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Inequality is out, opportunity is in. Or so read the tea leaves from President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. As late as December the president described “a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility ... this is the defining challenge of our time.” However, by the time of his Jan. 28 speech, the framing of his agenda had morphed to “opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation must be to restore that promise,” with barely any mention of inequality.
Some commentators welcome this shift in focus. Political analyst Ruy Teixeira, for example, argued that discussing opportunity is the “most effective way to sell the progressive vision for the economy” and “challenge inequality.” This may be the case, and so far the substantive policy agenda the president has forwarded hasn’t changed with the language.
With this change in focus, however, there’s a real chance that important pieces of progressive agenda could disappear and ideological blind spots be introduced. It’s crucial, then, to identify these, in order to better combat them in advance.
Ambiguities of opportunity
Equality of opportunity has become a key concept in both the attack on, and the defense of, the role of government during recent fights over austerity and social insurance. But as Pierre Rosanvallon demonstrates in his excellent intellectual history of the debate over equality, “The Society of Equals,” past instances of renewed focus on equality of opportunity have coincided with periods of political reaction against rising demands for greater equality tout court. Conservatives in 19th century France, for example, rallied around the idea that they should create a “mobile aristocracy of equality” that allowed anyone to join the elite, which would also allow them to maintain hierarchy everywhere below. This should give pause to those who care about inequality that political ground is being yielded with this language shift.
What might this worry amount to? First, as liberals move to safer ideological language, conservatives will simply respond by defining “opportunity” in ways amenable to their interests. Liberals will still have to fight the same battle but, instead of finding common, bipartisan ground with conservatives and clarifying the debate, this shift to opportunity simply moves the same ideological battle to different, and perhaps less advantageous, ground. For instance, does emphasizing equality of opportunity require efforts to break the gender “glass ceiling,” or to tax inheritances at a very high rate? Or does the focus on “opportunity” make such efforts unnecessary?
Referencing equality of opportunity by itself won’t answer those questions, because the term itself is used in a dizzying amount of ways. Rosanvallon discusses four ways that are relevant here. The first is legal equality of opportunity, in the sense that there are no legal barriers to advancement. This is the only sense in which all current conservatives endorse “equality of opportunity.”
But that sense doesn’t get us very far in terms of advancing equality. Beyond the legal sense, there’s institutional equality of opportunity, which creates institutional structures, such as schools, in such a way to give every participant the full chance to succeed based on ability, without being restricted by extraneous factors such as economic background, race or gender. These institutions require proper resourcing to perform this function. There’s also a corrective sense, in which efforts are made to adjust or rectify people’s inherited disadvantages, including lack of resources and capabilities.
The whole point of equality of opportunity is about trying to create access for anyone to become an elite. But what if elites are part of the problem?
But liberals have to go even farther than these. In fact, they have to advance an argument for statistical equality of opportunity, or the demand that the achievement of equality of opportunity be demonstrated in statistical evidence measuring outcomes. Instead of just offering pre-K educational access, for example, this also requires tackling issues such as pay discrimination. Indeed, for two equal people with the same education, abilities and efforts to arrive at two separate places based solely on race or gender should offend any agenda truly based on opportunity.
President Obama appears to be aware of this. In his State of the Union, he explicitly linked opportunity with making sure “our economy honors the dignity of work, and hard work pays off for every single American.” But this is a broader, more expansive definition of the usual educational access the term usually implies. It will need to be defended on these more expansive terms as well.
A second issue, however, arises with the simple fact that liberals aren’t just concerned with opportunities. By invoking the “ladder of opportunity” and “opportunity agenda” as President Obama does, liberals may lose their grip on something that matters just as much, which is the real-world outcomes of such policies — the actual distribution of income and resources among Americans. “Equality of opportunity” doesn’t tell us enough about what we, as a society, should consider acceptable differences in outcomes, or the minimum that society ought to provide to individuals, or any of the societal elements of inequality.
Obama appears to have this in mind as well when he references work. He argues, alongside a majority of Americans, that “no one who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.” Actual distribution measures will be important for liberals to defend, because opportunity is both difficult territory and a weak standard to employ for having these political discussions.
Indeed, part of the very purpose of opportunity rhetoric and an embrace of meritocracy is a conceptual retreat from the broad claims of the welfare state. Instead of the idea that the wealth of society is created together, there’s the shady and poorly defined notions of individual merits and luck. Or as R.H. Tawney wrote in his 1931 book “Equality,” meritocracy is just “equal opportunities to become unequal.”
Lost in translation
The third issue is that equality of opportunity is silent on the problem of elitism. The whole point of equality of opportunity is about trying to create access for anyone to become an elite, thereby making the elite class itself socially acceptable. But what if elites are part of the problem? A focus on “opportunity” can’t help us here.
The issue of runaway income, wealth and power for the top 1 percent is the very part of the debate Obama is retreating from, even though it is perhaps the most important topic for addressing inequality. The president seems to be retreating from accusations of waging class war, even though there are many avenues for him to broach this topic in more savvy ways, such as appeals to democratic accountability.
One approach is to emphasize the many ways our government creates conditions for runaway inequality. A focus on opportunity presumes that inequality and markets are natural facts, instead of being determined by government policies. Another approach is to highlight the way extreme inequality engenders a more entitled, paranoid and isolated elite, which in turn threatens everyone. As Christopher Hayes describes in his book “Twilight of the Elite,” inequality creates social distance between those at the top and everyone else, which destroys the democratic give-and-take necessary for a cohesive society to work. Extreme inequality also leads to distrust by elites, who constantly look over their shoulder to protect their position and cut whatever corner necessary to maintain their dominance, while knocking out “opportunity ladders” beneath them.
There are real trade-offs in shifting the debate from equality to opportunity. If liberals wish to keep their goals in public discussion, they need to make sure their core, progressive agenda doesn’t get lost in translation.
Mike Konczal is a fellow with the Roosevelt Institute.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.