There are two answers to the thorny problem of maintaining equality of opportunity while allowing for inequality of outcomes in contemporary American life. The first is to refurbish the doctrine of Equality of Opportunity with a new term: meritocracy. The idea here is that your going to this school, or getting that job, is a matter of deserving it after a fashion – not having earned it exactly, but indicating a degree of promise that makes conferring privilege a safe bet. But how does one measure this notion of fitness? Supposedly with things like grades and test scores. But they often raised as many questions as they answered. (Does the test measure what matters? Can it be gamed? Is it ethnocentric?) People whose job it was to serve as gatekeepers of privilege took the edge of any obvious or suspicious sense that the game was rigged by defining merit not simply as a matter of empirical things like test scores or grades, but having had experiences of adversity that one can plausibly believe will season one for success. So it was that Affirmative Action and meritocracy came of age together in the last third of the 20th century, even though they really represent distinct, and perhaps conflicting, bases on which to measure merit.
My point here is not to challenge the worthiness of any particular beneficiary of this system. (A scholarship boy who rode good grades into a decent living, I am in many ways a beneficiary of it.) My point here is that whatever its benefits, meritocracy has served to make inequality stronger. Stronger, I think, than it really should be. We should be more suspicious of inequality, less lulled into a sense of complacency that it isn’t slavery.
Again: I recognize that inequality may not only be inevitable, but actually useful. Certainly there are advantages to everyone in rewarding talented people whose skills, inherited and acquired, stand to benefit all of us. And given the inevitability that privilege is always going to be parceled out in arbitrary ways – to quote the truism, life is unfair – we need some mechanism for sorting people. The problem is that we tend to have more faith in this system than we should. For one thing, talent and skill isn’t always, or even often, enlisted to benefit all of us. For another, that mechanism can create the impression that life is more fair than it really is. The result is that we tend to give inequality a pass in way we don’t when it comes to slavery.
Here’s a thought experiment for you. Let’s say we did away with the doctrine of Equality of Opportunity and accepted the reality of inequality of condition as the more pervasive and fixed reality that it really is. Instead of telling you that there’s nothing you can’t be, you would be told not to follow your dreams, that dreaming is a foolish and even counterproductive proposition, and that you belong in a fixed stratum of society. The key to success in your life would be understanding your the possibilities and limits of the role you have been assigned. Part of that understanding would involve a sense of reciprocal responsibility: the people “above” you, whatever that might mean, would have obligations to you, and you would have obligations to those “below” you. People wouldn’t necessarily meet those obligations, but you would at least have that standard by which to measure them.
My guess is that this doesn’t sound that attractive to you. But it’s not chattel slavery – the owner of the slave has no obligation to his property – and in fact resembles some relationships in everyday life today, like that of parent and child. It sounds a feudal in its dynamic of lord/vassal relations, but as a matter of fact, such an order has prevailed for most of human history in one form or another (typically as a class system). To be sure, it has its oppressions, and the history of western life in the last 250 years has essentially been one long rebellion against it, a rebellion in which the United States has long been at the vanguard and which has been substantially, though not completely, successful (again, in large measure because we are at least partially drawn to that against which we rebel). But it doesn’t lie – or at least lie in the same way – about what inequality is, how it works, how and attached we are to it. It also establishes a standard of accountability by which inequality can at least be rejected, and re-established on a sounder basis.
I doubt this pitch of mine is convincing you, and as an elite white man who has been a beneficiary of the status quo, it’s unseemly for me to tell you that you shouldn’t want what I have and/or that you’d really be happier with an order where you knew, and accepted, your place. My real goal here is less ideological than historical: I want you to see the social order in which you live as a socially contingent one that came about for a series of specific reasons based on things that happened in the past. That social order has a logic to it – there are good reasons why things are the way they are. Not good in the sense of virtuous; good in the sense of understandable. Actually, there are aspects of the way things are that are not good in any moral sense, that reflect collective dishonesty, hypocrisy, fear. Knowing that things have been different – that other societies have not made the mistakes we have, and have not been subject to the same hypocrisies – doesn’t necessarily make them better. Almost always, there are tradeoffs involved. Chances are you’re going to want to stick with what you know. In all times and places, this is what humans tend to do. As no less an authority than Thomas Jefferson explained in the Declaration of Independence, “all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” That’s why a little rebellion can be a good thing. (A lot of rebellion tends to replace one form of oppression with another.)
And that’s what I suggesting here: that when it comes to inequality, you should be a little rebellious. You simply don’t have the power to change all that much, and even if you did, you have a deeply human desire for distinction, to savor the experience of inequality. But you should try to resist it. That’s why I invite to ask yourself when you find yourself in a formal or informal social situation: What kind of inequality is taking place here? What realities does it reflect? Do I like what I’m seeing? Do I need it? Is there anything I can do to make it better, whether in terms of word, gesture, or act?
I know: this isn’t going to happen all that often. But it doesn’t need to for you to achieve the best kind of distinction in a democratic republic: that of a good citizen.
One last thing. I need to point out that however great his hostility to slavery, Abraham Lincoln believed deeply in the doctrine of Equality of Opportunity. He experienced is as a living reality, and described it with typically vivid, simple prose the year before he became president – prose that helped him become president:
There is no such thing as a man who is a hired laborer, of a necessity, always remaining in his early condition. The general rule is otherwise. I know it is so; and I will tell you why. When at an early age, I was myself a hired laborer, at twelve dollars per month; and therefore I do know that there is not always the necessity for actual labor because once there was propriety in being so. My understanding of the hired laborer is this: A young man finds himself of an age to be dismissed from parental control; he has for his capital nothing, save two strong hands that God has given him, a heart willing to labor, and a freedom to choose the mode of his work and the manner of his employer; he has got no soil nor shop, and he avails himself of the opportunity of hiring himself to some man who has capital to pay him a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work. He is benefited by availing himself of that privilege. He works industriously, he behaves soberly, and the result of a year or two’s labor is a surplus of capital. Now he buys land on his own hook; he settles, marries, begets sons and daughters, and in course of time he too has enough capital to hire some new beginner.
It’s a beautiful vision. And it may even be true in the 21st century. I want to believe it is. But I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that it’s not as easy as Lincoln makes it sound. I believe that were he around today, Lincoln would say that if inequality is not wrong, it’s wrong more often we’re willing to admit. And that we should fight its spread. That, I think, is what Lincoln would do. You agree?