I just read a really insightful article over at the Heritage Foundation website, What Does Equality of Opportunity Mean? The article is by David Weinberger and he explains that to conservatives like him, “equality of opportunity” means “no equality of opportunity.” According to him, it is all about the government. As long as there is no law saying that certain kinds of people are prohibited from doing something, then there is equality of opportunity.
Consider how brilliant this is! If conservatives got their way, there would be no public education. So the only people who would be certain to get an education would be the rich. So Mitt Romney’s kids would have no more opportunity than, say, the child of a junkie who never knows life off the street and has never seen the inside of a classroom or learned to read.
I’m not a big fan on even the best definitions of “equality of opportunity.” They strike me as little more than a nice way to justify social Darwinism. But Weinberger’s definition completely throws out the idea of opportunity. Or at least he defines it so narrowly as to be meaningless. By this definition, slavery provided equality of opportunity because a slave could buy himself out of slavery and go on to succeed just like the child of a slave owner.
This is an extreme statement, but that’s what’s called for. After all, this conservative definition of the term “opportunity” has already been pushed to its limit. Why would slavery get in the way? It was, after all, a legal institution. It was possible to get out of slavery using that very legal system. Was it hard it do? Yes! Was it impossible? Absolutely not! Working one’s way out of poverty in the conservative hellscape that conservatives so admire, without a basic education or decent nutrition, is also possible. I don’t see how the systems are fundamentally different. (It’s also worth noting that Weinberger’s intellectual forebearers would have made the same argument in 1850s Virginia.)
What is most interesting about this definition is how conservatives keep changing the rules of how society is supposed to work. First they claimed that they didn’t want equality of outcomes, only equality of opportunity. But now it turns out that the term itself was a smokescreen. All they mean by it is that they don’t think that the government should make any laws that have been universally considered repugnant for at least 50 years. How farsighted of the conservative movement!
Note that by this definition, preventing gays from teaching would still be just fine. Most conservatives would just define the issue out of existence. Gays are not “born” like African Americans. They get no such protections! This would go right along with slavery, of course. Slaveholders were all for equal rights. It was just that slaves weren’t people; they were property. There is always a way to keep the weak down and elevate the powerful. And the young David Weinberger has provided yet another example of it!