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December 09, 2004

equality of opportunity: one

Don Herzog: December 9, 2004

In 1573 England, John Fortescue was irritated by Lord Grey's hunting on his property.  He asked him to stop.  "Stuff a turd in your teeth," the lord said breezily.  (No points for guessing how we say that today.)  "I will hunt it, and it shall be hunted in spite of all you can do."  Fortescue wouldn't have gotten anywhere with a trespass action.  Peers of the realm couldn't be arrested except for treason, felony, and breach of the peace; they couldn't be forced to appear in court on most writs; they didn't have to testify under oath; they didn't sit on juries.  Their status as aristocrats made them magically exempt from these requirements.  And what we call equality under the law was born as a campaign to strip people of special privileges -- and burdens -- based on their status.

In 1762 Toulouse, Jean Calas was broken on the wheel and executed after being found guilty of the murder of his son, Marc-Antoine.  Marc had been found dead in the family's apartment after excusing himself from dinner.  The family didn't immediately claim he'd committed suicide:  they hadn't wanted to, they explained, because the bodies of suicides were cast ignominiously on the trash heap outside town.  But really, they said, that's what he had done.  Why?  Well, he was depressed about his inability to practice law.  As a Huguenot (or Protestant), he couldn't be admitted to the bar:  you couldn't practice law in France without proving that you'd recently accepted the Catholic sacraments.

The authorities had another theory of the case.  Scrupulously following contemporary procedure, they posted signs offering to reward testimony not just that family members had been heard threatening Marc, but that he had been planning to convert to Catholicism to become a lawyer.  And anyway it was well known that Luther and Calvin had taught their followers that it would be better to murder a Protestant than allow him to leave the true faith and roast in hell as a papist.  The evidence was forthcoming, Jean convicted, and an old annual parade celebrating St. Bartholemew's Day massacre, a bloodbath of Huguenots in 1572, was revved up again.

No special privileges at law for aristocrats, no special disabilities for Catholics, and so on:  that campaign for equality under the law has been spectacularly successful, even though it struck conservative contemporaries as simple lunacy, a threat to the very possibility of social order.  So too for the closely connected ideal of equality of opportunity, which also flatly prohibits forbidding Protestants from becoming lawyers.  It isn't fair.

In the popular image, everyone has to run the race by the same rules.  And then we get a familiar contrast -- there's an especially hilarious version in Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," where a nastily leftist future USA handicaps the talented and superior to drag them down to everyone else's level, or, rather, the level of the least talented.  (For the record, egalitarians looking at fancy universities for the elite did not burn down the universities.  They campaigned for universal education.)  Equality of opportunity is great; equality of outcome -- somehow trying to ensure that everyone crosses the finish line together, or that everyone earn $28,967 a year, live in an 1100-square-foot apartment, and have 2.28 children -- is wildly unjust and tyrannical.

So far so good.  But (hey Rocky! watch the nerdy professor pull a rabbit from his hat!) the usual story continues in the following way. Here I want only to set out the abstract argument.  Over the next few weeks, I'll try putting it to work on concrete policy issues.

It's not enough to stop handicapping some runners and privileging others.  Equality of opportunity seems to depend on some version of equality of starting points.  If the son of J. Paul Getty starts life with millions and goes to a fabulous school, and you start life in Watts and go to a "school" that is mostly about social control, it's worse than facetious to say, "okay, the two of you now should run the race; ready, set, go!"  Yes, it's possible that you'll beat out the wealthy kid.  But those of us who are standing on the sidelines betting will require pretty long odds to take you.  Head starts in the race aren't fair, either.

Equality of starting points can't literally mean identity of starting points, for the same reason that equality of outcomes is repulsive.  No one in his right mind should want to homogenize schools, communities, and the like, and anyway it's impossible.  So in the usual story line, which I'm mechanically following -- and which you are obviously free to challenge -- the best interpretation of equality of starting points is setting some decent minimum or floor below which no one may fall.  There's endless room for disputes in various domains about where that floor is.  But I'll 'fess up:  it seems to me we're not meeting it.  We pay lip service to equality of opportunity, and it's an invaluable ideal -- it's hard to know how even to challenge it, though again, be my guest if you'd like to -- but once you see that it requires more than getting rid of the rules that benefitted Lord Grey and harmed Marc-Antoine Calas, once you see that it requires some version of equality of starting points, you realize we have a long way to go.


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» The Wealth Un-Race from WindyPundit
Over on Left2Right, Don Herzog is talking about equal opportunity, using a race as an analogy. Not that I object to his conclusion, but I've never liked the race analogy because it can be misleading. Wealth is not a race, or at least not a normal one. ... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 9, 2004 10:01:53 PM

» A Bad Idea from the Lef from Psuedo-Polymath
Not the best idea I've heard by far. [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 11, 2004 7:59:03 PM


Posted by: S. Weasel

If the son of J. Paul Getty starts life with millions and goes to a fabulous school, and you start life in Watts and go to a "school" that is mostly about social control, it's worse than facetious to say, "okay, the two of you now should run the race; ready, set, go!" Yes, it's possible that you'll beat out the wealthy kid.

This is only meaningful if beating the wealthy kid to the pinnacle of ambition is the object of the game.

One of the things the left misunderstands about the middle classes (which leads the two to miscommunicate wildly) is that we (the aforementioned folk in the middle) are more or less where we want to be. Well, people in the middle would like a little more than they have. Everyone would like a little more. But a job you enjoy (most people do, you know), home ownership, spouse, coupla kids, green lawn, time off, comfortable car...this, laddies and gennlemong, is a pretty fulfilling life. If you catch yourself at this moment thinking "how sad," you have lost the plot.

All kids expect to be superstars. Middle class kids think, "but until I am discovered by Hollywood, I'll be a dental hygienist." Or a mechanical engineer or an insurance salesman or a programmer. Stable, happy societies are built out of people like this, who dream medium-sized.

The unhappy dream too small, or too large, for their own capabilities.

Posted by: S. Weasel | Dec 9, 2004 8:09:46 PM

Posted by: jcl

Steven Malanga has what I think is a very interesting article in the recent City Journal.

He writes,
"[I]t typically is personal failure and social dysfunction that create poverty. To stay out of poverty in America, it's necessary to do three simple things, social scientists have found: finish high school, don't have kids until you marry, and wait until you are at least 20 to marry. Do those three things, and the odds against your becoming impoverished are less than one in ten. Nearly 80 percent of everyone who fails to do those three things winds up poor."


This would seem to me to be a pretty good, if not yet ideal (but what is?), floor. Many people have come to America poor and through sacrifice, hard work and long term planning made a better life for themselves and set their progeny up for eventual affluence. I'm not sure the question should be "what should we do to establish this floor?" but "what must one do to advance in American society?" If the answer is fair, even if difficult, I don't see the pressing problem. And I don't think having to work 2 jobs or somesuch is unfair, especially looking abroad and considering the alternatives (note the scramble from the south to come here). The poor must meet society half way so to speak. As for Percy, I say ignore him; happiness does not come from perpetually comparing oneself with others.

