TCM author Alex Gourevitch responds to critics of ‘equal opportunity’ article

14 Feb

The recent piece that Aziz and I published at Salon.com was a thought piece. Its purpose was to start a conversation about how to organize an economy in which each participant has the possibility of enjoying equal independence. We called this the ‘Lincoln’ vision, and contrasted it with the current meritocratic approach to equal opportunity, which we likened toJefferson’s notion of a ‘natural aristocracy’ (itself taken from James Harrington). On the latter view, there are a few talented individuals, and the primary purpose of an economy is to sort these few from the less talented many. The natural aristocracy is entitled to scarce positions of social and political power because of their purported virtue, a virtue supposedly established by their ability to win an economic rat-race. This is equal opportunity to become radically unequal, and in which most to end up enjoying little real freedom in their daily, economic lives. It is an unattractive ideal in its own terms, and has, anyhow, given some actual facts about theUnited States, become a dead letter.

The attraction of the view we associated with Lincoln is that it presented the economic order with a different task. Its purpose was to make available to all the possibility of economic independence, a condition understood as control over work activity, not just ability to sell one’s labor. Lincoln called this truly free labor, and contrasted it not just with slavery but with wage-labor too (or at least with being a permanent wage-laborer). The overall emphasis is not on selecting the talented few but on freedom for all. Lincoln himself, of course, was limited by a somewhat agrarian vision of what free labor would look like – an individuated condition of personal autonomy. Each individual owned a small share of the ownership of the means of production – land. We live on the other end of the industrial revolution, and any translation of this conception of economic independence has to take account of the collective character and scale of most work. But to get to that conversation, we first thought it necessary to draw the general contrast between the inegalitarian, meritocratic view of equal opportunity, whose purpose is to generate a ‘natural aristocracy’, with another view whose aim is to secure the equal freedom of all.

A response to a few critics of the piece:

‘Equality of opportunity’ v. ‘equality of outcomes’

More than one commenter has argued we are proposing to replace ‘equality of opportunity’ with ‘equality of outcomes.’ First, this forgets the basic factual point that ‘equality of opportunity’ never existed, we did not replace it with anything, and even if you think it at one point existed, it certainly does not exist in any reasonable measure in the United States at present. The gap between the rewards to positions for those ‘natural aristocrats’ and the rest has widened radically, and this economy is creating two kinds of jobs – a few very high paying, high status positions that come with significant amounts of power and influence, and the rest fairly crappy ones. As we noted, in this supposed knowledge economy, “according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 20 occupations projected to grow rapidly over next decade, just five require an associate’s degree or more. Just two require a doctorate or professional degree.” And everyone knows the direction of the wealth and income statistics.

But more than that the distinction between ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of outcomes’ is too vague to be meaningful. What is meant by opportunity or outcomes here? Even on current ‘meritocratic’ interpretations, equality of opportunity requires equality of certain outcomes. Minimally, certain laws must be in place, from equal civil rights to anti-discrimination statutes. More, everyone must have a certain level of educational achievement, range of skills, amount of mobility, and access to certain basic social goods; otherwise they won’t be able to compete for the available opportunities. Lack of education leaves individuals unqualified; lack of basic social goods makes individuals unable to take the risks, or at least not feel the pressure of the labor market so intensely that they cannot wait for something better to come up. If the relevant opportunities include something like starting a business, then some access to capital is necessary. But all of these preconditions – education, welfare, access to capital – are ‘outcomes.’ They are conditions that individuals have to actually achieve before we can say they enjoy anything like equality of opportunity. But those achievements or outcomes are not conditions that create themselves. They have to be maintained by social policy. So even on its own terms, the quest for equal opportunity is not the opposite of equal outcomes. Of course, the opportunities for economic freedom that we were talking about would require more radical economic reorganization than all that – the creation of a much different set of opportunities, of transformed work and economic structures. But that is not replacing ‘opportunities’ with ‘outcomes,’ it is an argument for the creation of different kinds of opportunities.

