Fun with equal opportunity

In my last post, I said liberals do themselves a disservice by talking about equal opportunity all of the time, instead of raising other grievances they have with our economic institutions. If you listened to the people who talk on television, you’d believe the only thing concerning liberals is that the positions in our economy are not equally open to all. That is obviously a part of it, but it is not — and indeed cannot — be the only part of their complaint. Nobody is agnostic towards underlying economic institutions so long as the positions generated by the institutions are open to all. Nobody would look upon a slave system and complain that the only problem was that the slave kids did not have an equal opportunity at becoming masters. I’d hope not at least.

So there must be some other opinions about how best to structure the economy that do not turn exclusively on the equal opportunity question. Saying you support equal opportunity does not simultaneously answer the question of what your preferred background institutions are. The way some liberals talk makes you think that they either 1) have no opinions on the institutions themselves, or 2) are fine with the institutions we have so long as they adhere to equal opportunity. The former is nonsense and the latter is generally not the case.

Despite the obvious conceptual problems here, some liberals defend the siloed focus on equal opportunity for propaganda reasons. They claim it is rhetorically better to pretend you support leveling for equal opportunity reasons instead of mentioning the real reasons, e.g. that you think inequality is a per se bad thing. Whether this is actually useful propaganda is of course an empirical question, but I have my suspicions. Being intentionally deceptive in such a way seems quite risky. Pretending to be all about opportunity when you are really all about egalitarianism can quickly turn into transparent disingenuity, which is probably not good. More than that, all the conservatives have to do is say equality of opportunity can be served in some other way. We don’t need leveling, just some more TFA recruits and charter schools. If you argue directly for more egalitarian institutions because inequality is its own bad, you do not run into either of these problems.

There is also a funny little logical problem involved in equal opportunity advocacy that focuses on leveling. The idea of promoting some siloed goal of equal opportunity is that you want to have equal opportunity within the existing background system. So it operates on the notion that the existing background system is good with the exception of its position-allocation scheme. If you are operating off of that notion, it makes no sense to radically reorient the background system in order to fix position allocation. Doing so destroys the thing you claim to be satisfied with! It is throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as they say. Such a move does not add equal opportunity to the present system; it shifts into a totally new system that happens to feature equal opportunity.

For a group claiming that they are cool with the system except insofar as it lacks equal opportunity, that is a totally bizarre thing to advocate. And I think people will see it as such. This is one of the reasons why folks seem to naturally gravitate towards enhancing opportunity in ways that almost entirely keep the underlying system intact, even if unsuccessful. That is the most logical thing to do if you actually believe the only thing wrong with the system is the way in which it lacks equal opportunity: you try to preserve the system almost entirely and intervene only in the most narrow of ways to try to fix the opportunity issues. So these deceptive liberals are being too clever by half: they are trying to push a dramatic overhaul through a rhetorical channel that most naturally suggests tiny, targeted changes. It might work, but I am skeptical. I prefer a more direct rhetorical strategy.