Of course, you may challenge the correctness of Mr. Malanga's assertion. But, assuming it is true, I would be interested in knowing what you would consider to be a fair floor if this is not one.

Posted by: jcl | Dec 9, 2004 8:20:42 PM

Posted by: jcl

As for Getty, I mean.

Posted by: jcl | Dec 9, 2004 8:23:54 PM

Posted by: SamChevre

It's worth noting, also, that removing circumstantial barriers (class, race, parents ability to supplement schooling) has increased the importance of inherent barriers to achievement (physical strength, intelligence, ability to focus). These cannot be removed by any process short of a Harrison Bergeron-type world; thus, there will be a significant amount of inequality, even if the only differences in people's opportunities are in their genes.

One interesting idea for increasing equality of opportunity is the idea of a capital grant to everyone on reaching adulthood, which could be used for any self-benefiting purpose (schooling, vocational training, buying tools, starting a small business, etc). A lump sum, sufficient to pay tuition at a state university (but not conditional on a university education) would be a considerable help to many people in laying the foundation for a satisfying life.

Posted by: SamChevre | Dec 9, 2004 8:26:50 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

S. Weasel: Great point: one thing that makes the image of the race break down is that we're not all aiming for the same things. But still you could insist that equality of opportunity requires that you begin with a fair bundle of goodies, where "goodies" just means the sorts of things that are essential for pursuing a very wide range of life plans.

And think about why you juxtapose "the left" and "the middle classes." No overlap? Really? Me, I'm a huge fan of bourgeois domesticity. I just wish it were available to more people. Though if people have a fair shot at it and choose something else, I have absolutely no complaints.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Dec 9, 2004 8:32:00 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

(Not again, Bullwinkle! That trick never works!)

Of course, no one really believes in equality of opportunity or an entirely level playing field in general. I doubt, following your Vonnegut example, that any of the academicians forming this blog would suggest that social justice requires that they submit to some form of intelligence lowering process to better enable the less intelligent to compete for academic jobs. But your argument slipped a bit too effortlessly from examples of the development of legal equality to some rough sense of economic and social equality or, absent that, the “decent minimum or floor below which no one may fall.”

Ignoring for the moment why you equate or conflate these two types of equality, my own pre-reflective moral intuitions lead me to agree that in the case of children, society has a moral obligation to ensure that some such floor be maintained, though I suspect (no, I’m certain) my floor would be significantly closer to ground level than yours. As to adults, however, I’m not so sure. Since I value freedom more than security, I’m perfectly willing to allow adults the freedom to fail. (“But would you be willing to let them starve to death or waste away on drugs or fritter their lives away studying philosophy, Mr. Peabody?” “Why, yes, Sherman. I would.”)

That is not to say, however, that I take some uber-Randian position that charity is immoral or that we shouldn’t voluntarily attempt to aid those who through no fault of their own need assistance. But the devil is in the details, and the biggest detail is whether the state, at any level, is the only or best method of providing that assistance. So far, the track record for government assistance has not been promising.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Dec 9, 2004 8:37:08 PM

Posted by: Steve

I agree with you completely-we don't owe equality, but we do owe some (hard to define) minimum (minimum opportunity, not minimum reality). I also agree with your critics completely; this analogy (race between a rich kid and a poor kid) only works if one is assuming everybody is in a race against each other. There's absolutely no reason to assume this to be the case (other than to make the analogy rhetorically effective). I hadn't thought about it in terms of "don't race to the top, just plod along in the middle class," but your critics' are right: what if every human being in the country ISN'T in a competition to be Michael Jordan, Oprah, or Bill Gates? If instead, you set up the analogy so that everyone is simply 'racing' to the middle class, or 'racing' to some reasonable level of stability and comfort, then this analogy loses its meaning. I'm a white, upper middle class, well educated guy and I stand about as much chance of being the president of microsoft (or the next Oprah, or the next MJ) as a homie in the hood. Its never really bothered me, though.


Posted by: Steve | Dec 9, 2004 8:48:04 PM

Posted by: DJW

S. Weasel, I don't see how this is at all responsive to Don Herzog's post. Herzog is suggesting an opportunity floor, and suggesting that empirically we're almost certainly not meeting it. He didn't say the middle class wasn't meeting it. I can't imagine people in the scenario you describe being below any sensible person's notion of the appropriate opportunity floor.

Posted by: DJW | Dec 9, 2004 8:54:15 PM

Posted by: donna

The poor start out with a handicap - being poor. Lacking resources to even survive without a great deal of effort is a pretty intense handicap. Middle and upper classes at least have the advantage of knowing basic needs are taken care of, and can concentrate on getting the kids educated, and even have choices about whether to have kids or not.

I don't think the left and the middle class miscommunicate. I think for the middle class to lack any understanding at all of where the poor are starting from is the miscommunication.

Posted by: donna | Dec 9, 2004 9:11:40 PM

Posted by: Mark Draughn

I've never liked the race analogy because it can be misleading. Wealth is not a race, or at least not a normal one. A race is about more than just a race, it's about winning the prizes at the end. When it comes to personal financial success, there are no prizes at the end. The prize is awarded for every mile you run, not for running the most miles. The very act of accumulating wealth is itself the prize.

(I'm simplifying by talking about wealth. The real goal is happiness for you and your loved ones, but happiness is also about how you live your life and not about who was happiest when it's all over.)

If someone in a real race gets a head start, he has a better chance of winning the prize. This reduces everyone else's chances at the prizes, and that's where the real damage occurs. But in the wealth race, there's no prize. Why should I care if the Getty kid has a head start? I'm paid by the mile, not by my standing at the end. He may get more, but that doesn't mean I get less.

(Unless he's getting more because he's stealing from me. That's a whole different problem.)

Now, if you want to help me, the Harrison Bergeron plan of tying an anchor to the Getty kid's leg does nothing to speed me up. Making him poorer won't make me any wealthier.

So, um, yeah. An opportunity floor is the right idea.

Posted by: Mark Draughn | Dec 9, 2004 9:53:17 PM

Posted by: Dave M

I'm not sure if I'm jumping the gun or not, but I think you are being too blithe in your distinction between equal opportunity and equal outcome. Equal opportunity theoretically entails affording the same opportunity to differently situated people, a detail which quickly blurs the lines between equal opportunity and equal outcome. The clearest example is the treatment of people with physical disabilities. Is it a violation of principles of equal opportunty to establish a dual bus system, one for non-disabled people and one for the disabled? Should the disabled be forced to pay more for the service? Should the government spend more money to ensure that the disabled have the same access to public isntitutions that the non-disabled have? With physical disabilities, the questions are clear. What happens, though, when you broaden the number of privileges and impediments considered? The distinction collapses at some point, and the only way to avoid it is by drawing somewhat arbitrary, but justifiable lines.

