Lawrence.com’s Joel Mathis is blogging Tocqueville, and asks “Is equality still ?a fundamental condition of America?,?” My argument would be that it is no less so than it was then, but that isn’t saying much. Tocqueville has a tendency to use an idealized conception of America as a foil for his own philosophizing, as do most of the foreign writers who’ve ventured to our shores.

Certainly we have not achieved anything resembling true equality, but the aspiration is there. Income mobility has fallen and income inequality is at a level not seen since before Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive reforms. Inequalities between school districts hold students back based on their parents’ success in life, college tuitions rise many times faster than inflation and thus segregate society by wealth and race. Rising healthcare costs only accentuate these inequalities. When I say things are no worse than they were when Democracy in America was published, I am making a comparison to a society when slavery was accepted practice, women couldn’t vote, non-whites couldn’t vote, and renters (including tenant farmers) couldn’t vote. The possession of equality does not mean that it commands a more fundamental position, however.

The principle that we ought to be equal is probably a more deeply held principle of public life today than it was in Tocqueville’s day. A century and a half since the wars which ended slavery have brought many changes, including voting rights for many more people, and guarantees of civil liberties on a scale unimagined in the 19th century. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid provide a set of economic rights unimagined by the Founding Fathers, as do compulsory public education, minimum wage laws, worker safety laws, child labor laws and strong protections for unions.

In citing these examples, I think I may seem to be justifying j.d.’s taxonomy of equality, but I’m not. J.D. distinguishes between:

equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. The first kind of equality is a desirable state (and, I will argue, the only state) for a free society. If this condition holds, a free people can truly make of their lives what they will ? a state from which liberty necessarily follows. The second kind ? equality of outcome ? is in my belief the animating principle of the people I call ?boutique multiculturalists? and of self-styled ?progressives?; in other words, the ?social democratic? wing of the modern Left.

I know of no one who adheres to the second category, certainly not either of the Roosevelts (Teddy, of course, was a prominent member of the progressive movement, and ran for President as a member of the Progressive party), Truman or Johnson. Since one cannot have a thoughtful discourse if one attacks a strawman, it’s worth discussing this point further. As someone who falls broadly within at least some of the categories he lists as desiring equality of outcome, I feel justified in responding in the first person.

I’ll focus on two specific cases and then one broad theoretical framework. The specific cases will be universal healthcare and affirmative action; the framework is courtesy of John Rawls.

I can see how someone might look at advocates of universal healthcare and think they are advocating equality of outcome; after all, we are talking about giving everyone healthcare. Were healthcare the goal of the exercise, that would be true. But healthcare is not a means unto itself ? health is. Nothing we can do will ensure that everyone will be healthy, people make bad choices, they get stuck with bad genes, and accidents happen. Providing universal healthcare does not equalize outcomes because those factors which affect outcome are impossible to control uniformly.

We can ensure that everyone has equal access to healthcare when and if they get sick. Getting sick can have profound consequences for a person’s economic and social stability, as evidenced by the fact that about half of bankruptcies result from medical bills. We cannot have equality of opportunity when some people are much more likely to wind up deeply in debt because of circumstances beyond their control than other people. Universal healthcare ensures that opportunity is equalized.

A similar argument holds for affirmative action in college admissions. While there is some positive benefit to a diverse college class, our ultimate societal goal is not that our colleges be fully integrated. College is a gateway to future success, a means to an end. Access to college is based on many factors, and many of those factors are profoundly influenced by how and where a person grows up. Growing up in poverty, especially in a community with concentrated poverty, reduces the quality of schools and other social services, and makes equally capable people appear less qualified on a college application. If we want to offer equal opportunity (and we do not believe in inherent racial differences in intellect), affirmative action is a necessary means to correct for imbalances in opportunity created by historic racism and the constraints placed on students’ parents.

This is where I think the the Left and Right diverge, and have diverged since the split between Burke and Mills. In modern conservative discourse, as in Burke, there is a strain of thought which treats poverty as a moral failing which is and ought to be passed from father to son. If the son wants healthcare, he or his father ought to pay for it. If the father cannot provide his children with healthcare, that is the son’s problem, not society’s. For Burke, the social order exists for good reasons and should not be upset.

