Equality of Opportunity as a Fig Leaf

Don’t get me wrong, I fully support equality of opportunity. Everyone in society, no matter where and in what circumstances they are born, should have every opportunity to succeed. All men are born equal.

However, neoliberals, whose policies promote inequality, have used the idea of ‘equality of opportunity’ as a fig leaf, to hide the fact that they really won’t do anything to combat, and don’t even care about, inequality.

In the US, Paul Ryan, of the Republican Party, said the following:

These actions starkly highlight the difference between the two parties that lies at the heart of the matter: Whether we are a nation that still believes in equality of opportunity, or whether we are moving away from that, and towards an insistence on equality of outcome.

Policies that ignore the rent-seeking ‘free lunches’ that, more often than not, are what the richest members of society got their wealth from, and defund public services and impoverish less fortunate members of society, increase income and wealth inequality dramatically. Fully aware of this, the majority of people would not vote for politicians who support such policies, as they would be better off for not doing so. Therefore, neoliberals must offer a carrot to voters. They offer the ‘opportunity’ to become a part of the elite.

A casino analogy is apt to describe the neoliberal concept of ‘opportunity’. The casino operators represent (and might be in reality) those rich off unearned income. The gamblers represent the rest of the population. Gamblers are encouraged to play the game by the possibility of a windfall gain. In practice, the gamblers usually lose, and the casino operators become rich from the gamblers. Hence, this can be called casino capitalism.

But people’s livelihoods shouldn’t be part of a game. Offering people a chance to become a part of the elite normalizes massive gaps in terms of incomes and wealth between the rich and the poor.

How can this happen? Because our economies are already sufficiently unequal, the wealthiest people have enough of a share of an economy’s wealth to use it as a carrot to manipulate less wealthier citizens. The super-rich can fund parties and candidates that do not represent the interests of the majority of voters, so much so that those parties and candidates are consistently in power.

Henry George predicted this, all the way back in 1879:

… political equality — when coexisting with an increasing tendency toward unequal distribution of wealth — will ultimately beget either tyranny or anarchy.

A representative government may become a dictatorship without formally changing its constitution or abandoning popular elections. Forms are nothing when substance has gone. And the forms of popular government are those from which the substance of freedom may go most easily. For there despotism advances in the name of the people. Once that single source of power is secured, everything is secured. An aristocracy of wealth will never struggle while it can bribe a tyrant.

When the disparity of condition increases, democratic elections make it easy to seize the source of power. Many feel no connection with the conduct of government. Embittered by poverty, they are ready to sell their votes to the highest bidder or follow the most blatant demagogue. One class has become too rich to be stripped of its luxuries, no matter how public affairs are administered. Another class is so poor that promises of a few dollars will outweigh abstract considerations on election day. A few roll in wealth, while the many seethe with discontent at things they don’t know how to remedy.

Where there is anything close to equal distribution of wealth, the more democratic government is, the better it will be. Where there is gross inequality in the distribution of wealth, the opposite is true. The more democratic government is, the worse it will be. To give the vote to people who must beg or steal or starve, to whom the chance to work is a favor — this is to invoke destruction. To put political power in hands embittered and degraded by poverty is to wreak havoc.

Hereditary succession (or even selection by lot) may, by accident, occasionally place the wise and just in power. But in a corrupt democracy, the tendency is always to give power to the worst. Honesty and patriotism are a handicap, while dishonesty brings success. The best sink to the bottom, the worst float to the top. The vile are ousted only by the viler.

National character gradually absorbs the qualities that win power. In the long panorama of history, we see over and over that this transforms free people into slaves. A corrupt democratic government must finally corrupt the people. And when the people become corrupt, there is no resurrection. Life is gone, only the carcass remains. It is left but for the plowshares of fate to bury it out of sight.

Unequal distribution of wealth inevitably transforms popular government into despotism. This is not a thing of the far future. It has already begun in the United States, and is proceeding rapidly before our very eyes. Men of the highest ability and character avoid politics. The technique of handlers and hacks counts more than the reputations of statesmen. The power of money is increasing, while voting is done recklessly. Political differences are no longer differences of principle. Political parties are passing into the control of what might be considered oligarchies and dictatorships.

Modern growth is typified by the great city. Here we find the greatest wealth and the deepest poverty. And here popular government has most clearly broken down. In all the great American cities of today, a ruling class is defined as clearly as in the most aristocratic countries. Its members have whole wards in their pockets, select slates for nominating conventions, and distribute offices as they bargain together. “They toil not, neither do they spin,”* yet they wear the finest of raiment and spend money lavishly. They are men of power, whose favor the ambitious must court, and whose vengeance they must avoid.

Who are these men? The wise, the learned, the good? No. They are gamblers, fighters, or worse. Men who have made a trade of controlling votes, and buying and selling offices and legislation. Through these men, rich corporations and powerful financial interests pack the Senate and the courts with their lackeys. In many places today, a Washington, a Franklin, or a Jefferson could not even get into the state legislature. Their very character would be an insurmountable disqualification.

Progress and Poverty, Chapter 42 (Modern Edition)

Rather than giving people the ruse of ‘equality’, how about some real equality. Capture unearned economic rent, such as gains in a landowner’s property caused by an enterprising community and government-funded infrastructure and services, to block off this free lunch for a select few. Use this captured rent to sustain all, through a Basic Income scheme. This gives people a safety net to take on risky and  volatile ventures such as starting a business or writing a book, and pay for the costs of living while people undergo education and training.

Give people an equal grant to start themselves off, and allow people to earn more money only through hard work, and true equality of opportunity will appear.

Political liber…

Political liberty, when the equal right to land is denied, becomes, as population increases and invention goes on, merely the liberty to compete for employment at starvation wages. This is the truth that we have ignored. And so there come beggars in our streets and tramps on our roads; and poverty enslaves men who we boast are political sovereigns; and want breeds ignorance that our schools cannot enlighten; and citizens vote as their masters dictate; and the demagogue usurps the part of the statesman; and gold weighs in the scales of justice; and in high places sit those who do not pay to civic virtue even the compliment of hypocrisy; and the pillars of the republic that we thought so strong already bend under an increasing strain.

– Henry George, Progress and Poverty, 1879