Posted by: Dave M | Dec 9, 2004 10:38:13 PM

Posted by: Jeff Licquia

It's not enough to stop handicapping some runners and privileging others. Equality of opportunity seems to depend on some version of equality of starting points.

I'd like to see some more analysis of this, because I don't see this premise as even remotely proven.

Handicapping some group in some way is a positive wrong; people are acting to prevent some people from enjoying some privilege or right due them. Whatever your view of government, it would seem obvious that preventing active malice is the kind of thing (liberal democratic) government does better than any other institution (that I can think of at the moment, anyway).

Providing "equal" starting points, on the other hand, is less about preventing active malice as it is about positive action by government to ensure some equality. This gets into the same kinds of monstrosities as equality of outcomes tends towards, which is why even Mr. Herzog feels a need to water the pure idea down.

Part of this may be because one person's starting point is another person's outcome. Children born in Watts are born to people who could not create a better outcome for themselves, and are thus stuck in Watts. Do we equalize the outcome of the parents for the sake of the children? Or do we take children away from poor parents, just because they are poor, and give those children to rich parents, who can provide them with better starting points? The more I think along this line, the more horrific the ideas get: rich people child-shopping in the slums, almost akin to the slave auctions of the antebellum South.

The question of what to do regarding stopping points is a very difficult one. I like some of the ideas above, like SamChevre's capital grant. Such grants might be equal in amount, but their impact would be greater the farther down the ladder you go. Would a loan be better, I wonder--possibly with easy forgiveness terms for those whose outcomes are poor?

Posted by: Jeff Licquia | Dec 9, 2004 11:05:15 PM

Posted by: Jeff Licquia

Oops. My last post, last paragraph, first sentence: "stopping points" -> "starting points".

Posted by: Jeff Licquia | Dec 9, 2004 11:15:18 PM

Posted by: Simon

Perhaps this is something you will get to in later posts, but I'd be curious to hear more about how we go about defining what level of the floor we should be aiming at . . .

Posted by: Simon | Dec 9, 2004 11:38:39 PM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

Equality of starting points can't literally mean identity of starting points, for the same reason that equality of outcomes is repulsive. No one in his right mind should want to homogenize schools, communities, and the like, and anyway it's impossible. So in the usual story line, which I'm mechanically following -- and which you are obviously free to challenge -- the best interpretation of equality of starting points is setting some decent minimum or floor below which no one may fall. There's endless room for disputes in various domains about where that floor is. But I'll 'fess up: it seems to me we're not meeting it.

I think this is helpful, at least in establishing a point of agreement that the conversation is not about equality of result. The reference to the Harrison Bergeron reductio ad absurdum should serve as a shorthand for the entire discussion of equality of result.

What's unclear is what you mean by establishing a floor of starting points. Do you mean to establish a floor as to the available level of opportunity? Or, do you mean to suggest some sort of floor on the results of the educational process as a starting point.

Using schooling in the example seems useful as a starting point as well. Public schools at all levels can be seen as one manifestation of the community's desire to provide a floor of opportunity: even the best of them do not confer the advantages of the better private schools, yet most people accept that disparity. And, of course, public schools vary vastly, ranging from the schools that are basically about social control (as you put it) to the elite suburban public high schools where most students take many honors and AP classes, and perhaps a quarter of the class go to the ivys.

Affirmative action in education, as a philosophy, has generally been about admitting students who would not otherwise be admitted to elite preparatory schools and universities, rather than about a floor of opportunity to compete equally. Given that these places represent scarce resources that others are crowded out of by this process, it's no wonder this sort of approach generates resentment, especially from those who are not given the special opportunity, and could probably not have afforded it even if they had.

Yet, there is another model of an educational floor of opportunity: the community colleges. As they developed in California (at least up through the 1960 Master Plan), they were seen as providing every high school graduate with the opportunity for college work, or vocational training, at a nominal cost (in the 1960s there was no tuition, and a registration fee of something like $5 or $10 a semester, which could be waived for the destitute). These two years colleges offer extensive remedial work for those whose high school preparation was inadequate -- a real second chance for those who came out of high schools more about social control than learning -- and academic classes that were designed to be equivalent to those at the University of California, and which were guaranteed to transfer credit if one met the transfer standards after two years. This is the kind of opportunity flooring that has always made sense to me, and which enjoyed wide popular support from the community. With open enrollment, it provided low cost access to educational opportunity without creating resentment. With remedial work it provided the opportunity to make up academic deficiences and to gain self-respect from achievement at a reasonable pace. And, most importantly, it then provided the opportunity to move up to the elite level in the California system to obtain a "good" degree without stigma. This path was widely used by many in California up through the sixties and probably well-beyond. It worked for the student who needed the remedial classes, and it work for the student who could have been admitted to the University but could not afford it. Indeed, in their own way, all public colleges and universities represent an attempt to provide an opportunity floor which is anywhere from widely to almost universally available. It's rather a remarkable achievement when you think about it.

I think the well-meaning people who pushed for the model that has become affirmative action have often done a disservice to equality of opportunity by emphasizing admission to elite institutions, trying as it were to make the lad from 'social control' high school have the elite opportunity otherwise avaiable only to the J. Paul Getty, Jr.s (to use your example). I remember the arguments at the time, around 1970, how important it was to get the "whole four year experience" without seriously thinking about the very effects that have come to pass in terms of the hostility engendered, the assumption by many that those who have attended elite institutions through affirmative action are unqualified, and the like. Some of us warned against these effects at the time, although admittedly more from the perspective of maintaining academic standards and the value of the university's degrees.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 9, 2004 11:40:49 PM

Posted by: Chris

I think the story of American imagration (pick your group) is a good example of the idea of multigenerational sucess. (I know I am gong to piss someone off with my examples)

The first generation works in manual jobs with no educations and no skills (Migrant farm workers) so the second generation can finsih high school

The second generation gets a job as a mailman so the third generation can go to college

The Third generation gets a job as a computer programmer so the forth generation can go to grad school

The forth generation works as a Doctor, Lawyer, Executive so the fifth generation can go to art school

The fifth generation p*ss*s it all away.

Wealth creation is a multigenerational process.

The John Paul Getty Jr. example is disragarded by many on the right because most of us know lots of sucessful people who made the choice to use the money they earned to give their kid the best possible opportunities and the kids still end up not being sucessful. Sometimes it is hard to tell of parents giving everything to he kids helps them or just screws 'em up for life.

Posted by: Chris | Dec 10, 2004 12:42:50 AM

Posted by: trumpit

I enjoyed the stories and the ideas you present. The idea of life as a race is a bit "overfatigued" to me too though. Maybe, it's a RAT race for many nowadays. But I have no trouble with your well-made points.

Posted by: trumpit | Dec 10, 2004 1:26:38 AM

Posted by: Bruce Allardice

In his first paragraph, Mr. Herzog uses an example of a 1573 quarrel between John Fortescue and Lord Grey to illustrate the point that Fortescue could not have sued Grey for trespassing on Fortescue's land because Grey was an aristocrat. The point may be correct, but the incident used to illustrate the point is inapposite.

