Men are not born equal, they are not born free; they are born a most various multitude enmeshed in an ancient and complex social net.
—The Outline of History, H.G. Wells
This is one of the most powerful quotes in H.G. Wells’s wonderful popular history book. To me it encapsulates an inescapable fact. In any complex society, however egalitarian, resources are not distributed equally. Power, money, influence, and cultural capital are usually distributed hierarchically; and having powerful parents, a rich family, or being the “right” race, sexual orientation, gender, or whatever—these things you are born into.
Karl Marx makes a similar point in this famous passage:
Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of whole cloth: he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close as hand. The tradition of all past generations weighs like an alp upon the brain of the living.
“Equality of opportunity” is a phrase we like very much in the United States. It is an ideal, and like any ideal is something we strive for but can never achieve. Yet what does it mean? People born into wealth are at an obvious advantage to people born into poverty. They have better schools, they can afford to go to elite colleges (and elite colleges often can’t afford to turn them away), and thus they are many times more likely to get high paying jobs (besides being able to inherit money). This is an obvious case of inequality.
But what could we do about it? It’s a difficult problem. Should we prevent people from bequeathing money to their children? Should we make private schools illegal? Should we make laws preventing elite universities from accepting more than a certain percentage of people from wealthy families?
Perhaps it’s better to focus on improving the opportunities of the poor rather than restricting those of the rich? We can improve the schools, legislate affirmative action for disadvantaged groups, and make higher education more affordable (and less dependent on rich donors and students for their survival). These are all good things, for sure, and to a certain extent we are already striving to accomplish them.
A work in progress is all we will ever achieve. Like everything perfect, perfect equality of opportunity is an unrealizable dream. And yet, even if the dream were realized, would we be living in a perfect society? This is a question worth asking.
Even if we managed to equalize the starting point of every child, there would still be the question of how they would be measured. The idea behind having equality of opportunity is that, if some people are more successful than others, we can consider the outcome fair. This is an ideal meritocracy, where everyone gets their just desserts.
In a perfect meritocracy—where opportunity is equal—we advance or fail to advance because we possess certain qualities. But these qualities are arbitrary. In the United States, for example, we tend to value certain types of intelligence, certain personality traits, and certain goals. In other cultures, they have other values.
Every culture arbitrarily chooses some characteristics to value and others to ignore. Yet even when you subtract all the environmental influence, we are still left with our genetic endowment: each of us is born with different abilities, propensities, and weaknesses. Is it really fair that these inborn qualities should determine our success? It seems not—especially when you consider that these native qualities are being measured against an arbitrary standard.
Because of this arbitrariness, I think any fair system needs a kind of social safety net. Even with perfect equality of opportunity—which does not exist—some people will always have more trouble succeeding than others. Providing a basic minimum standard of living is an acknowledgment of this fact.