Over at Vox last week, Dylan Matthews wrote a great article, The Case Against Equality of Opportunity. It’s somewhat long, but I recommend reading it. He showed that “equality of opportunity” is just not possible. This should be understood by everyone at this point. We simply don’t have the kind of society that would say to rich people, “You can’t spend your money on your kids!” And that is what it would take. In fact, we don’t even have the kind of society that provides equal funding for all children in public school. Even that kind of “equality of opportunity” is a bridge too far.
But the meat of Matthews’ article is that we shouldn’t want equality of opportunity. His quote of Thomas Nagel sums up the point, “When racial and sexual injustice have been reduced, we shall still be left with the great injustice of the smart and the dumb, who are so differently rewarded for comparable effort.” Take it to extremes: do we provide the same “opportunity” to get ahead to a child born without arms and legs as we do to other children? It’s a ridiculous notion when put in such stark terms, but that’s what we are saying. It just isn’t as obvious because someone who is intellectually slow would probably struggle through life. But that’s hardly fair.
The problem is both genetic and environmental. People who have a natural gift for trading stocks are more likely to have children with a similar gift. And, as Matthews pointed out, “We know, for example, that lead paint is more prevalent in poor neighborhoods. We also know that lead poisoning hurts children’s IQs, their ability to pay attention, and their school achievement, and that its effects on cognition last through adulthood.” Offering such children “equality of opportunity” is obviously just a sick joke.
But a sick joke is exactly what many conservatives would like to offer. A couple of years ago, reformish Republican Avik Roy wrote an article where he laid out what Republicans mean by “equality of opportunity.” And it was truly vile. According to him, equality of opportunity means only the lack of explicit laws. So as long as there were no laws stopping African Americans from having certain jobs, there was equality of opportunity. Note what’s happened here. First, Republicans said they believed in equality. Then it was equality of opportunity. Then even that “reformer” Avik Roy defines out of existence.
When we liberals talk about equality, we aren’t requesting that everyone have the same thing — all that Harrison Bergeron nonsense. The funny thing is that not even the communist countries pretended to have that. All we are really talking about is the safety net. The truth is that we are far too wealthy a country not to provide a basic level of care to our citizens. I would go far beyond that. Since I’m no fan of the idea of “free will,” I believe in great limits to how far one can rise economically. But we are at a point where we still have to argue about whether poor children should be given school lunches.
Matthews’ main point is directed at liberals. He pointed out that we want people’s lives to be better, “The desire isn’t egalitarian, but humanitarian.” And that means we care about outcomes. To me, the politics of this are pretty simple. And it goes back to what I’ve long been saying about how the New Democrats destroyed America. The Republicans and the Democrats talk about “equality of opportunity.” But it is meaningless. It is just a way of avoiding doing those things that would improve the lives of the ever increasing share of Americans who are struggling. The fact that the numbers are increasing should be all that we care about.