The following is from an online biography of Sir John Fortescue:

"Similarly, in the 30 years
after [Sir John Fortescue's] appointment to the wardrobe the only incident involving him directly
which attracts attention is his dispute with his Buckinghamshire neighbour,
Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton. As keeper of Whaddon chase, Grey claimed the right
of entry into Salden to protect the Queen's deer. When Fortescue took the
dispute to the Privy Council, Grey ambushed him at Temple Bar, beating him from
his horse. The Queen took Fortescue's part: Grey was put in the Fleet and
remained out of favour for several years."

From this it appears that "Lord Grey" [Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton d. 1593] had a colorable legal right to be on Fortescue's land; that Fortescue, a member of Parliament, was hardly a downtrodden peasant; that Fortescue did in fact have legal recourse, taking the dispute to the Privy Council; and that Grey eventually was sent to prison ("the Fleet") for beating Fortescue up.

The "turd" anectdote is colorful, but it would be intellectually sounder to choose an illustration that better fits the point being made.

Posted by: Bruce Allardice | Dec 10, 2004 2:13:44 AM

Posted by: jonathon martin

Talking about where the floor should be is a somewhat arbitrary factor but I don't think the idea of equality of opportunity in practice is as dangerous a concept as some of the above posters.

To give a real world example of a government that takes a fairly strong view of equality of opportunity, that of Finland, the measures would I would imagine seem unpalatable to US ears. In Finland there are only a handful of private schools, which in any case are subsidised by the government so the fees are negligible. They are Steiner schools and a couple of international schools. They tend to be attended not by the children of the wealthy but by the children of diplomats and people who like Steiner schools. The interesting result is that the level of academic achievement at 15 in Finland is higher than anywhere else in the world and even more importantly, the link between parental wealth and the achievement of children is lower than anywhere else in the world.

Other measures include free university education with stingy but just about liveable living support for five years, though most students work in the Summer.

To my mind this is the key to genuine equality of opportunity and I don't think anyone in Finland would claim they are disadvantaged by their background in terms of life opportunities either directly (simply not having the money) or indirectly (class prejudice and other psychological factors such as fear of debt). What is clear is that it has great benefits, as can be seen by the level of schooling, but also fairly great and to some unpalatable restrictions on the freedom of parents to send their children to expensive schools and universities. And of course none of the universities in Finland are of the quality of the top 20 or 30 in the US.

Like it or not, equality of opportunity comes at a cost. In Finland it has been able to grow organically since not so long ago everyone was pretty poor. Clearly, the costs are too high for the stomachs of even those concerned with genuine equality of opportunity in the US. It seems to be a question of how far they are willing to go. Interestingly, one of the greatest areas of tension in the US is affirmative action, which at least is not necessary in Finland since everyone gets a similar quality of primary education even if the content is different.

Posted by: jonathon martin | Dec 10, 2004 3:59:42 AM

Posted by: S. Weasel

And think about why you juxtapose "the left" and "the middle classes." No overlap? Really?

In my experience, Don, there are people who don't consider themselves middle class, whatever their income. It's not specifically lefties, but people in certain professions: academics, artists and writers, journalists. Scientists. "Middle class" in some circles has become a pejorative meaning "family, boring job, lives in the suburbs, a bit dim." Never mind that the vast majority of us end up somewhere in the middle, one way and another.

It hasn't escaped notice that the Democrats, once the champion of the "workin' man" have tried to switch that message seamlessly to "middle class families." To make it stick, they'll need to understand the middle classes better. When I hear, "tax cuts for wealthy corporations" I think, "woohoo! I'm gettin' a Christmas bonus this year!" We work for the entities they're trying to demonize and, while we have our complaints, our employer having too much money isn't usually one of them.

Posted by: S. Weasel | Dec 10, 2004 6:27:33 AM

Posted by: Dallas


In your supplementary remarks, I hope you will address these points:

1. Equality under the law and equality of opportunity, as you conceive it, are quite different concepts, yet you equate, or at least confuse, the two. You say: "So too for the closely connected ideal of equality of opportunity, which also flatly prohibits forbidding Protestants from becoming lawyers. It isn't fair." Repealing a prohibition against Protestants becoming lawyers isn't an instance of insuring equality of opportunity; it's an instance of insuring equality under the law, of stopping irrational governmental discrimination.

2. If one goes beyond stopping irrational governmental discrimination - if one sets out to insure some basic level of economic or educational equivalence - one should (assuming one is a rationalist) offer a justification for doing that. You have simply glided over this issue, saying in effect that some level of economic/educational equivalence should be pursued because it is self-evidently "fair" - so obviously required that "it's hard to know how even to challenge it." This is fiat logic - "It's fair because I deem it to be fair." Put another way, you are advocating policies based upon a subjective rationale. And, when one does that, one is likely to end up exactly where we are now, in a morass of "endless disputes" where the debate boils down to one faction saying, "We aren't doing enough," another faction saying, "Yes we are," and a third faction saying, "We're doing too much."

3. There's another facet of the topic you haven't addressed. A particular behavior may be morally right without being legally required. Generally, we all agree that benevolence toward the less-privileged is morally right, but agreement on that proposition does not require one to also agree that benevolence should be imposed as a legal duty. If you are intent upon imposing a legal duty, you (as a rationalist) bear the burden of offering a rationale for imposing that duty - a rationale that is something more than "it is right that we do this."

4. Finally, you should also address this problem: your conception of equality of opportunity cannot be imposed without denying equality under the law. If resources are to be mandatorily shifted from one citizen to another, then legal burdens must be imposed upon some that are not imposed upon others. Again, you (as a rationalist) should offer an explanation for abandoning one of your "ideals".

Posted by: Dallas | Dec 10, 2004 6:55:24 AM

Posted by: Bernard

It seems to me that the proper function of the state is to ensure that there are no legally mandated artificial barriers to opportunity (a la the glass ceilings of many societies past and present).

I hope that very few people would consider that disrupting the link between natural talent/personal (or parental) application and opportunity is a good idea. I think worries over left-wing ideology on the latter are a key consideration for the middle-classes.

Posted by: Bernard | Dec 10, 2004 7:01:20 AM

Posted by: Not a Randian, But Not Ignorant Either

"That is not to say, however, that I take some uber-Randian position that charity is immoral or that we shouldn’t voluntarily attempt to aid those who through no fault of their own need assistance."

Of course you never read Ayn Rand or you would know how stupid this argument looks.

But whatever makes you feel superior.

Posted by: Not a Randian, But Not Ignorant Either | Dec 10, 2004 9:07:44 AM

Posted by: The Sad Truth

I am old fashioned, but I find it very disgusting to handicap whole communities (as the "progressives" have done to African-Americans) in order to spite the 0.0001% of John Paul Getty Jrs out there. We have whole communities out there crippled by "progressive" educational systems, which were put in place because "progressives" don't think it is fair Paris Hilton can sit on a beach all day.