The vagueness in the contrast between ‘outcomes’ and ‘opportunity’ is not a product of lazy thinking, it is purposeful. Its rhetorical purpose is to associate any attempt to intervene in or manage an economy, especially redistribute property, with ‘outcomes’, and thus with unjust, authoritarian coercion. The thought is that all attempts to give people at work a say in the conditions of their own employment means the repudiation of “excellence” and “innovation” by the talented few. Such a view implies that equal opportunity is about individual “free choice” – where those that succeed were the “innovators” – even if the range of individual free choices is nominal, radically unequal, and indifferent to the resulting distribution of social and political power. It is a conservative talking point whose function is to redirect a serious discussion even of the minimal ideal the United States claims to uphold.

Lincoln v. Jefferson

Other critics were unhappy with our use of Lincoln and Jefferson, but mainly Jefferson. Let it first be said that our purpose was not to give an exhaustive interpretation of Jefferson, Lincoln and the differences between them. It was heuristic, to present two different ideals, one which saw the economy organized to reward those deemed fit to rule, and another whose purpose was to create conditions in which everyone could enjoy economic independence. We called one inegalitarian and the other egalitarian, but are well aware that the specific individuals can be found making other kinds of statements. Lincoln himself, even in the very speech we quote, pairs his egalitarian vision of an economy that makes equal independence for all possible, with the idea that people will fail because of their own lack of virtue. Some post-Civil War liberals used this idea to blame the working class for its poverty. These liberals made the deeply troubling jump of blaming individuals for outcomes that were the product of economic structure – a structure that, anyhow, in agrarian Wisconsinin 1859 (where Lincoln gave his speech), was not nearly as vivid as it would later become.

Perhaps there is a further problem. As one of our critics argued, Lincoln appears to assume the existence of a working class – “the prudent penniless beggar” – who rises through hard work. This is a vision of interclass social mobility, but there is no social mobility among classes unless we first assume class. So Lincoln is spouting mere class ideology. Here again, the criticism too quickly reads the vagaries of industrial society backwards. In fact, it is a reproduction of an ideological victory. That ideological victory is the one that wipes out alternatives that existed in the past, but were defeated. Permanent wage-labor and industrialization had developed in parts of the US northeast, but it was post-bellum America that saw explosive industrialization. In those social conditions, a particular assumption about the necessity and permanence of a working class became widespread, and was dressed up in the language of the nominal freedom of each ‘free laborer’ in contrast to the unfreedom of former slaves. In the minds of newly mobilized industrial workers, their nominal freedom paled in comparison to the old Lincolnian ideal of economic independence.  It also meant that such independence could not be achieved through a self-regulating commercial society or on laissez-faire grounds; independence would require a dramatic rethinking of economic relations.  This is why so-called “labor republicans” called for the creation of a cooperative commonwealth as the key instrument for fulfilling long-standing goals of equal freedom.  Importantly, for Lincoln, although it may have been a tenuous position even on the eve of the Civil War, he still assumed that economic independence was perfectly compatible with small-scale capitalism (of homesteading, shop owning, and even petty manufacturing).  Unlike later post-war liberals he was not forced to confront as fully the incompatibility between the goal of independence and the limitations of free market relations.

Still, for our purposes, the important point is that regardless of his conclusions about the market, Lincoln nonetheless was still working with a vision of economic independence as the goal of an economy, a vision very different that the meritocratic one today. Indeed, this ideal of independence entailed truly radical possibilities – possibilities which became central to the labor movement – precisely because it had not been stamped by the later Gilded Age view that freedom only consisted in the legal self-ownership of the penniless worker. Even for Lincoln, whatever his profound limitations, freedom carried with it the belief that an economy ought to make possible the equal independence of all workers.  That is freedom for all, not power and prestige for some, and it is worth recovering and adapting to our present conditions.

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One Response to “TCM author Alex Gourevitch responds to critics of ‘equal opportunity’ article”

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  1. The Real Culture War III: Freedom Beyond Consumption and Equal Opportunity « thecurrentmoment - December 19, 2012

    [...] economy is to give everyone an equal opportunity to compete for those scarce positions. (See also here) If anything, the left should be far more critical of the ideology of equal opportunity than of [...]

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