Inequality of opportunity

Of course, in talking about the myth of self-made men, we are really talking about the idea of equality of opportunity.   Jonathan Chait had two recent posts that deal with this point in very compelling fashion.  First:

The conservative line, articulated by such figures asArthur Brooks and Paul Ryan, makes a sharp distinction between equality of outcome, which is thoroughly evil, and equality of opportunity, which is the highest ideal. (Almost everybody opposes equality of outcome — what they oppose is virtually any steps by government to reduce inequality of outcome.) “Equal opportunity versus equal outcomes, very different political philosophy,” says Ryan.

In practice, the attempt to draw a distinction between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity collapses immediately. The number one thing parents try to do with their money is to buy better opportunities for their children. A new Brookings paper this week describes how having a more expensive home translates to better schools. The mere fact of being surrounded by richer, better-prepared students is itself an advantage. This is something we all know, of course. When you have kids, your goal is either to live in an expensive neighborhood with good public schools, or to be able to spend directly on expensive private schooling. It’s one of the things Romney himself knows — hence his comment that “one of the things [George Romney] wanted to do was provide for me and for my brother and sisters.”

Of course he did! And that is the point. The advantages George Romney transmitted to Mitt Romney include not just intelligence, height, good looks, and a stable upbringing, but a fancy private education at Cranbrook and a lot of money.

The conservative rhetoric about inequality has been attempting to sustain the pretense that Romney is merely defending his business success and the larger principle of merit. But of course, he’s also defending his own upbringing and the larger principle of inherited privilege. The fact that he did so without anybody noticing shows the degree to which, far from being “very different” things, these are one and the same.

Relatedly, Slate’s Daniel Politi points out this recent Romney nugget:

At a speech at Otterbein University in Ohio, Romney talked about how the owner of sandwich chain Jimmy John’s got started by borrowing $20,000 from his father.

“We’ve always encouraged young people: Take a shot, go for it. Take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business,” Romney said.

Democratic activists quickly pounced on the remark as another example of how the presumptive Republican nominee is out of touch.

“Only someone who paid for college by selling stock given to him by his CEO father would just casually assume students could go borrow $20,000 from their parents to deal with the economic challenges they face,” a spokesman for the Center for American Progress Action Fund tells the Associated Press.

Hooray for the founder of Jimmy John’s and more power to him, but most Americans do not have parents they can borrow $20K from to start a business.   That’s not equality of opportunity.  Somebody with the same idea and poor parents isn’t going to succeed in the same way.

Finally, Chait points out how Romney’s delusional sense of equality of opportunity is related to a very odd conception of fairness:

Romney has to couch the implications of his argument carefully, but the underlying logic is perfectly clear. He believes that fairness is defined by market outcomes. If Romney earns a thousand times as much as a nurse in Topeka, it is solely because his character, education, or hard work entitle him to that. To the extent that unfairness exists, it is solely the doing of government: clean energy, laws permitting union dues, overpaid government employees, and so on. Aside from unfairness imposed by government, poverty is attributable to the bad choices or deficient character or upbringing of poor people.

Now, I’m all for a  genuine equality of opportunity.  I have no interest in trying to mandate an equality of outcome.  But I do think that the modern Republican and Romney’s vision of equality of opportunity bears little relation to ideas of equality or opportunity.  I also think that the evidence is fairly overwhelming that many Americans do not have the same opportunity to succeed, through no fault of their own.  Heck, are my kids way better off by being my kids than by growing up with a broken family in Southeast DC?  You betcha!   For that matter, it doesn’t matter how smart and diligent I may be, if I was born in Sudan, I wouldn’t be comfortably writing this blog right now.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Inequality of opportunity

  1. Then how do you account for Oprah Winfrey a sexually abused child from a broken single parent family in the Ghetto?

    • Steve Greene says:

      N of 1 = anecdote. Obviously anybody can make it from the very worst circumstances, but it is a hell of lot harder. For every 1 Oprah there’s probably 1000 Mitt Romney’s.

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