Economic opportunity is akin to motherhood: Everyone espouses it and everyone believes it is essential. But in the end its forms are variegated and it is not always quite what it seems.
For many egalitarians, opportunity should result in similar outcomes. Yet equal opportunity is not the same, nor can it be the same, as everyone crossing the metaphorical finish line at the same time.
What stands in the way of economic egalitarianism is individual liberty. As long as people are free to pursue their goals, the notion of equality as John Rawls among others has defined it, cannot be achieved.
As a consequence, egalitarian goals will inevitably be constrained by freedom. Hence the Utopian idea of equality belongs in the annals of fiction, not fact.
Opportunity enters the economic equation, as a way to modify the obvious differences in performances borne of individualism. Societies cannot mandate equality since biology also militates against social engineering, but they can attempt to create a similar metaphorical starting line.
Hence the road to social cohesion is paved with the building blocks for opportunity. Offering every person an education is one such manifestation of this effort. Clearly some will be able to take advantage of this opportunity and others will not, but those who do not, cannot claim the government is unfair or the social order inequitable.
While education is the sine qua non for success, it is by no means the only way to achieve it. Micro loans provided by government can serve as a catalyst for poor people who are eager to start business enterprises. Giving people title to their home, even shanties, often provides an incentive for the generation of wealth.
Of course a major component of the American dream is education. As a consequence, in the United States there is a college for everyone including those who should not be in college at all. However, it is notable that if college passes you by for one reason or another, there are second-chance, even third-chance opportunities.
There is the realization that the higher-education experience isn’t reserved for 18- to 22-year-olds.
Ultimately, the most any civilization can do to level the playing field in the pursuit of success is offer learning opportunities whether they be higher education, vocational education, or rudimentary education.
The person who cannot read is handicapped for life. And in the modern age, the person who cannot negotiate the world of cyberspace, will be limited as well.
As the Old Testament notes, “all men are created equal.” However, they are not endowed with the same talents, nor are they born into families that can provide the same opportunities.
As I see it, great societies should provide opportunities and in the process allow dreams to be realized.
Stifling dreams is indeed stifling progress. For those places with rigid class barriers and an immovable hierarchical structure, tomorrow can only be seen from the rear view mirror. Those nations that offer opportunity and the chance for the imagination to soar will unquestionably inherit the future.
Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and the author of the book "Decline and Revival in Higher Education" (Transaction).
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