Opportunity Pluralism, Class, and Distributive Justice

At the outset, let me say how happy I am to be a part of this symposium, and how much I’m looking forward to our conversation. Joseph Fishkin’s Bottlenecks strikes me as an important and urgent addition to thinking on equal opportunity, particularly in a liberal egalitarian vein. I’m planning at least two posts. This first post will summarize Fishkin’s argument (as I understand it), then raise some questions about the relationship between opportunity pluralism, class, and distributive justice. Another will consider whether opportunity pluralism supports or even requires more robust wage-compressing institutions, in particular labor unions. Time permitting, and depending on other commentators’ interventions, I may also post some thoughts about opportunity pluralism and employer responsibility under antidiscrimination law.

At the heart of Bottlenecks is a simple but profound argument: “equal opportunity is far more radical than distributive fairness.” (42) Even a cursory review of egalitarian social movements and their demands demonstrates this point. Movements for abolition and civil rights, women’s rights, disability rights, and LGBT rights have all demanded an end to legal and social structures—ranging from formal inequalities to social norms and even the design of physical spaces—that enable one group to dominate another. This is also true of the labor movement, which in its more ambitious moments has argued for workplace citizenship, a form of full participation and equality within the enterprise, understood as an analogue to political citizenship.

And yet, as Fishkin notes, political debates around equal opportunity have been stuck for some time on questions of “meritocracy, discrimination, and affirmative action,” particularly around university admissions and employers’ hiring policies. (23) Philosophical debates have been focused largely on the justice of enabling those with particular talents to capture outsized distributive shares. Both approaches risk making matters of justice feel like zero-sum games, whether between racial groups, the sexes, or rich and poor.

Fishkin demonstrates that these debates are too narrow. In doing so, he builds on two ideas central to Rawls’ A Theory of Justice: First, that justice is a characteristic of systems of social institutions taken as a whole, not of the fairness of particular rules taken in isolation; Second, that social institutions are the primary subject of justice because they exert such a profound effect on our life chances, shaping not just our opportunity sets but also our preferences and desires. A society that takes fair equality of opportunity seriously must address that deep opportunity structure.

Hence Bottlenecks. To achieve a minimally decent standard of living today one must pass through or get around any number of bottlenecks. Tests such as the SAT are the most obvious example. But bottlenecks also include “developmental bottlenecks,” such as the need to speak and read English, and “instrumental goods” bottlenecks, the most important of which is money. Many bottlenecks are unavoidable—I think of the educational requirements for a neurosurgeon—but other are relatively arbitrary. A society committed to Fiskin’s version of “opportunity pluralism” will seek to eliminate arbitrary and powerful bottlenecks. As a result, the opportunity structure will be far more diverse and pluralistic; paths to success will be more fluid; and fewer important social goods will be wholly positional.

This project adds analytical rigor to a common line of criticism of liberal theories of justice: that their emphasis upon the priority of liberty and on distributive fairness leads them to ignore or downplay social inequalities that emerge from race, sex, gender, sexuality, and class. (Full disclosure/self-promotion: I have a dog in this fight. See here and here.) While Fishkin is humble about his theory’s ambitions, noting that the family will likely always be the most powerful source of developmental inequalities, opportunity pluralism captures something profound about egalitarian politics and the sense that contemporary class inequalities are unfair well before the moment of the “big test.” It also provides a new way of discussing questions of equal opportunity throughout our lives, focusing our attention on how inequalities of birth and early differences of opportunity accrete into broader patterns of class difference over time.

This leads into my first question/observation about the project: what, exactly, is the relationship between inequality, class, and bottlenecks? Fishkin describes class itself as a developmental bottleneck, in the sense that “one must (usually) pass through a non-poor upbringing in order to be able to pursue a large range of paths.” (157, see also 199-205). Yet the spatial metaphor of a bottleneck doesn’t seem to fully capture the role of class in development; the notion of “passing through” a class structure would seem to imply moving from one social class to another, and the book demonstrates that such class mobility is relatively rare these days.

An alternative spatial metaphor might be more appropriate: perhaps those in non-wealthy backgrounds need the tools to “get around” barriers of class, at least to the greatest extent possible given families’ inevitable influence on children’s development. One key tool would be universal early-childhood education; another might be universal literacy programs that, over generations, could perhaps reduce the verbal differences between classes. The idea that such tools can help alleviate bottlenecks, however, suggests that the bottleneck at issue is not class per se, but rather lies in qualifications bottlenecks that test for class-correlated capabilities.

And yet perhaps equality requires more than opportunities to “get around” class. Namely, changes to the class structure itself. I believe Fishkin’s project shares this ambition, at least to an extent. For example, Fishkin’s second principle requires that as many goods as possible be non-positional. This seems to me a powerful argument for a very generous social minimum made up of socialized health care, unemployment insurance, and perhaps a universal basic income. Policymakers seeking to implement Fishkin’s second principle would support such policies, not (just) on the more traditional liberal grounds that doing so creates the preconditions for just meritocracy or eliminates the influence of brute luck on human affairs, but (also) on the opportunity pluralist grounds doing so would reduce the arms race through which today’s families frantically seek to achieve and protect a privileged class position.

And yet, whether a social minimum would fundamentally alter the class structure is another question. Fishkin’s theory resonates with Weber’s work on class, which views class in terms of some groups’ ability to occupy prestigious positions within a division of labor (rather than controlling productive capital per se). It also resonates with Bourdieu’s work, which views class in terms of both economic and cultural capital. The Weberian side counsels for opening up the opportunity structure by opening university admissions, testing requirements, and other practices through which the professions maintain their privileged status; the Bourdieu-inflected side counsels for reducing families’ abilities or incentives to transmit class-linked knowledge and practices to their children.

The question is whether either set of reforms will ultimately be stable—in the Rawlsian sense—if the existing distribution of productive capital and the distribution of labor remain intact. While this concern is most obviously associated with Marx, who posited a structural relationship between classes based on control of productive capital, it also recurs in egalitarian liberalism. It helps explain why Rawls emphasized that the ownership of productive capital was not a basic liberty, and that justice as fairness would transform the division of labor. It also helps explain why Rawls argued that welfare-state capitalism would not satisfy justice as fairness, but that either “market socialism” or “property-owning democracy” would: both forms of society substantially redistribute and democratize control of productive assets. A similar instinct that only far-reaching changes to the control of productive assets can make capitalism itself just lies at the heart of Philippe Van Parijs’ arguments for a universal basic income.

I’ll have more to say about these questions in future posts. For now, let me note that these questions of class suggest a twist on Fishkin’s observation that the problem of the family “is a serious wrench in the machinery” of Rawls’ special conception of justice, because the difference principle cannot come into play until maximin fair equality of opportunity has been achieved. (54) Fishkin’s theory suggests a more fundamental revision to Rawls’ lexical ordering of principles: a robust form of distributive justice – one that does not simply seek to deliver more material resources to the poor, but to alleviate other social impediments to equality such as social structures connected to class, geography and the like – seems central to fair equality of opportunity in the first instance.

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