“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty,” Abraham Lincoln once remarked, “and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.”
The same could be said today about “equality of opportunity.” This seemingly straightforward idea—one of the most cherished terms in our political lexicon—is in fact a deeply contested one that is at the heart of the ongoing national debate about the promise of America and the future of our country.
Correct as it may be for conservatives to frame this great debate as one that pits their defense of equal opportunity against the liberal embrace of equal results, the Left adamantly refuses to accept this depiction and stalwartly claims the mantle of “equality of opportunity.”
Once in a while the masks slips and a prominent liberal will admit, as Lyndon Johnson did in his commencement address at Howard University, that the aim is “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” But aside from such rare instances, the Left, like the Right, makes “equality of opportunity” the rhetorical linchpin of its defense of the American Dream.
Teddy Roosevelt defended his Square Deal on the grounds that it would guarantee “practical equality of opportunity for all citizens.” Johnson sold the “nationwide war on the sources of poverty” by promising that it would open the “gates of opportunity” for all Americans. And now liberals call on government to “invest in opportunity” and to redistribute opportunity.
Surely this cannot be the same equality of opportunity that Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan, or Irving Kristol defended. Rather, as in Lincoln’s time, we are dealing with two incompatible concepts that are nevertheless lumped together under one rubric. Simply put, while conservatives stand for the traditional understanding of equality of opportunity, liberals have subtly redefined the term to mean sameness of opportunity.
Traditionally, equality of opportunity has meant the absence of legal impediments to getting ahead in life. Using Abraham Lincoln’s “race of life” analogy, it means that the same rules apply to all of the runners and that all lanes have the same man-made obstacles. It is about government getting out of the way and stepping in only if one of the other runners tries to overtake you by cheating.
Sameness of opportunity, by contrast, requires that all should have exactly the same opportunities in life. It demands that the disadvantaged be given more opportunities (usually through government programs) and that the privileged or naturally gifted be denied certain opportunities (though this is rarely emphasized in public). After all, opportunities are not bestowed equally upon all. Some are born to wealthy and well-connected parents. Others are born into working-class families of modest means. What was once thought to be a part of life is now seen as an injustice that ought to be remedied.
The same could be said of the extra opportunities afforded to the very good-looking, those with high IQs, the athletically gifted, or those who just happen to come of age during an economic boom. In fact, the more you think about all the ways in which we are different and how many opportunities grow out of the vagaries of life, the idea that all should have the same opportunities sounds ludicrous.
It is, of course, perfectly reasonable in a prosperous society such as ours to aspire to give the destitute and underprivileged certain extra opportunities. Well-designed after-school programs may allow children to develop talents that otherwise would have lain dormant. Scholarships and loans may give bright students the opportunity to study at universities that they otherwise could not have afforded. Local job training programs can help the unemployed develop new skills and re-enter the workforce.
But where do we draw the line? Here are some thoughts on how we might create more opportunities without falling for the liberal notion of sameness of opportunity, which would obliterate any limits on government:
First, we must not confuse equality of opportunity with sameness of opportunity. Equality of opportunity is a moral imperative and a requirement of just government. Spending money on programs that aim to expand opportunity for the poor is a charitable pursuit to which some may aspire but which government is not bound to deliver. Justice demands that we uphold the rule of law, secure the rights of all, and oppose any legal barriers to advancement. It does not demand that we ensure that everyone be given all they need to fulfill all their dreams. As a political community, we are obliged to tear down artificial barriers to opportunity and are morally bound to provide a minimum safety net, but we are under no categorical imperative to ensure that all reach their maximum potential. We should not confuse the army’s recruiting slogan with our national motto.
Second, when we decide to help and expand opportunities for some, we should remember that not every social ailment is a responsibility of the government, much less the federal government. The myriad organizations and institutions that make up our vibrant civil society will always be better placed than faraway bureaucrats to design programs that expand opportunity for the poor, better attuned as they are to their real needs. A self-reliant citizenry does not instinctively turn for help and guidance from the government whenever it believes something ought to be done. Rather, citizens set their mind to the task and address the matter themselves.
Third, once we deem it right for the government to intervene, the next step is not to yell “Let’s do it!” but to ask “which level of government?” Our Constitution creates a federated republic in which Congress is tasked only with certain specific and enumerated powers. Most areas of life are therefore off-limits to Congress and are to be dealt with by the state or local governments.
Fourth, when the government does create programs that aim to give more opportunities to the disadvantaged, these programs ought to be rigorously evaluated to see whether they actually deliver on their promises. Government programs have failed more often than not.
We should always be wary of being seduced by the promise of sameness of opportunity. To champion this promise not only negates the idea of limited government, but also leads inevitably to calls that the opportunities of others be curtailed.
In the short story “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut vividly describes a dystopian future in which those of above-average strength, intelligence, and beauty are artificially handicapped to prevent them from “taking unfair advantage” of their natural endowments. Thus, the lead character is hampered by heavy weights. “In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds,” Vonnegut wryly writes.
This reveals the limits of the race-of-life analogy. Not only are we not racing against everyone else—happiness is not a limited and exhaustible national resource—but we are not all going toward the same end. Some want to be investment bankers; others choose to become priests.
It therefore doesn’t matter that we don’t all begin at the same starting line and that we are not equally fast runners. What does matter is that the laws governing the journey apply equally to all. In that sense, and in that sense only, equality of opportunity is a basic requirement of justice and an integral component of the American Dream.
To stand for equality of opportunity doesn’t just mean to push back against sameness of opportunity (and its very close cousin, equality of results). Those who champion equality of opportunity must also commit to removing artificial roadblocks to advancements and to strengthening the social capital that allows citizens to seize opportunities.
Conservatives must therefore embrace a true opportunity agenda. In making their case against big government, they must not only point to its unconstitutionality or fiscal insolvency, but also emphasize all the ways in which the flood of red tape leads to fewer jobs and fosters cronyism.
They must relentlessly show how the collapse of the family among the poor has devastating, long-lasting consequences on children and their prospects for success. This tragedy is compounded by the perverse incentives of the welfare state. Far from eradicating poverty, the welfare state traps people in poverty by undermining the family and discouraging work.
All these failed policies restrict opportunity, in particular for those at the bottom who are most in need of a hand up and a way out.
If we take our bearings from a proper understanding of equality of opportunity and resist the siren songs of sameness of opportunity, we can expand opportunity for those most in need without unjustly curtailing the opportunities of others.
David Azerrad is the Associate Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation and the co-author of “Defending the Dream: Why Income Inequality Doesn’t Threaten Opportunity” from which this essay was excerpted.
First appeared in The Witherspoon Institute's Public Discourse.