Democracy & Elitism 4: equality, opportunity and leveling up the playing field
Pulitzer- and Emmy-winner William Henry‘s famous polemic, In Defense of Elitism (1994), argues that societies can be ranked along a spectrum with “egalitarianism” on one end and “elitism” on the other. He concludes that America, to its detriment, has slid too far in the direction of egalitarianism, and in the process that it has abandoned the elitist impulse that made it great (and that is necessary for any great culture). While Henry’s analysis is flawed in spots (and, thanks to the excesses of the Bush years, there are some other places that could use updating), he brilliantly succeeds in his ultimate goal: crank-starting a much-needed debate about the proper place of elitism in a “democratic” society.
Along the way he spends a good deal of time defining what he means by “egalitarianism” and “elitism.” A particular concern for Henry, and one that’s critical to the discussion here, has to do with the nature of equality, which is distinguished from egalitarianism. In specifically addressing equality of opportunity versus equality of outcomes, Henry believes (as do nearly all American “conservatives” that I know and have read) that we have in recent decades overemphasized the latter. That Henry was a lifelong Democrat, a “card-carrying member of the ACLU” and Northeastern liberal cultural elite of the first order (arts critic for The Boston Globe and Time) adds a bit of spice to the argument.
If you’ve read the previous installments in the series (part 1, part 2, part 3), it should be clear that I see elitism, properly understood, as an important key to a more enlightened society that better serves interests of all of its citizens. This argument has perhaps taken some unexpected turns so far, and there are more twists still to come. For the moment, it’s critical that we understand the following premise: performance elitism, which is necessary to the long-term health of a society, depends on a level playing field.
The concept of “level playing field,” then, is central to our ultimate goal. What do we mean by the term and what do we not mean?
Equality of Outcomes: Bad in Principle, Impossible in Practice and Nobody Believes in it Anyway, So Why are We Talking About It?
In Principle: I’m not sure this argument even needs making to a rational audience, but it’s important to dismiss the popular straw men that the privilege elites and their allies like to trot out in order to distract us from the real issues. For the sake of form, then, here goes.
To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a human society that wasn’t hierarchical in some way. So let’s begin by accepting that rigid egalitarianism doesn’t come naturally to the species. But is it a good idea? It’s easy enough to paint a pleasant utopian vision where we’re all equal, so long as we’re all equally prosperous. The problem is that it’s hard to imagine how we get there from here. If we’re to suppose a philosophy that’s grounded more or less in plausibility, then we have to account for what we know about the human animal.
The individualistic/free market/classical liberal premise regarding egalitarianism is that people are motivated to work for personal gain, and the cynical contemporary conservative/Randian corollary is that if the end result is that the guy who innovates and busts his ass has to give it all away so that the lazy guy who refuses to work can have just as much, then nobody will work. Ultimately we’ll all be equal, all right – we’ll all have nothing.
The relative truth or falsity of this belief system aside for a second, this is an awfully dim view of the human spirit. It alleges that people won’t produce for the common good and that people won’t pursue achievement for intrinsic reasons. These conclusions, taken as absolutes (since they’re usually presented that way), have never been demonstrated and are suspect on their face. However, it’s easy enough to accept that they’re valid to some lesser degree. While I might argue that most of us have enough personal pride that we’d never lay down and quit just to spite the system, and while I might also also argue that as things hypothetically got bad enough we’d all pitch in and at least try to survive, the less there is in the way of return on our effort, the less we’re likely to produce – at a macro level, at least. The curve isn’t linear, but there’s no doubt an effect.
Conclusion: Given what we know about human behavior, the radical pursuit of purely equal outcomes would fail to maximize the potential of the system. Fair enough? Good. Moving on.
In Practice: Again, I can’t imagine that this point really needs making, but: assuming a cadre of extreme radical egalitarians somehow seized control of the government (and understand that at present, the most liberal elements of the Democratic Party don’t have a representative in DC who comes anywhere close to fitting this description), how would you enact the measures needed to bring into existence a purely egalitarian society? There are too many people who oppose it, these people have too much money and power, there’s no mechanism by which this money and power could be quickly be stripped, the reformers have no apparent allies in the military or on the Supreme Court (or even the federal circuit bench), and there are simply too many ways by which the haves could circumvent the new regime.
Conclusion: Some people have more than others and it’s impossible to imagine a day in our lifetimes when this will no longer be so. This means that some children are going to be born into better circumstances than others. They’re going to have access to better schools, and when they graduate they’re going to inherit a network of social connections that provide them with better and more lucrative opportunities, regardless of their qualifications. Period.
Nobody Believes It Anyway: In most cases, equality of outcome is equal parts bogeyman and straw man. To be sure, there are social and political movements and philosophies that seem to push in that direction if we insist on misunderstanding them in their shallowest forms (and this is America, so that’s precisely what we do). If all you know of the world comes from shout radio, for instance, feminism doesn’t seek equality of opportunity for men and women, it wants to render men and women the same in every ludicrous way imaginable, so either we outlaw urinals or have government-financed programs teaching women how to use them. And so on. Am I being unfair to conservative shout jocks? Well, I’m coming closer to fairly representing their views than they do the views of feminists.