Wow, you really got her back by screwing over black people! But whatever makes you feel warm an fuzzy. Pat yourself on the back!

Posted by: The Sad Truth | Dec 10, 2004 9:12:58 AM

Posted by: marie

I would like to add to a comment that Rob had made- "Indeed, in their own way, all public colleges and universities represent an attempt to provide an opportunity floor which is anywhere from widely to almost universally available. It's rather a remarkable achievement when you think about it."

Quite frankly this is a bit off base. Let me start by saying that I equate an 'equal starting point' to be equal access to education. However, the US is pretty far removed from equal access to education. Let me explain this from personal experience...first I come from an upper middle class white small town family. My family was well off and I went to an excellent high school. I took numerous AP classes and had great teachers. I had the drive and want to go to college and so I did- even though there were people form my same background that did not. My boyfriend is a stark contrast to this. He is an immigrant that came here during high school. Due to his parents level of income they live in a poor big city neighborhood. The high school he went to was mediocre at best. However, my bf was serious about education and wanted to go to college. He went to all his classes, studied, did well, and on top of this worked a full time job. He graduated high school at the top of his class and went to the state public university (which is where we meet  ). Because he is a minority (and comes form a poor family and even poorer area) he got a need based scholarship and a Pell grant. The university also had a program for the under privileged incoming freshman- this program consisted of the soon to be freshman to start college several weeks early to help ‘make them ready for college’.

Now this all seems well and good- which it is- but here is the catch (sorry for this post to be so long winded). Even with all this help and personal drive, my bf almost failed out if college!! The reason why- his high school education left him so ill equipped for the rigors of college that not even the extra help the University gave was able to bring him up to the skill level needed in college. This was true for many of the minority students that came in with my bf. It was due to strong family support/expectations and help from me tutoring him that he is now going to be graduating college! Unfortunately, many kids do not have this sort of support. There is something seriously wrong with the system if you have the drive and intelligence, but this still happens. And my bf is not an uncommon phenomena- I know many people who have been in this same situation.

Basically what I am getting at is that an equal starting place begins with education and the US is not up to par on this!!! (side not- because of soaring college costs my bf is going to graduate $30,000 in debt for 4 years!! And this is at a state PUBLIC university where he pays in state tuition with a scholarship and Pell grant!! And in-state tuition here is insanely cheap compared to my home state…Tell me that is not ridiculous!)

Posted by: marie | Dec 10, 2004 9:44:00 AM

Posted by: marie

that ? after 'where we meet' was supposed to be a smiely...

Posted by: marie | Dec 10, 2004 9:46:25 AM

Posted by: Bernard

Marie, what do you suggest be done?

Posted by: Bernard | Dec 10, 2004 9:53:05 AM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

I think Bruce Allardice's gloss on the Fortescue story is important because it establishes that the moral of the story is the opposite of what Don Herzog suggested it was: that the English system took the notion of the rule of law seriously, and that it attempted (however imperfectly) to provide remedies against the arbitrary behavior of the peerage, just as the peers had limited the arbitrary behavior of the Crown first in Magna Charta, and the Commons later did through the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. Note in the list of things for which peers must answer was breach of the king's peace, which I take to mean at least in part the right of free Englishmen to enjoy security in their persons and property. While it doesn't seem so popular nowadays to study the historical roots of the Anglo-Saxon common law tradition, I've always considered the time I spent reading Plunkett, Pollock and Maitland, Blackstone, Coke, Fortesque and even parts of some of the early Yearbooks to have been time very well spent.

It does seem to me that equality under the law is a sine qua non of a free society, and a necessary bedrock principle of our Constitutional republic. Equality of opportunity can mean many things to many people as this and other discussions show. It may or may not be a necessary condition of a free society. The question then becomes whether (and if the answer is yes, to what degree) something proposed in the name of equality of opportunity can infringe upon equality under the law. Different people will have different comfort levels with this. I would suggest that the principles ought to be lexically ( or lexicographically) ordered, along the lines Rawls lexically orders his principles of justice.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 10, 2004 9:58:32 AM

Posted by: marie

Ahhh...that is the tricky part. I really think there is no easy answer. To be honest, I believe our entire public education system needs to have a complete overhaul. This topic could be an entire post by itself.

I'm at work right now so I will need to cut this short and come back later. I will recommend to all to go buy a book called 'No Excuses' (can't remember the authors names right now for the life of me). It is absolutely excellent though!!!! I highly recommend it if you want a frank look at public education for the common people today...the authors propose quite a few good suggestions too. When I remember the authors name a will make sure to post it.

Posted by: marie | Dec 10, 2004 10:01:10 AM

Posted by: Bernard

Marie. I'll be interested to hear about the book. One commonly mooted option for improving the choices parents have over their kids educational access is via a voucher scheme. The obligation of every public school to supervise a large number who don't really want to be there necessarily limits their ability to properly educate the ones who do.

Posted by: Bernard | Dec 10, 2004 10:08:17 AM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

I think the story you relate does more to make my point than to refute it. You boyfriend (given the deficiences in his high school preparation, which is another whole set of issues to discuss and I don't mean to suggest any fault on his part) had no business being at the state university where you met if his academic preparation was deficient, and the system that recruited him and sent him there before those deficiencies were remedied did him no service. Indeed, given the $30,000 debt load you describe, it did him a disservice. There is a new study about to be published in the Stanford Law Review which suggest that affirmative action actually harms those admitted to law schools for which their academic preparation and test scores are well below the norms for those schools more than it helps them. The study is controversial and there's going to be a lot of discussion of it. All I can say is that the observation that minority affirmative action admittees tend to cluster in the bottom 10-15% of the class, and to have significantly lower bar passage rates, is consistent with my own observations in law school in the late 1970s.

Forty years ago in California (and perhaps even today, perhaps in California and elsewhere, although I understand tuition has risen dramatically) someone in your boyfriend's position would have gone to a local junior (community) college and spent a year or two taking remedial courses and perhaps working part time, living at home. His school cost would have been mostly his books and commuting costs. When he had remedied the deficiencies in his preparation, he would have been eligible for the University of California transferable academic classes where he could demonstrate his ability to compete at the level expected at the University, and could have done so at a fraction of the cost of a residential university. If he could maintain a B average in those academic classes and get the equivalent of the first two years of University requirements completed, he could then have transfered to the University adequately prepared to compete with other students.

To me, that's a much more effective model of providing opportunity than the story you describe. When I suggested that the public colleges and universities provided a remarkable achievement in terms of providing equal opportunities I was not suggesting they were entirely successful, rather that at least as the systems were designed, especially before the current huge increases in costs and affirmative action programs that place students into schools for which they are not prepared, they went a long way towards providing significant opportunities. Consider how rare college would be if there were only private colleges and universities.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 10, 2004 10:22:41 AM

Posted by: benton

Marie -

The book is by Abigail Thernstrom. Many readers here will be familiar with her. "No Excuses Schools" themselves have been identified by the Heritage Foundation. Similarly the Education Trust identifies "High Flyers" Most of the "high flyers" sadly are mere statistical artifacts. Start with the fact that they are a tiny percentage of the schools serving high poverty/high minority populations. When you examine their performance over time you find that they managed to succeed for one year in a couple of subjects or two years in one subject. But they do not consistently show success across subjects across time. Simply put, this is taking a false positive and calling it an example that all should follow.

