Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

Equality of Opportunity

The theory of equal opportunity, understood in its current meaning, can be explained as follows: It is granted that the structure of society necessarily implies inequalities; it is granted that inequalities demanded by the structure of society are entirely just; it is also granted that the rewards of economic activity cannot be equal for all; it is even granted that it would not be fair that they should be equal for all, since merits are widely unequal; but it is asserted that inequality should sanction individual merit and never be determined by any consideration foreign to individual merit. The notion expressed by these words is vague, and, like many vague notions, it has a character of radicalism made inconspicuous, under most circumstances, by the counteracting influence of complementary notions.

Equality of opportunity rules out a number of privileges upheld by aristocratic societies. Thus commissions in the army and navy used to be a monopoly of the nobility. At the dawn of modern democracy no reform was more popular than the abolition of such privilege. Notice that in our time nobody would question that commissions in the army and navy, including the highest ranks, ought to be accessible to those who are best qualified for such duties, regardless of social origin. All agree that it is impossible to intrust, say, the supreme command of the army to a less able man for the simple reason that the more able man was not born into the appropriate social group. Modern societies cannot afford such a waste, to say nothing of the danger of breeding discontent. Thus some forms of equal opportunity are unanimously recommended. Up to a certain point, nobody objects to the principle of equal opportunity.

It might be said, in rough outline, that the bourgeois revolution, so far as opportunity is concerned, consisted in making public functions accessible to whoever succeeded in qualifying for them. But in the process of qualification itself, there arise many problems of opportunity. If a public function requires, for instance, high education, the highly educated commoner appreciates the fact that the nobility no longer has a monopoly on this function. Now what about the commoner who possesses intelligence and will power, who has all the natural gifts required for high positions but, for lack of money and guidance, never was able to acquire knowledge and never had a chance to use his great gifts? Here, also, there is a waste, there is ground for discontent, and there is perhaps injustice. Furthermore, apart from public positions, is it not the duty of society to see that wealth, honors, and, most of all, leadership should belong not to persons of uncertain ability designated by birth but to the most able, regardless of their birth? Very soon the principle of equal opportunity comes to demand the suppression of the right of inheritance. This decisive step was made by the Saint-Simonists, with lucid logic. The Saint-Simonian spirit is filled with stiff pictures of hierarchy and unequal distribution; but this strongly antidemocratic mind is also rationalistic. An act of rationalization was effected when it was determined that birth would no longer exclude an able person from a public function; the next step toward rational society is the suppression not of private property but of its hereditary transmission. On this point the undemocratic doctrine of the Saint-Simonists agrees with tendencies common among democratically minded Socialists. Leon Blum said that he became aware of his socialist calling as he was attending a comedy in which a person exclaims: "Property is hereditary, and intelligence is not."

