What Is “Equal Opportunity”?

Equal outcomes or equal opportunity?  I hear this question debated constantly.  But like debates about the meaning and existence of God, I find debates about equal opportunity v. outcomes pointless unless we first define the meaning of the terms being debated.

Professor Joseph Fishkin, at the University of Texas Law School, has just published a new book on the meaning of “equal opportunity:” Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity. In the first in a series of blog posts on his chosen topic, he writes:

[W]hy do we value equal opportunity in the first place?  There are many reasons to value equal opportunity.  I open the book with a litany of major social changes that have advanced the project of equal opportunity: “the elimination of privileges of hereditary aristocracy; the destruction of state systems of racial apartheid; the gradual widening of access to primary, secondary, and higher education; and the entry of women into jobs, public offices, and educational settings formerly reserved for men.”   These changes can be framed in terms of equality, but they can also be framed in terms of freedom: equal opportunity gives people more freedom to do or become what they want in life, to form ambitions and pursue them, rather than having their life path dictated by limited opportunities.

. . .

Sometimes the paths ahead are constrained by what I call “bottlenecks”: narrow places through which one has to pass in order to reach many opportunities that open out on the other side.  If many or most jobs require college degrees, then a college degree is a bottleneck; if most jobs or other roles in life require speaking English, then speaking English is a bottleneck.  I’ll have more to say in later posts about how we should think about the project of helping people through or around such bottlenecks.  But for now, the point is this.  Every society has an “opportunity structure,” a lattice of forking and intersecting paths that lead to different jobs and roles in life.  If the only paths to success and happiness in our opportunity structure were through tournament-style competitions like those of Winter Olympic sports, then we could certainly have a conversation about equal opportunity in those competitions.  It won’t be an easy conversation.  Parental advantages, not to mention the stubborn maldistribution of snow, are going to mean a complicated conversation analogous to some modern debates about affirmative action (should we give bonus points to those who manage to be pretty good lugers despite growing up in Miami?).  That is the direction conversations about equal opportunity usually go.  We focus on topics like elite college admissions, where the whole question is who should get the scarce and coveted spots.



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