“While we don’t promise equal outcomes, we have strived to deliver equal opportunity,” proclaimed Barack Obama in 2014. In that year’s State of the Union Address, he also declared: “Opportunity is who we are, and the defining project of our generation must be to restore that promise.”
Across the aisle, Paul Ryan criticized Obama while expressing the identical sentiment. “He’s shifting us away from the American idea — from a society of upward mobility — and we’re talking to each other more in class terms. Instead of focusing on equality of outcomes we should be focusing on equality of opportunity.”
This exchange is just one of countless examples. Equality of opportunity is everywhere in American political discourse, generally treated as axiomatic by Democrats and Republicans alike. As Dylan Matthews of Vox put it in 2015:
Everyone wants equality of opportunity. It is not a subject of political debate, but the precondition of political debate. Promises to achieve equality of opportunity, like promises to create jobs or protect America abroad, are the white noise of campaign season, drawing neither notice nor challenge.
Generally pitted in opposition to equality of outcome (as in Paul Ryan’s formulation), equality of opportunity — at least as it’s usually invoked — presumes a stark dichotomy between enlightened meritocracy on the one hand and enforced homogeneity on the other.
An extremely charitable rendering of that dichotomy might run something like this: proponents of equality of opportunity believe that every person should have access to the same chances in life (economic, educational, and otherwise), with the understanding that the unequal distribution of abilities and effort will naturally produce different outcomes. Those who favor equality of outcome, by contrast, attach greater moral weight to the principle that people should be equal in fact. From the first camp’s perspective, that argument is unfair because it fails to take into account divergent talents and social contributions and rewards the ordinary and the exceptional in equal measure.
Framed in these terms, the equality of opportunity comes out looking appealing. Who, after all, wants to come out against opportunity?
The whole thing starts to collapse, however, the moment its core principles are taken to their logical conclusions. For one thing, consider the radical leveling it would require for every American to enjoy the same opportunities in life. Given how much wealth is intergenerational, and given the obvious advantages that come with it, a 100 percent inheritance tax would likely be in order — and that would only be the beginning. Since people clearly do not begin life on an equal footing, even approximating equality of opportunity would necessitate a radical redistribution of wealth and power throughout both economy and society.
Does anyone seriously believe that the mainstream politicians who are loudest about their concern for extending “opportunity” actually want to see that occur?
Of course not. If anything, American elites like invoke opportunity precisely because it allows them to obscure fundamental questions about the distribution of power and resources. This is why meritocracy is such an attractive and convenient fiction.
After all, American institutions do a pretty terrible job of actually offering people opportunities — even in the limited sense implied by the likes of Paul Ryan. Among wealthy societies, a person is far less likely to start out poor and end up wealthy in America than they are in a social-democratic country like Norway or Denmark. For a nation that prides itself on being a land of opportunity, social mobility in the United States is comparatively low, even when measured against countries with less overall wealth.
That’s because the supposed dichotomy between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome is largely illusory. In a rigid class society like the United States, which also suffers from deep inequalities of race and gender, disparities in individual outcomes are hardly an organic reflection of the population’s divergent talents, social contributions, or work ethic. The lazy and hardworking alike can be found throughout every social class and cultural grouping, alongside the ambitious, unambitious, and the alternatively ambitious.
Yet poverty, social privilege, and the perpetual transfer of affluence from one generation to the next tends to ensure that it’s the wealthy and preternaturally advantaged who have the greatest opportunity for success, regardless of how hard they work or how exceptional (or unexceptional) they happen to be. (The average sanitation or postal worker inarguably contributes more to society — and probably works a lot harder — than Meghan McCain, but guess who enjoys a better standard of living and gets a regular platform on TV?)
Opportunity, in other words, is always more likely to prevail in a context of material and social equality and it’s not hard to see why: in societies that have eliminated or significantly reduced social and economic inequality, people are much more likely to start off on an equal footing and enjoy access to the security and life chances that enable their talents to flourish. Far from penalizing the exceptional and rewarding the unexceptional, an egalitarian social order is one in which everyone has the opportunity to develop and succeed regardless of their race, gender, postal code, or last name.
The opposite very much applies in an unequal capitalist society such like the modern US, where each of these factors is a determining and often decisive factor. As a result, millions remain unable to realize or even imagine their potential. Put another way: consider how much human talent and effort is collectively squandered when inequality is allowed to persist. Given the opportunity, how many might become great novelists, athletes, engineers, musicians, or simply ordinary people exceptional in their own ways?
In a world without genuine equality, we’ll never know.