Thursday, February 20, 2014

Americans and Equal Opportunity

For a long time, I accepted, without really thinking about it, the common view that most Americans support equal opportunity.  But I have turned my mind to it recently, and now I think the common view is wrong.  As I discussed in a earlier post, Americans don't regard it as particularly unjust that rich people can buy a better education for their children.    And as I discussed in my last post, most Americans think that the inheritance tax should be reduced or eliminated, even though a steep inheritance tax is a prerequisite for equal opportunity:  if one person inherits a lot of money and a lot of other people don't, you don't have a  "level playing field."  I'm not certain, but I recall hearing that even Herbert Spencer, who opposed pretty much all taxes and spending, favored an inheritance tax for that reason.  So it's hard to maintain that Americans are keen on equal opportunity given the lack of support for the inheritance tax.

Aside from the survey evidence, general observation doesn't suggest much support for equal opportunity.  Most people try to ensure that their children have whatever advantages they can give them.  I suspect that few middle-class people, even those who are generally egalitarian, would want a society in which their children had a substantial chance of winding up at the bottom.   Although poor parents can't give their children many advantages, they generally accept it as fair that more affluent people try to do so:  in effect, they figure that if they were rich, they'd want their children to inherit their money.

This isn't a lot of evidence, but when I try to think of positive evidence that Americans support equal opportunity, nothing comes to mind.  People talk about "opportunity," or "equal opportunity" all the time, but if you look more closely that usually amounts to saying that it would be good if we could get something for nothing:  if the poor could move up but no one moved down.  (Marco Rubio's recent speech on poverty was a good example of that).

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