Equality of Opportunity: The Perpetual Alibi of Bureaucracy

We live in an irreligious age but that does not mean that we hold nothing sacred. We have many sacred cows, whole herds of them in fact; and one of them is equality of opportunity. To question the sanctity of this notion – as I have found if not exactly to my cost, at least at the cost of some disapproval of me – is a social faux pas worse than eating peas with your knife.

Recently I spoke to some pupils at a school in Geneva. They were highly privileged children who, as a result of their privileges, were almost certain to remain privileged for the rest of their lives. I mean this as no criticism of them or to arouse any hostility towards them; for among their privileges, or perhaps I should say advantages, was an early appreciation of the necessity to work hard. And in the modern world even the privileged have to work hard in order to maintain their privileges.

Be this all as it may, the question of equality of opportunity came up. Needless to say, all the privileged children were in favor of it; they had absorbed the indisputability of its desirability with their mother’s milk, as it were.

It did not occur to them, of course, that a reduction in their own privileges might conduce to equality of opportunity; or that, if equality were important as a goal in itself, the equal denial of opportunity of some would do as well as the expansion of opportunity to others. Indeed, a complete absence of opportunity for anyone would be equality of opportunity, but it would hardly be desirable.

I said that of all the notions known to me, equality of opportunity was the most totalitarian. One of the pupils, rather surprised, asked whether I believed in the level playing field, a cliché I detest but which is nevertheless useful (explaining, I suppose, why it became a cliché in the first place).

If by level playing field is meant purely formal (and never quite realized) equality before the law, I was indeed in favor of it. But if what was meant by a level playing field was that everyone should be born with precisely the same opportunities in life I was not merely against it, but I was deeply opposed to it. One could almost hear the gasps of surprise.

If one took the goal of equality of opportunity seriously, as in fact nobody does, it would soon lead to Brave New World. Babies and children would have to be brought up in hatcheries to avoid the inevitable influence of parents on a child’s destiny. It does not matter precisely what proportion of a child’s destiny is attributable to heredity and how much to environment; so long as it is conceded that his environment plays some part in it, the necessity for hatcheries, or at least of an utterly uniform environment, would hold. Only the most utopian of totalitarians would find this attractive or desirable.

But the genetic lottery would also have to be fixed: it would be no good having equality of environmental circumstances if the dice were heavily loaded in some children’s favor, or against others, from the moment of conception. Cloning and absolute identity of upbringing are the only way of bringing about equality of opportunity.

Again, are we speaking of equality of opportunity within societies or between societies? If equality of opportunity is sought in the name of justice, it is difficult to see why a geographical accident of birth, according to which a child born in one country had more opportunity than a child born in another, should be permissible. Equality of opportunity means world government, as Aldous Huxley understood.

In fact, no one really believes in equality of opportunity; it is a slogan uttered more to vaunt the political virtue or bona fides of the person uttering it than it is a consummation deeply desired. But just because a slogan is not really believed in or meant to be believed in does not mean that it can do no harm, quite the contrary.

It should be possible in a modern society to provide everyone with opportunity, if not equality of opportunity. But the slogan of equality of opportunity is a very useful way of disguising the fact that our society denies many of its children opportunities that it should be perfectly possible to open up to them.

Let me illustrate what I mean by reference to my own country, Great Britain. Torrents of crocodile tears are spilt over the inequality of chances between the best off and worst off in the country, an inequality that may actually have increased in late years – precisely at a time when immense expenditures supposedly intended to decrease the inequalities have been undertaken by the government, to the swift ruination of the economy. At the same time, practically no notice is taken of the fact that a very significant proportion of children emerge from state school after eleven years of compulsory attendance hardly able to read or to perform simple arithmetical calculations, despite the fact that about $80,000 has been spent on their education, so called, and that it has been almost conclusively established that the overwhelming majority of children can be taught these things, whatever their social circumstances. This is a scandal of gargantuan proportions, yet it is hardly noticed.