On the Left and among progressives, a very philosophy holds. I should mention in passing that progressivism has not always been a phenomenon of the Left ? Teddy Roosevelt was a progressive Republican with a conservative pull on many of his policies. He was progressive in that he sought social progress through the sort of equality of opportunity I’m about to describe.

Equality of opportunity as I see it and have described it above, is about smoothing out random effects of parentage and accident, allowing our own abilities and desires choose our outcomes. Equality of outcome would be horrifically authoritarian, forcing some people to do things they don’t want in order to ensure everyone gets to the same endpoint.

Social organization and social justice through equality of opportunity was a dominant theme of the political of John Rawls. He argued that society should be organized around justice, and that justice is achieved by considering ourselves in the “original position,” in which we establish the rules of society from behind a “veil of ignorance” regarding the abilities and characteristics of other members of society. Thus, liberalism as constructed by Rawls focuses on equality of opportunity in a very broad sense. From the original position, the basic human rights and liberties are easy to justify. If we do not know who will be charged with a crime, and do not know their guilt or innocence, the many rights and liberties we grant to accused criminals becomes obvious. If I were suddenly placed in the dock, knowing nothing else than that I stood accused, I would want a jury, to be able to question my accuser, access to legal counsel, a right to habeas corpus, a right not to incriminate myself, and protections against warrantless searches and seizures.

Practical experience has taught us that economic rights are just as important to ensuring freedom as these and other civil rights explicitly embodied in our Constitution. While our 18th century constitution doesn’t deal in these rights, The Second Bill of Rights by Cass Sunstein shows that many nations which established constitutions in the 20th century tended to explicitly include economic rights, including a right to housing, access to jobs (not guaranteed employment, but a right to work for those who seek it), healthcare and education. Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech argues for the necessary link between these rights, that “freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want.”

The New Deal, like Truman’s Fair Deal and Johnson’s Great Society, attempted to create guarantees of rights beyond those guaranteed by the Founders, but which are no less vital to the cause of equality of opportunity. Truman justified his programs by saying “Every segment of our population, and every individual, has a right to expect from his government a fair deal.” A fair deal means equal opportunities regardless of issues beyond your control. A stock market crash, a run on the banks, a broken leg or your parents’ race and income are all beyond your control. Ensuring true equality of opportunity means making it possible for people to set those factors aside, competing for their desired outcomes on the basis of inherent ability.


  1. #1 bob koepp
    March 26, 2007

    Sorting out the differences between equal opportunity and equal outcomes is a bit trickier than you’ve suggested.

    The distinction between healthcare and health, although crucial to policy discussions, has led you into error. Health is indeed the ultimate point of healthcare, but we’re talking here about rights, and hardly anybody thinks that there’s a right to health. All of the debate in policy circles is about a right to healthcare — in this context, access is an outcome of policy.

    We still can mark a difference between equal opportunity in accessing healthcare and equal outcomes. For example, even if everybody was guaranteed some level of healthcare from cradle to grave, people in rural areas and those lacking strong social supports might have lesser opportunities of access than well-connected urbanites. Also, some people simply will not exercise the opportunities they have to access healthcare. But setting aside such “externalities,” equality of opportunity in this context would require policies establishing a “single-tier” system of healthcare, where everybody is guaranteed access to the same range of services, and nobody is permitted (i.e., nobody has the opportunity) to get healthcare that isn’t universally available. Unless a single-tier system in enforced, there will be people who have the opportunity to access healthcare services beyond the reach of some of their fellow citizens.

    FWIW, most healthcare policy analysts think a single-tier system is not a good idea.

  2. #2 Joel
    March 26, 2007

    Again:Wow. I’m pleased to have helped start a conversation that has produced such thoughtful replies.

    I’ve got some thoughts to cogitate upon.

  3. #3 Josh
    March 27, 2007

    I’m not sure that single-tier healthcare is the only way to ensure equality of opportunity. We can probably distinguish healthcare aimed at equalizing opportunity from other forms of healthcare, for instance. Ensuring equal access to cosmetic surgery, for instance, is not what we’re talking about.

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