But if it is considered unjust and intolerably wasteful that a poorly gifted child should enjoy all the privileges consequent upon wealth, while a better-gifted child has to stand all the handicaps consequent upon the poverty of his parents, consistency seems to demand that no child should, as a result of his birth, enjoy any peculiar advantage or suffer any particular handicap. If we merely suppress the right of inheritance, without any further provision, the son of a medical doctor still enjoys, if he cares to be a medical man, facilities that the son of a coal miner does not enjoy; and similarly, though less conspicuously, the son of a medical doctor cannot become a coal miner so easily and successfully as can the son of a coal miner. Who knows? Such inequalities of opportunity may be of decisive importance. The waste that they entail may be as significant as the waste suffered by aristocratic societies as a result of the exclusion of the commoners from many leading positions. The principle which brought about the end of aristocratic privilege and the end of hereditary property also tends to bring about the end of all privilege or handicap attaching to the hazard of birth. As the culmination of the process we have a picture which, prior to the era of totalitarianism, bore a character of utopian unreality but no longer does today: the care of the young generation belongs not to the family but to the broadest possible social unit. If the social unit in care of the youngster is small, too much inequality of opportunity is left; children born in a poor village would be too much at a disadvantage in the competition with children born in university cities. Thus not the family, not the town or county, but the state or some broader unit, if there is any (think of inequality of opportunity, so far as education is concerned, between youngsters who happen to be born in Mississippi and those born in New York!), would take care of the education of children. But education is only a part of the training that a youth obtains from society. The whole of his upbringing muse be taken over by society. And, since a considerable part of upbringing is effected not at school but at home, the largest possible social unit would have to provide children with a home as well as with a school. This is done on a large scale by totalitarian organizations and on a lower, but perhaps increasing scale by all nations. Ideally, all newly born humans would be intrusted to a gigantic organization and placed in a pool, where merit alone would determine direction and promotion.{12} Here, as in the Republic of Plato -- which may well be the everlasting pattern of a society planned according to the kind of rationality that rationalism cherishes -- children do not know their parents, and each man of the preceding generation has an equal right to be addressed as father. Here the son of the coal miner is at no advantage with regard to coal mining, and the son of the medical doctor is at no advantage with regard to medical practice, and the son of the Greek scholar has no advantage with regard to proficiency in Greek studies over the son of the Latin scholar. Periodical tests make it possible to effect, at all ages, a classification of the growing multitude. It is not claimed that those tests are infallible: They admit of failure, but failures in such a rational system happen less frequently than with the random selections relied upon by traditional societies. Statistically and with regard to large numbers, the tests work. This is about as far as mankind can go along the line of the elimination of chance.

We have many reasons to be grateful to the Saint-Simonists. These antidemocrats, by the fact that they adhere so thoroughly to the theory of equal opportunity, reveal that this theory -- or at least their version of it -- does not proceed from the democratic principle. It is not so much a democratic theory as a rationalistic theory. Clearly, great destruction results in human societies from the casual course of events. It is only natural that we should be anxious to create, as far as we can, rational order in society; it is natural and sound, for instance, that we should want inequality of wealth and power or inequality of education to correspond to inequalities of merit rather than to conventional inequalities determined by the unverifiable behavior of remote ancestors. But at the end of the process we understand that, for having rejected the wastes and destructions consequent upon primitive forms of chance, we have come to cause the incomparably worse destructions and wastes consequent upon a combination of extreme rationality and of the most intolerable kind of chance, i.e., human arbitrariness. To estimate the waste involved in the perfectly rational organization of equal opportuniry, just consider that all the beneficent energies attaching to the personal forms of motherly love would be wasted. If inequalities of opportunity are to be systematically avoided, the hired nurses who take care of infants in the pool run by the largest possible social unit would show to the youngster intrusted to them no feeling except the common tenderness that any woman normally shows to a baby. Anything over and above such common feeling would restore, within the rational pool, nonrational inequality of opportunity. This example is telling enough to render further elaboration superfluous.

It is extremely important to realize clearly, even though at the cost of tedious repetition, the character of the process which we are watching. It seems that one and the same principle brings about an early phase of unquestioned excellence and later phases of obvious destructiveness. Should it be said of equal opportunity that some amount of it helps, that too much of it hurts, and that it is up to the prudence of the statesman to draw the line between the moderate amount which helps and the excessive amount which hurts? But the duty of political philosophy is precisely to go beyond such empirical answers and to discover, in the plurality of the principles involved, the foundation of the solutions that prudence formulates in terms of the appropriate mean.