Then there are the measurement problems used to identify the "no excuses schools." My favorite is the one with the low income student body that is located in Cambridge Mass. It has great test scores. It disproportionately enrolls the children of Harvard and MIT graduate students - who of course are poor starving graduate students. But to say this is a triumph in urban education is a bit of stretch.

In the case of some "no excuses" programs such as KIPP academy, there is something real going on. But here these schools' population are self selected. Parents are choosing to sign contracts with the school that commit them to a greater amount of involvement in schoolwork, extracurriculars etc. I think KIPP is great and have worked to promote it. But its a "coalition of the willing" approach and we don't have a plan to make more people able to join the coalition. Most of the people on the right who see KIPP as the solution don't come to grips with the fact that single parent or two working parent low income families have very hard choices to make in signing up for this kind of program and that parents without employment face a whole set of other issues. Creating better equality of opportunity is necessary, I suspect, to make more KIPP academies possible.

There are a tiny, tiny, tiny handful of schools that are defying the odds consistently. Even in these schools, some students fail. In "failing schools" some students succeed. So we know that poverty is not a death sentence. But it does shift the odds against you. A lot. Richard Rothstein's Class and Schools has a chapter devoted entirely to crunching the numbers on each of these issues. It also talks about some things we can invest in that should help.

Let me also chime in on equality of opportunity more generally. As a former teacher and current advocate for a better educational system I'll never argue that there are currently things schools need to do better to create more equality of opportunity. And I am horrified over how much disagreement over basic questions such as the proper role of phonics etc. However, state and local funding systems built on the principles of the book of Mathew - to those who have, much will be given - are a huge part of the problem. They cement in the inequality of opportunity. But I'm also troubled by attempts to solve this problem by capping what a wealthy community can spend on their children's education, but more needs to be done.

Posted by: benton | Dec 10, 2004 10:55:44 AM

Posted by: Bruce Allardice

I'd like to chime in with general comments that I think represent a wide range of non-Liberal thinking on this subject:

1) All that the Constitution requires is equality under the law, nothing more--that special privileges for some but not others under the law, like those of the 16th century English aristocracy, shall not be.
2) There are special privileges given today under American law--for example, to racial and other self-styled minorities under "affirmative action" laws.
3) The people who talk about "equality of opportunity" are by and large the same people who support the "inequality under the law" mentioned above, the one inequality so antithetical to our tradition and law.
4) Conservatives see a contradiction at best, hypocrisy at worst, in this. They thus doubt the sincerity of those who talk about the admittedly vague "equality of opportunity" while violating "equality under the law".
5) Conservatives see "equality of opportunity" a vague concept, impossible to define, much less enact, and unjustified by our tradition and constitution. Thus Conservatives see such talk as a Trojan Horse used to justify introduction of more government control into our lives, and more government-mandated inequality under the law. In short they suspect such "equality of opportunity" advocates not BECAUSE they support legal privilege such as past aristocrats had, but precisely because they OPPOSE the giving of legal privileges that enacting "equality of opportunity" would entail.

Posted by: Bruce Allardice | Dec 10, 2004 11:22:39 AM

Posted by: Mike Enright

Is equality of oppertunity different from equality of result?

I, along with Anthony de Jasay, would argue that it is not. If we are talking about market processes as a "race", there really is no starting and ending point. A starting point is also an ending point, and things keep cycling. The only way to have equality of oppertunity from one starting point, is to have equality of result for the previous race ending up at that starting point.

Posted by: Mike Enright | Dec 10, 2004 12:51:00 PM

Posted by: hr

It seems to me that the left/right disconnect in this debate bascially boils down to this: The right believes that there is significant opportunity to advance out of poverty and into the middle class, and that many poor people (although not all), espcially the ones that remaian poor over generaltions, do so because of their own bad choices, meaning a refusal to plan long-term and to work long hours or to take school seriously now for a better life later. The left (it seems to me) believes instead that the deck is so stacked against many poor people that there simply is no possibility of advancement no matter how hard one works. Thus, the only solution is government help or affirmative action-type programs for minorities.

So my qustion to the people on the left is this: Assume a poor person who has a reasonable level of intelligence, who has basic, if not entirely ideal, opportunities for schooling and employment, and who understands the choices that face him in life. Suppose this person, despite the path to socioeconomic advancement that is open to him, consistently makes self-defeating choices (use whatever you want here - doesn't finish high school so he can spend more time partying, starts selling drugs for the quick payoff, etc.). Is it then acceptable to let this person fall below the floor as a consequence of his own actions or should government/society step in at the moment he would have to face the consequences of his self-defeating choices (and, I would say, learn from them) and say, "that's ok, we'll pull you up."

My argument would be that if the path of advancement is open, and someone consistently chooses not to take it, then this is neither society's fault nor its concern.

Further, based only on my personal experience, I would say that this does in fact describe a substantial number of those who persistently remain poor in this country.

Posted by: hr | Dec 10, 2004 12:58:56 PM

Posted by: hr

"I, along with Anthony de Jasay, would argue that it is not. If we are talking about market processes as a "race", there really is no starting and ending point. A starting point is also an ending point, and things keep cycling. The only way to have equality of oppertunity from one starting point, is to have equality of result for the previous race ending up at that starting point."

The conclusion here, I think, would be that the race analogy is inapt rather than equality of result is required for everyone.

Posted by: hr | Dec 10, 2004 1:04:01 PM

Posted by: Ted

"Thus, the only solution is government help or affirmative action-type programs for minorities."

However, there is no empirical evidence that these programs actually solve the "problem." Indeed, the empirical evidence points to these programs only making things worse. See Vision of the Annointed by Thomas Sowell.

Beyond philsophical questions of justice and government, shouldn't the actual success rate (or in this case, failure rate) of the these programs be a factor in dicussing their need?

Why is this not addressed on the Left?

Posted by: Ted | Dec 10, 2004 1:15:00 PM

Posted by: hr


I agree the success rate is very relevant. The problem, however, is that it allows an out: the idea wasn't bad, just how it was designed, implemented, or administered badly. For, example, see the far left's reaction to the failure of communism; despite over 100 years of failure, death and destruction in many different countries, and in almost every geographical region you will still find many on the far left who will claim that communism has never really been tried, or that with better commuist rulers it would work. The fact, of course, is that anyone can read Marx and figure out that the entire enterprise is doomed from the start. So, you have to suggest that there is a failing in the ideas themselves, not just in how they've been executed - otherwise the conclusion is that we should try again and do better this time.

