crude representations of their adversaries. They do not share the naive opinion that any system of social organization can directly succeed in encouraging philosophical or scientific thinking, in producing masterpieces of art and literature and in rendering the masses more enlightened.
They realize that all that society can achieve in these fields is to provide an environment which does not put insurmountable obstacles in the way of the genius and makes the common man free enough from material concerns to become interested in things other than mere breadwinning.
In their opinion the foremost social means of making man more human is to fight poverty. Wisdom and science and the arts thrive better in a world of affluence than among needy peoples. (HA, 155)
Education is not a panacea, either; sometimes it can be a hindrance. Mises explains:
In order to succeed in business a man does not need a degree from a school of business administration. These schools train the subalterns for routine jobs. They certainly do not train entrepreneurs. An entrepreneur cannot be trained.
A man becomes an entrepreneur in seizing an opportunity and filling the gap. No special education is required for such a display of keen judgment, foresight, and energy.
The most successful businessmen were often uneducated when measured by the scholastic standards of the teaching profession. But they were equal to their social function of adjusting production to the most urgent demand. Because of these merits the consumers chose them for business leadership. (HA, 314-5)
(2) is impossible to equalize (I mean, are you kidding?). In fact, the element of luck in receiving one's natural endowments is like the good fortune enjoyed by one over the course of his life. But here no one can say how good fortune is distributed. Someone who is rich may be objectively unlucky and would have received his full discounted marginal value product, had he been more fortunate (either at birth or later in life). (That is, he became rich despite life's misfortunes.) Someone who is poor may be objectively lucky in life but would have been even poorer if his fortune had been only average.
Of course, Rawls may reply that luck determines everything. If one was lucky to be born with or develop the desire to work hard and to overcome obstacles, then he will be successful in life. A person is rich because he was lucky to get these traits. He might have been richer but his overall luck is still greater than that of a poor person.
But this confuses our nature and nurture with effort. Everyone has the capacity to work hard. Some choose to vegetate in front of the TV rather than apply themselves. Straightforwardly, this is not luck but individual lifestyle choice.
(3) makes sense in the public arena, such as it is, though not in the private one. In any case, the free market strongly discourages arbitrary discrimination by firms, and everybody can usually get jobs in their area of expertise. Emigration and immigration are generally unrestricted, and labor and capital travel sprightly to each other, bringing about the tendency toward equalization of wages rates for the same type of work everywhere. Under laissez-faire capitalism institutional unemployment does not exist.
And now for the main point. If everyone "has a fair chance to attain" positions suitable to him, then there is intense competition for these positions. Moreover, the labor market is laissez-faire and precludes minimum wages, labor union pressures, labor regulations entangling hiring and firing decisions in red tape, and so on. This means first, that for any job one person may be hired, and five other applicants, rejected. So, the chance to compete for a job, "fair" or not, does not entail victory in the competition. There will still be failures and losers, and plenty of them. Crucially, from the "efficiency" standpoint, it is wonderful when a lot of people vie for jobs. The economy becomes more efficient to the extent that all reasonably qualified people are trying to excel relative to each other; this way, no talent is left imprudently from the social point of view un- or underutilized.
Second, this sort of free market makes for considerable social mobility, both up and down. But the churning of the social hierarchy generated by means of competitive profit-seeking on the part of all members of society (including in their capacity as workers) has sense only when it's in the interest of the common good. If Smith and Jones are applying for the same job, then from the point of view of "justice" it is irrelevant whether Smith wins and Jones by that very fact loses or Jones wins and Smith loses. But not from the point of view of efficiency. If the hiring manager is good at his job, he'll pick the most suitable candidate, thereby adding his own profit to that of Smith or Jones.
As a result, "fair equality of opportunity" is again subordinated to utilitarian concerns. "Opportunity" is too individualistic a notion to be of use here. Again, Smith's being hired by a company entails that Jones is passed over, despite their "equal opportunity" to be considered. The benefits of everyone's being well-born, well-educated, well-connected, as demanded by EFO, accrue not to any individual (because this state of affairs merely intensifies the competition between all) but to society as a whole, as its efficiency and productivity shoot up, as each man tries to exceed and outdo his fellows in how well he performs his job.
We conclude that (1) government policies intended to promote EFO will only level down and hurt both the better-off and the worse-off; (2) to the extent that EFO is embodied in laissez-faire capitalism, it has value only when it is good for the economy. Liberal equality, when rightly understood, is identical to natural liberty.