Why? Why a fixation on an impossible chimera, equality of opportunity, and a complete disregard of a perfectly achievable end conducing to more opportunity for millions of actual people, namely teaching them to read and reckon with facility? The answer, I think, is that chasing chimeras is a source of endless job opportunities and bureaucratic expansion; trying to achieve limited, but achievable and invaluable, goals would demand painful change (and possibly even admissions of guilt). There is every reason why a child born to ignorant parents of degraded habits should not have the same life chances as a child born to wealthy and cultivated parents; but there is no reason why he should not learn – that is to say, be taught – to read and write.

Equality of opportunity is not a cry of the people; it is the perpetual alibi of a bureaucracy.

Reader Discussion

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on December 31, 2012 at 09:36:43 am

[...] The Perpetual Alibi of Bureaucracy – Theodore Dalrymple, Liberty Law Blog [...]

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on January 02, 2013 at 23:31:45 pm

Dr. Dalrymple's essay highlights a point made by George Orwell in his discussion of political language: " As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse."

The deficiency of the phrase "equality of opportunity" is that it is a vehicle unsuited to the freight that it is supposed to carry; it does not mean what the words seem to say. The notion that enjoys an instinctive popular support is not in fact that everyone should have the same opportunities. As Dr. Dalrymple observes, that is not within human power to bestow. What is aimed at is the notion that the institutions of society should not be rigged against individuals because of subjective bias.

The term "equality of opportunity" does not make sense in terms of political philosophy because it is not intended to. As is the case with similar gaseous terms like "social justice," and "balanced approach," it is a Trojan Horse, a sentimental ploy to distract from the insular interests that hides behind it.

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on January 08, 2013 at 09:23:39 am

The problem is that progressive circles have moved on to "Equality of Outcome". For example, it is insufficient for a University to claim they have rejected applicants because of low A-Level results, which would be acceptable if the criteria were Equality of Opportunity. Instead they must now allow for students of poorer background to be admitted even though they achieved lower results. In other words they must pretend that the students would have achieved higher results had they the same background as a different higher achieving child.

Given that, it is unhelpful to argue against Equality of Opportunity without contrasting it with Equality of Outcome. Most people would regard equality before the law as a perfect example of Equality of Opportunity. The other examples cited could be regarded as closer to Equality of Outcome. This distinction is important because Mr Dalrymple risks fighting a strawman, or being misunderstood by the casual reader.

Let me make a parallel. Progressives deliberately conflate Negative and Positive Rights. That is because they understand that the former are rights of the citizen against the state and the latter are rights of the state against the citizen. Nonetheless, opponents do not argue against rights in toto. Rather they make clear the distinction and argue for the former.

Since Mr Dalyrymple does believe in equality before the law then he ought to define equality of opportunity in a limited way to exclude equality of outcome rather than risk being misunderstood.

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on January 08, 2013 at 11:54:11 am

Perhaps the good doctor should reread Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' as it depicts the complete abandonment of the concept of equal opportunity.

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on January 10, 2013 at 15:56:35 pm

The philosopher Antony Flew is well worth a read on this subject (see his 'The politics of Procrustes').

He argues that on the left there is a strong tendency to collapse equality of opportunity into equality of outcome by taking any difference in outcome to signify a difference in opportunity.

He also distinguishes equality of opportunity understood as 'free and fair competition for scarce opportunities' (i.e. the situation in which all people compete for scarce goods and are judged only by the same relevant criteria) from equality of opportunity understood as 'equal life chances.' The latter is the notion that Dr. Dalrymple rightly regards as totalitarian. Professor Flew makes these totalitarian implications particularly clear by referencing people who have argued that even differences in genetics constitute an inequality of opportunity (and hence presumably, in their view, also an injustice). Professor Flew also makes clear that the 2 interpretations are completely incompatible, with the latter leading people to argue that different standards need to be applied to people from different backgrounds and with different genetic inheritances, to make up for their initially unequal opportunities/ chances.

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Nick Kaplan

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