The Trouble With Equal Opportunity 

Slate Welcomes Daryl Cagle’s Professional Cartoonists Index!

If a picture is worth a thousand words, Slate and its readers are in fat city starting today, when we welcome ” Daryl Cagle’s Professional Cartoonists Index” into our bosom, or at least into our Web site. Daryl is an award-winning cartoonist himself and is currently president of the National Cartoonists Society (founded 54 years ago by none other than Rube Goldberg). Daryl has been running the Index for four years. Over 100 cartoonists—including 14 Pulitzer Prize-winners—make their work available on the site, which is updated daily. Besides enjoying the Cartoon of the Day, visitors can explore the vast collection of current and past cartoons. Check out the latest by your favorite cartoonist, or see what various cartoonists have done on a particular hot topic (Elián, Microsoft, Hillary, etc.). You will find much to delight and amuse and confirm for you that we are living in a Golden Age of editorial cartoons.  

We once thought that increasing prosperity would bring increasing equality. That was a characteristic of the post-World-War-II boom. But a distinctive feature of our current boom is greater inequality. Defenders argue that the boom and the inequality are connected: The economy is more efficiently exploiting and rewarding special human talent and energy. Maybe that’s true.

If so, the two standard justifications for financial inequality become even more important. One is that a rising tide lifts all boats: The gap may be growing, but even those near the bottom are better off in absolute terms. The second is the notion of equal opportunity: We all have an equal chance in life, and what you make of it is up to you. No one believes equal opportunity actually exists, but many believe that the goal of social policy should be to get us closer rather than worry about unequal results.

But just as equal opportunity becomes morally more important, biotechnology is making it practically more difficult and logically more incoherent. Writing about this a few weeks ago, I brazenly violated the Opinion League of America Code, Clause 4 (b) 7 (“The opinion writer shall always have an opinion.”) by raising the problem and offering no solution. I noted that almost everyone is in favor of outlawing discrimination on the basis of genetic tests (such as denying you a job if you’re more likely than average to get cancer) but that discrimination on the basis of attributes that are at least affected by your genes (talent, good looks, maybe even—we are discovering—personality traits like ambition) is a universal human experience. And discrimination of this sort is specifically essential to free-market capitalism. Tolerating genetic discrimination and trying to outlaw it are equally offensive. We need a line to draw, but I can’t think of one.

My just but odd reward for being so inconclusive was many e-mails calling me a Nazi—not a group one associates with a lack of firm opinions. (The ones who wrote approvingly were more frightening than those who intended to wound.) More thoughtful readers accused me of being “reductionist” (guilty, Your Honor: I plead 800 words) and specifically of “forgetting” (which is way too kind) the difference between genotypes and phenotypes. There’s a difference, in other words, between not hiring a person because of what her blood cells look like under a microscope and not hiring her because of actual job qualifications that may result from a stew of genetic and other factors.

There is indeed a difference, but is it a moral difference? The great flaw in “equal opportunity” is the idea that we deserve individual moral credit for most of what determines our stations in life. Even if there were no genetic component at all, talents and values are partly inherited from parents just like genes (or money) and partly absorbed from society. Discoveries in biogenetics don’t really change anything. They merely emphasize how little we have control over who we turn out to be—even “the content of our character,” in Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous phrase.

Other thoughtful correspondents say genetic tests are specifically unfair because they penalize many people based on invalid assumptions. Assuming someone is going to get cancer just because she has a higher genetic chance of it is like assuming women aren’t tall or strong enough to be firefighters because on average they are shorter and weaker than men. We’re comfortable outlawing the generalization without forbidding fire departments from having reasonable job-related height and strength qualifications.

That’s pretty good. But even in the firefighters case the generalization isn’t statistically invalid. We find it morally repugnant, and we can outlaw it because you can test for what you really want in a firefighter—height and strength—so you don’t need the generalization. All you can test for genetically, by contrast, is a higher-than-average chance of getting some diseases. It’s generalize or nothing. And would people really feel better if we only allowed discrimination against job-seekers who are 100 percent certain to get cancer?

My own conclusion—and I do have one this time, sort of—is that we ought to recognize the limits of equal opportunity and think a bit harder about more equality of result. Calm down, calm down. This needn’t mean radical income redistribution (though a progressive tax code is certainly desirable). My Slate colleague Mickey Kaus is a great proponent of “civic equality”—expanding the areas of life where money and success don’t matter. Public transportation, national parks, and so on. (See his book The End of Equality. You can buy it here.)

If we had universal health care—on any of the competing models—the problem of insurance companies discriminating based on genetic tests would disappear and discrimination by employers would be much less of a threat.

Typically, when we talk about fighting “discrimination,” we actually mean replacing bad discrimination (based on race or sex and so on) with good discrimination (based on “merits”). Maybe the next phase of the struggle should concentrate less on which specific forms of discrimination are intolerable and more on where discrimination itself may be unnecessary.