Posted by: hr | Dec 10, 2004 1:22:18 PM

Posted by: Mike Enright

This post, and liberal discussion in general looks to equality as if it were primarily and economic function. I believe that there are cultural and sociological factors involved, such that no amount of money spent on things like education can overcome. Schools can only do so much. The teaching in schools first has to overcome what people learn at home and in their communities. This is not a light thing. My point overall is that I think it is incredibly bold to think that this is a problem that government can solve. We can't fix everything from above, or change social results by throwing around money alone.

There are incredible problems that have to be overcome in order to bring the lower classes up into the middle classes. I am basing this not only on things I have read, but people I have met while working with prisoners. I am not a social conservative, however, I have seen some things that I think are very eye opeining.

The first thing I noticed, and it is something that gets mentioned frequently, is the problem of fatherlessness, child abandonment, and kids living with their mother's beau of the day. Many people talk about this, but when you see it happening over and over in poor families it can be really stunning. I grew up in a middle class family (not that long ago, I'm only 26), and within my family and my social circle this was rare. With the prisoners I have talked to, and whose lives I have looked into, this is endemic.

A second thing I noticed was that criminality is something that is expected in the lower class community where most of the prisoners I met came from. Many of these kids look up to the tough guy. They have fathers and uncles at the prison. They committ crimes and get sent to the youth correctional center. When they come back they have status. They need to keep this status. So they committ more crimes. Of course as adults (especially in Louisiana), they can easily end up locked away for life in Angola Prison. This is not something I made up. This is something I am told by prisoners who look back at their mistakes. This also creates a problem of competition between tough guys, each needing to establish their place on the social ladder ensuring their safety. There is nobody more insecure than the neighborhood tough guy and everyone is aiming at him. This is part of the problem of violence in urban communities.

The problems I am mentioning are cultural. My point is that government cannot fix these problems with simple investment. I am not sure government itself can fix these problems. Can government change a whole culture or make up for the fact that some people are brought up in families or societies where strong cultural roles influence where their members end up in life--some for better and others for worse? Doesn't this seem like a bit much? Is the idea of equality too utopian?

Posted by: Mike Enright | Dec 10, 2004 1:23:37 PM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

Your post, and the references by others to Abigail Thernstrom's work, recalled to mind an illustration of the way in which the left and right have long seemed to talk past each other. When a graduate student in history, I had occasion to read and write a seminar essay on Stephan Thernstrom's Poverty and Progress, an examination of social mobility in a 19th century American city. If I remember correctly after some 30 years, Thernstrom showed empirically with census and other data that in this particular city, over three generations, about 1/3 of the family units rose at least two socio-economic levels as he defined them. Some smaller percentage fell at least two levels. Those in the seminar who considered themselves men and women of the left were uniformly appalled (including the professor who was an eminent historian specializing in the New Deal), taking the view that this demonstrated that the idea of America as the "land of opportunity" was simply untrue, and an oppressive myth. As one whose primary field was in European history, and thus aware of the far more limited social mobility and class rigidity in Europe during the same period, my take was the opposite: America did indeed provide (at least in the place studied) significantly greater social mobilty to immigrants than the places they had left, even in the most liberal of European societies at the time, Britain.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 10, 2004 1:24:42 PM

Posted by: the prof


Have we no work houses? Have we no prisons? I guess that's just the season talking.

On a more serious note: suppose you choose the obvious and conspicuous path to economic advancement? Suppose you see the apparent success of this path around you? And there are few examples of "failure"? Would you pursue this path?

I am referring to that most capitalist enterprise, selling drugs. You are living in a community with virtually no economic opportunities. Your schools are terrible, and give you virtually none of the skills necessary for advancement (I really don't know what you mean by "basic" education and how that translates into the possibility of success, but the schools in many urban areas are not far removed from war zones). Success is evident: you can see the clothes, cars, and other accoutrements of wealth. Finally, there are few "failures" around you because they're all dead or in jail.

I think the argument is that the path to advancement is *not* open. Many on the left argue this, but so do some of the more perceptive on the right (McCain, Kemp). In fact, there are few who deny that the situation in urban areas is not a tragedy. They disagree on the cure. But most agree that providing a more clear and attainable path to upward mobility is a necessary cure.

To S. Weasel: where are you coming up with these "factoids"? 80% of Americans consider themselves middle class. That trascends income, profession, place of residence, even if theyreject what you call "middle class" values.

And where do you get your evidence for this:
All kids expect to be superstars. Middle class kids think, "but until I am discovered by Hollywood, I'll be a dental hygienist." Or a mechanical engineer or an insurance salesman or a programmer. Stable, happy societies are built out of people like this, who dream medium-sized.
I mean, that's just completely blue smoke coming out of the nether regions, right? Middle class kids really dream of becoming dental hygenists (does that even pay a decent wage?) or insurance salesmen? What middle class kids are you talking about?
, the middle class children have "middle class ambitions", they are just happy to be a dental hygenist (which by the way is unlikely to pay a living wage)

What the left has traditionally failed to understand is this: class really doesn't matter in this country. Most Americans believe the american dream, that anyone can make it in this country regardless of their origins. Thus, they have not supported income or outcome equalization schemes.

What Don is looking for has been the liberal Shangri-La: some way to reconceptualize programs equality (of opportunity) in language that the mass of America will endorse. One example is those who abandon race based affirmative action (rejected by the majority of Americans) with socioeconomic based affirmative action.

Posted by: the prof | Dec 10, 2004 1:25:35 PM

Posted by: rtr

As usual the free market is providing the solution by ever allowing better cheaper standards. Welcome to the blogosphere, the future universally "free" educational model of the future. How hard is it to videotape classroom presentations and so increadibly cheaply post them to the internet? The classroom size is at the same time incredibly huge and of the utmost personal interaction.

Is there any big government state protection impeding this model from being even better? Why yes its copyright, the protection of non-scarce not-material non-property ideas which can in a pure socialist and at the same time pure libertarian fashion be inhabited and owned by all who so choose. Take a look at www.mises.org and see that they have first rate intellectual work readily available at the click of a mouse, inlcuding primary sources, audio and video tapes of Rothbard lectures, etc. for free!

The university/college academic model of paying $30,000 a year in tuition is going to be ver more seriously challenged by the internet. Will liberal professors embrace this, abandon rent seeking from government grants and subsidies, copyright protection, etc.? The free market will force them to if they hope to even remain relevent and "heard".

This model can work for K-12 as well and is inherently non-violent compulsory mandated. The richest and the poorest, the smartest and the intellectually challenged can now all unite in the same classroom. Cheers to the free market!

Posted by: rtr | Dec 10, 2004 1:34:23 PM

Posted by: hr


On the drugs thing:
First, I support ending the drug war, so following my if-I-were-king policies there would be no black market for drugs, and no quick payoffs, but that is beside the point.
Second, accepting that drugs will remain illegal, selling drugs for short-term gain is simply not in anyone's rational interest unless you only care about today - and this information is not hidden - how many people in the inner cities go to prison or are killed over the drug trade? A whole lot; you don't have to be a scholar to see that death or prison is not in your long-term interest.