As interpreted so far, the principle of equal opportunity states that nothing matters except qualities of strictly individual character. Its consistent development leads to a condition of individualistic isolation which deprives all individuals of great goods. The question to be considered now is whether this principle is individualistic by essence, so that a nonindividualistic interpretation of it would be impossible. Let us go over examples suggested by the preceding analysis. The principle of equal opportunity seems to exclude the right of inheritance because this right causes inequalities unrelated to individual merit. But if the right of inheritance is suppressed, all are deprived of the advantages procured by a system of economic circumstances favorable to conjugal faithfulness and paternal devotion, favorable to the stability of the home, and capable of giving man great comfort in his unequal struggle with time and death. When the theory of equal opportunity is so understood as to imply such destructions, it is impaired by a failure to list adequately the requirements of human life. By mistake the great goods connected with integration in a stable home were not counted among the goods for the possession of which there is a question of giving individuals opportunity and equal opportunity. The statement of the problem was biased from the beginning by the silent operation of individualistic preconceptions. The whole picture changes when it is realized that some of the things for which opportunity is sought are of such nature as to balance and restrict the principle of equal opportunity. Among the goods that I desire for all children is the advantage of being, if circumstances make it at all possible, the apprentices and the partners of their fathers in vocational life; this implies that becoming a farmer will be easier for the son of a farmer than for the son of a coal miner. The unoriginal proposition that some equality of opportunity helps and that too much of it hurts now assumes a meaning by which empiricism is transcended. The excess to be avoided admits of precise definition: so far as opportunity is concerned, equality is carried too far when it impairs the goods to which opportunity is relative; more specifically, a policy of equal opportunity begins to be harmful when it threatens to dissolve the small communities from which men derive their best energies in the hard accomplishments of daily life.

Let us consider, for example, the granting of scholarships to gifted students whose parents cannot afford the expenses of higher education. Through this practice, of unquestioned equity, many young men leave forever the environment where they had their early experiences and settle in an environment which will never be that of their parents and relatives. Such adventures are very often necessary, but whoever fails to see that they involve serious risk makes it known that he is a reckless and irresponsible thinker. Now, if there is risk, there is a problem of finding the circumstances under which resulting inconveniences will be remedied. Let it be said, in merely tentative fashion, that, so long as the change is entirely voluntary, the disadvantages of the uprooting are likely to be remedied by adequate ties with the new environment and by the maintenance, in a more spiritual form, of ties with the old environment. If, on the contrary, society systematically seeks to achieve the highest degree of fluidity; if a "rational" organization of public education puts pressure on the young men and their families in order that trades, vocations, and environments should be determined exclusively by individual talent, what really goes on looks like an orderly slaughter of the goods procured by integration in the family and other small social units.

We shall now try to outline the general measures that democratic equality demands, so far as opportunity is concerned.

1. Democratic equality forbids absolutely the legal exclusion of any person from any function on account of this person's group allegiance. A society in which army and navy commissions are given only to the sons of the nobility is undemocratic; a society in which no one can become the head of the state unless he happens to be the first-born son of the preceding ruler is undemocratic so far as the function of head of the state is concerned; a society in which people marked by a certain color are excluded from certain functions is undemocratic.

2. Democratic equality requires, further, that society should take positive measures in order that group allegiance should never entail factual exclusion from any function. A society in which the sons of peasants or proletarians, no matter how bright, are denied the financial help necessary for higher education is undemocratic.

3. In the administration of measures designed to give merit a chance, the principle of the greatest possible autonomy should prevail; in other words, these measures should never be managed by public powers when they can be managed by private initiative, and they should never be managed by the larger unit of public administration when they can be managed by the smaller unit. Uniformity, far from being the object of systematic endeavor as in rationalistic politics, should rather be the object of a reluctant concession, never made unless it is obviously needed. Under conditions of autonomous management, the social aspect of personal destinies and the meaning of the person's incorporation in groups which may not be of his own choice are unlikely to be ignored. With proper attention given to the social aspects of personal destinies, the principle of equal opportunity loses the absolutism which would make it a first-class factor of atomization and a formidable wrecker of democratic communities.

{12} When Olinde Rodrigues -- one of the earliest Saint-Simonists and the only one who had been closely acquainted with Saint-Simon -- left the Saint-Simonian school in disgust, this is what he had to say on this subject: "Logiciens impitoyables! vous vouliez enseigner au nom de Saint-Simon qu'à l'avenir l'enfant, vagissant à peine, serait arraché au regard même de sa mère délivrée, aussi bien qu'à celui du père, pour abolir plus sûrement, selon vous, tous les privileges de la naissance" (OEuvres de Saint-Simon et d'Enfantin [Paris: E. Dentu, 1865], VI, 43).

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