Chatterbox, who from time to time suffers pangs of remorse, woke up this morning wondering whether he’d been entirely fair to Dinesh D’Souza’s case against “equality of opportunity.” D’Souza makes this argument in The Virtue of Prosperity, his new book about conservative anomie in this time of economic growth, which Chatterbox used yesterday as a tool for understanding George W. Bush’s enigmatic slogan, “prosperity with a purpose.” Chatterbox doesn’t care to ponder any further the meaning of “prosperity with a purpose,” because he doesn’t think it has any meaning–not for conservatives, at any rate. However, Chatterbox’s glancing reference to D’Souza’s argument against equality of opportunity (because it would “undo the benefits that my wife and I have labored so hard to provide” to their 5-year-old daughter) probably didn’t give readers a very complete notion of what D’Souza had in mind. Let’s “drill down.”
D’Souza makes his argument against equal opportunity (actually, “equal educational opportunity”) on Pages 235-37. He introduces the topic by stating, “[I]t would be a great achievement for this affluent society to be able to offer all young people the chance to go to the best college or university to which they can be admitted.” He points out that when he first came to the United States (from India) in the late 1970s, he was “astonished to discover that Ivy League colleges had a policy that said if you can get in, no matter what your means, we will make available a package of grants and loans so that you can attend.” This policy later allowed him to attend Dartmouth. “[I]t would be a glorious thing to be able to offer such an incentive to every student at every institution of higher education,” D’Souza writes. But not if the guarantor were the federal government:
Equal opportunity seems like a logical fulfillment of the equality principle in the Declaration of Independence. Yet it is an ideal that cannot and should not be realized through the actions of the government. Indeed, for the state to enforce equal opportunity would be to contravene the true meaning of the Declaration and to subvert the principle of a free society. Let me illustrate. I have a five-year-old daughter. Since she was born–actually, since she was conceived–my wife and I have gone to great lengths in the Great Yuppie Parenting Race. At one time we even played classical music while she was in the womb. Crazy us. Currently the little rogue is taking ballet lessons and swim lessons. My wife goes over her workbooks. I am teaching her chess.Why are we doing these things? We are, of course, trying to develop her abilities so that she can get the most out of life. The practical effect of our actions, however, is that we are working to give our daughter an edge–that is, a better chance to succeed than everybody else’s children. Even though we might be embarrassed to think of it this way, we are doing our utmost to undermine equal opportunity. So are all the other parents who are trying to get their children into the best schools, the best colleges, and in general give them the best possible upbringing and education. None of them believes in equal opportunity either!
As it happens, Chatterbox is a parent, too, and an enthusiastic participant in the Great Yuppie Parenting Race. If the Chatterkinder end up with greater opportunities than most children, he will be pleased. But that isn’t because Chatterbox thinks “equal opportunity” is a crock. It’s because a) Chatterbox loves the Chatterkinder; and b) Chatterbox recognizes that the opportunities afforded most children in the United States are inadequate. If those opportunities were richer–that is, if there were more equality in American society–Chatterbox would ease up on the compulsive parenting. For example: The Chatterkinder attend private school, because the local public elementary school is lousy. A dead body turned up last Mother’s Day on its playground. According to D’Souza’s logic, Chatterbox should be quietly pleased that the local elementary school is the sort of place where teen-age gangs dump dead bodies, because this will help demoralize the kids there and enlarge the Chatterkinder’s private-school advantage. In fact, Chatterbox is not pleased. When he’s feeling high-minded, he thinks those D.C. public-school kids deserve every advantage the Chatterkinder are getting. When he’s feeling low-minded, he thinks that as a result of not getting those advantages, those D.C. public-school kids may one day mug the Chatterkinder. Both trains of thought lead Chatterbox to the same conclusion: The government ought to do a better job evening not only the playing field, but also, to some extent, the outcomes.
Now, to enforce equal opportunity, the government could do one of two things: it could try to pull my daughter down, or it could work to raise other people’s children up. The first is clearly destructive and immoral, but the second is also unfair. The government is obliged to treat all citizens equally. Why should it work to undo the benefits that my wife and I have labored so hard to provide? Why should it offer more to children whose parents have not taken the trouble?
Because if the government were successful in creating more equality–equality of opportunity to succeed, but also equal access, for successful and unsuccessful alike, to necessities such as health care–D’Souza’s 5-year-old would end up living in a society whose greater benefits (less anxiety about the consequences of downward mobility, less class resentment, and probably less violence) would far outweigh the petty injustice done to her parents.
D’Souza seems to have some dim sense of this, because he goes on to concede that the government “is certainly entitled to provide all children with a baseline access to education. I would like to see this baseline set pretty high.” He just doesn’t want it so high that it “undermines the scope of parents to invest in their children’s betterment.” That would be “equality of outcomes,” which is bad. D’Souza wants “equality of rights,” which, as far as Chatterbox can tell, is a sort of watered-down version of “equality of opportunity.” But D’Souza goes on to say that he wouldn’t mind if the private sector–that is, a rich philanthropist like Michael Dell or Bill Gates–were to bankroll an effort “to go beyond equality of rights and provide, insofar as this is possible, something resembling equality of life chances.” Indeed, D’Souza praises the efforts of rich businessmen in New York to fund private-school scholarships for poor and lower-middle class kids. But aren’t these rich businessmen working to undermine D’Souza’s efforts to give his “little rogue” a leg up too? What’s the difference between having the government do it and having private philanthropists do it? Practically speaking, the difference is that private charity would never close the gap as much as a successful and ongoing government program would.