Sure, there are members of the feminist movement (and this goes for members of all -ism movements) who hold radical views, and there are very likely a few who do propose policies that would result in something like a pure equality of outcome based on gender (as I’ve noted before, there are 300 million Americans, and it’s hard to imagine a proposition that nobody would embrace). But the .01% most radical members of a movement do not comprise, no matter what a media pundit may tell you, a majority, and in fact they are just what the numbers would imply: a very small minority. The majority of feminists, and multiculturalists, and gay rights activists and civil rights activists and so on are bright enough to grasp basic social realities.
Conclusion: A level playing field has nothing to do with a mythical forced equality of outcomes agenda or the non-existent hordes conspiring to inflict them on us.
Equality of Opportunity: A “Fair Chance”
In 2006 I wrote an essay on a man who was born with every advantage imaginable, but who had evolved a self-image that lacked anything remotely like self-awareness. I called the man “Bob,” and it shouldn’t take anyone who knows anything at all about my hometown more than a couple of seconds to realize who Bob really is. Here’s a bit of what I had to say in that piece:
Life is a 100-yard dash. Despite Jefferson’s horsewax about all men being created equal, the truth is that some folks begin with a 99-yard headstart. I get it. I understand that’s how life is. I run as hard as I can and I try not to begrudge anybody their advantages. I also try to keep a clear head about my own advantages, because while I began at the starting line, I know that some people began the race at the bottom of a hole 20 yards back.
Here’s what I’m over, Bob. I’m sick of guys who started a yard from the finish line writing self-absorbed books lecturing the rest of us on how to be better runners. Getting there first in your case proves that your daddy was fast, not you. So take your win for what it is and shut the fuck up.
I know dozens of people as smart as you or smarter, Bob. Maybe hundreds. And a lot of them are struggling just to get to the finish line because of how guys like you have rigged the game. This much I’d bet my life on: had you grown up where I did, you’d be pumping gas. Or, let’s give you some credit. You’re still pretty smart and have some attitude about you, so maybe you’d own the gas station.
I continue to like the 100-yard dash metaphor for its ability to convey proportion. Its limitation is that we can’t take it too literally because a race only has one winner. And as I note above, the reality of life is that some people are simply going to get a head start, while other unfortunate souls are going to have to run with a few handicaps.
When I insist that our society’s public policy must assure a “level playing field,” I don’t mean that we need a Harrison Bergeron-style Handicapper General to make us all “equal”: we don’t need to worry about completely eliminating head starts, even when they overprivilege halfwit douchebags like our most recent former president (although a productive policy would perhaps cultivate a strong progressive tax structure that limits inheritance privilege more than we do at present).
I also don’t mean that we need to obsess over what it means to win – it’s okay if a particular “race” has many winners. The business world has lots and lots of individuals who we’d consider winners. The same goes for the academy. And the world of arts and letters. And sports, and music, and theater, and film, and so on. What matters is that everyone is afforded an opportunity to achieve to their highest potential, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. If some are born into advantage, so be it, so long as all have a fair chance to succeed.
To this end, America’s public policy needs to:
- provide a minimum baseline of opportunity; this policy set would largely focus on education, although in some cases it may also take into account other factors;
- the goal of the policy should be to assure that young citizens of noteworthy ability who are willing to dedicate themselves to educational and professional achievement can reliably earn their way to the top of their professions (we can argue about the nuts and bolts of this policy later – for now, we’re discussing broad goals and objectives);
- to the extent that children of privilege can attain higher degrees of success despite inferior capabilities, the system would not be deemed a success.
Put more succinctly, when we look at the upper echelons of a given industry, profession or organization, we should see a higher correlation between success and merit than between success and privilege. Until this is the case, we have not sufficiently leveled the playing field and our culture will continue to underperform its potential, to the detriment of all of us.
Egalitarianism, Equality, Democracy
Henry attempted to distinguish between equality of outcome, which he called egalitarianism, and equality of opportunity, which he called democracy, and his use of “democracy” in this context was a little unsatisfying, for a lot of reasons. Still, it’s significant that he linked opportunity and democracy. They’re not the same thing, but one depends on the other.
Perhaps the more important point to make is that we can have democracy without having anything worth having. After all, if we all have a voice and we vote to usher in an age of unparalleled self-degradation, that’s democracy, even if it represents an undesirable state of existence. We can also use our democratic power to vote ourselves into a new era of serfdom – something we’re far closer to doing than makes rational, self-interested sense.
What we mean when we wax eloquent about democracy is a higher-order ideal of self-determination where we all have a shot at prosperity that hinges on our abilities and our willingness to work for a better life and where the fate of the nation rests in the hands of those who legitimately comprise our brightest and best. That sort of democracy is something that doesn’t exist in the United States at present, if it ever did. If we are to achieve this enlightened society someday, then we must maximize the fullest potential of each citizen, and this can only be accomplished by bolstering the default level of opportunity.
So when we say “leveling the playing field,” what we’re really talking about is raising up the low end so that the least fortunate among us still has a reasonable shot of succeeding alongside the most fortunate.