Further, I have never seen any convincing evidence presented that the path of advancement is not open. Usually the evidence consists of reading off statistics about how many people are poor. However, there may be both a lot of poor and and open path to advancment IF there are many people who CHOOSE not to follow that path. My hypo was more about condensing what I've seen personally in my life rather than an abstract question. I grew up in a very working-class/farming small town, I have and continue to have friends (not just acquaintances) who fit the description, I have had jobs that took me to the inner city also; I have lived in places that are reddest of the red and I've living in places that are bluest of the blue areas.

I've noticed:
(1) The number of people who can't survive in the most basic sense is very small. The american poor tend to have shelter and food; many of them also have cars, TVs, and air conditioning.
(2) Many (including personally some people I cared very much about) do in fact make true choices that ensure that they will stay poor.
(3) Fortunately, I have also seen people who have to bear the burden of their poor choices turn their lives around.

So, my point is, the situation in the inner cities and the poor rural areas may very well be a tragedy, but it is often a collection of personal tragedies rather than a failure of society to do right by the poor.

Posted by: hr | Dec 10, 2004 1:45:23 PM

Posted by: hr

One more thing - having traveled fairly extensively in this country, and I have found few places with "virtually no [legitimate] economic opportunities" on either side of the tracks.

Posted by: hr | Dec 10, 2004 1:52:01 PM

Posted by: S. Weasel

To S. Weasel: where are you coming up with these "factoids"? 80% of Americans consider themselves middle class. That trascends income, profession, place of residence, even if theyreject what you call "middle class" values.

Pretty amusing, 'prof,' challenging my data without sourcing your own.

Posted by: S. Weasel | Dec 10, 2004 1:52:27 PM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

I think "the prof" is clearly correct that an overwhelming majority of Americans consider themselves, or aspire to be, "middle class" and that the class-based social critiques that many Europeans and Britons have found compelling simply do not resonate in the United States. As a result, I do think it can be misleading to speak of "middle class values". The alternatives, however, are imperfect as well: "bourgeois values" is possibly useful as it captures the notions of sobriety, hard work, education, etc. of the 19th century professionals and small entrepreneurs, but smacks of class analysis. Likewise, "Protestant values" likewise alludes to our Puritan forebearers and the values of piety, hard work, sobriety, and education associated with the Protestant churches from the 16th century on, but excludes too many people who do not share the specific religious faith it entails.

As the reference to Dickens suggests, the left is loathe to talk about the concept of "deserving poor" which so long figured in discussions of poverty before the Great Depression in the United States, and which, I suggest, probably still resides inchoate in the minds of many conservatives and classical liberals. It's this age-old debate that peeks from behind the curtain when people think about whether we ought let people suffer the consequences of their own bad choices, or to what extent we're willing to. It's not far from the surface in discussions of educational and training programs, which often can garner support because taking advantage of such a program to 'better oneself' makes one (intuitively) more 'deserving' of help than someone who is not willing to try to learn new skills.

Perhaps the entire notion of "entitlement" needs to be rethought, especially on the left. To the extent that benefits are not entitlements, but something the provider (whether state or private) does not have to do, then behavioral conditions can be set for the reciept of the benefit.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 10, 2004 1:52:42 PM

Posted by: hr


That was what I was trying to get at. I would note that prof didn't really answer my question, just argued with the terms of the hypo. I'm trying to understand the philosophy of the left on this so my question is:

Assuming the path of advancement IS open (regardless of whether in actuality it is or not) and someone chooses not to follow it, is it acceptable that they should fall below the floor?

I will admit to a wrinkle - that is, children. They are often intertwined with all this and cannot be assumed to be able to make choices. But, for this question, lets assume that there are no children involved at all.

Posted by: hr | Dec 10, 2004 2:03:05 PM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

Assuming the path of advancement IS open (regardless of whether in actuality it is or not) and someone chooses not to follow it, is it acceptable that they should fall below the floor?

I think the left would tend to say no. I would expect a lot of qualifications and nuances, but if the question was put as a simple yes or no, I think most on the left would choose no. But, since I'm not a man of the left, I shouldn't speak for them.

The very complexity of that question, and involvement of children, can be seen in the historical distinctions between the deserving poor (the proverbial "widows and orphans") and those who were held to be responsible for their own conditions (rightly or wrongly). In a sense, the much maligned workhouses of England (and they were often abusive indeed) were an attempt to put a floor on how far you'd let someone sink: they were at least supposed feed and clothe the poor and provide work and shelter to them, however meanly. I'm prepared to believe that the horrors described by Dickens and contemporary writers were the result of well-intended reforms of the poor laws. Likewise, I think that anyone who has lived through the last half-century must concede that the intentions of those who enacted the very reforms we see today as having created massive problems (the large public housing projects, the old AFDC system, the destruction of the underclass family, urban renewal, disasterously bad schools) were good, although I feel compelled to add that there were plenty of us who were skeptical at the time.

If you can't take away peoples' benefits for engaging in, tolerating and/or encouranging anti-social behavior (young thuggery being a prime example), then you'll never control the behavior. Likewise, as long as the urban schools cannot simply expel those who won't behave, they will never control the behavior of students or create an atmosphere in which learning is the primary focus.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 10, 2004 2:22:21 PM

Posted by: hr

Well, I guess we're discussing without the left here, but...

If the left answers no, I think it would then have to admit the costs of its answer (just as the right would have to admit the costs of a yes answer - i.e. that some people will be destitute in a very rich society). These costs as I see them would be:
(1) severe damage to the ethic of personal responsibiity which is so important to individual success and to a society
(2) cutting off the opportunity for the offending person to grow - that is, to learn from his mistakes
(3) the higher taxes and bureaucratic infrastructure to maintain the larger welfare system.

If the left admits this, then what we have it seems, it just a different ranking of values we ALL see as important. The right, unwilling to sacrifice personal responsibility and liberty is willing to allow some people to be destitute; the left, loathe to live in a society that allows any one to be destitute, is willing to sacrifice personal responsibility and liberty and to pay more in taxes.

Neither one of the value ranking, I think, can be called irrational or wrong. Nor do I think there is really any objective way to choose between them in the abstract. So, the question first becomes simply the democratic one: which position has more adherents.

Given that we are not starting with a clean slate, though, the question shifts. Ted's empirical observation becomes very relevant. That is, government programs for the poor haven't really been very good at providing for the poor and may have affirmatively harmed them. This, then, does provide an objective basis for choosing among public policies; your value ranking may be fairly irrelevant if there is no reasonable way to translate it into an effective public policy.

I know all this is pretty simplified, but I think it does get to the left/right communication issue.

Posted by: hr | Dec 10, 2004 2:39:53 PM

Posted by: AlanC9

Exactly what do we mean by "destitute"? Literally starving to death in an alley, or some lesser form of deprivation?

Also, I'm not at all clear on what this has to do with the original issue; unequal starting points. By definition, you're not responsible for your own starting point.

Posted by: AlanC9 | Dec 10, 2004 3:19:52 PM

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