Don’t believe doomsayers like Bernie Sanders, Joseph Stiglitz, and Paul Krugman. America is still the land of opportunity.
If you’re willing to work hard, constantly improve your skills, and hold yourself to a high standard of excellence, you can make something of yourself in this country. But that could change—if we decide to pursue an agenda of “equality of opportunity.”
Equal opportunity appeals to many people because it evokes the idea of a level playing field. We believe everyone should play by the same rules, and that no one should get special privileges at the expense of others. But the people who go around advocating equality of opportunity today often aren’t talking about a level playing field, where the laws apply equally to all.
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What they mean is that we should all enjoy an equal chance of success. According to today’s leading critics of economic inequality, if a child born to loving, affluent, educated parents is more likely to achieve economic success than someone born without such advantages, that is an injustice that the government has to fight.
But is that a fight we really want the government to wage?
It would mean, first and foremost, an unprecedented program of wealth redistribution, sapping affluent parents of every honestly earned dollar they’ve made so long as it could be used to give their child a “head start” in life.
And even that wouldn’t come close to achieving equality of initial chances. To approach that goal, parents would not be allowed to provide their children with any opportunities—a better school, a better computer, a better book collection, a trip abroad—if other people’s children did not have the same opportunities.
One philosopher recently mused that it might even be wrong for parents to read to their children since it could give them an “unfair advantage” in life. And after all that, you would “still be left with the great injustice of the smart and the dumb, who are so differently rewarded for comparable effort,” complains leading egalitarian Thomas Nagel.
We can never enjoy equal opportunities. All of us are born with certain advantages and certain challenges, and our happiness depends on maximizing our advantages and overcoming our challenges.
Will the struggle upward be harder for some than for others? No question. If your parents are loving, rich, educated, and well connected, you’ll probably have an easier time building a successful life than if you’re born a poor orphan. This is one reason parents work so hard to provide their children with opportunities: opportunities matter.
But to the extent we live in a free society, even those starting out with limited opportunities can succeed—as evidenced by the remarkable success achieved by many second- (and sometimes first-) generation immigrants.
Trying to equalize opportunities would really mean destroying opportunities. You can’t make parents equally affluent—but you can make them equally impoverished. You can’t make children equally intelligent—but you can throttle the intelligent. You cannot level up. You can only level down. That is not only grotesquely unfair to those with greater opportunities, but it also comes at the expense of those with fewer opportunities.
The favorable circumstances other people enjoy can’t hold us back. Exactly the reverse is true. Part of the reason people flock to the United States is precisely because it is a land in which other people are wealthier, better educated, and more productive than in their home countries. If other people’s opportunities really held us back, then instead of foreigners immigrating to America, Americans should be immigrating to places like Mexico and India, where they would be among the wealthiest and best educated people in the country. The reason this doesn’t happen is because we know in some terms that other people’s successes are a boon to our lives—not a threat. The success of the Walton family hasn’t held anyone back—it’s created opportunities for millions to buy affordable products (and to find employment).
The real source of a level playing field is not economic equality but freedom. In a free society, no one can use the power of the government to gain special privileges that hold us back or exploit us. We all have the liberty to rise by means of our own thought and effort, regardless of where we start.
Don Watkins is the co-author of "Equal Is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality." You can follow his work at http://equalisunfair.com.