Notes from Abbrevia: A Response to Bottlenecks

Imagine two worlds. In one world—let’s call it Expansia—a writer writes 260 thoughtful and engaging pages exploring his chosen topic. In the other world—Abbrevia—a writer has at most 1000 words of blog post to respond to the first writer.

Welcome to Abbrevia. Responding adequately to Joey Fishkin’s wide-ranging and incisive book Bottlenecks is no easy task. Doing so in a blog post is impossible. Undoubtedly the right answer to this quandary is to take Fishkin’s work as a jumping off point for a related set of ideas. This is an ideal approach for a blog post. Alas, dear Reader, this contribution to the symposium takes a different tack. What follows is my attempt to identify five of my favorite things about Bottlenecks, and then to list five of my lingering questions.

1. For starters, a stylistic note: Bottlenecks is beautifully written. It’s full of accessible prose, pithy articulations of complex philosophical ideas, and evocative imagined worlds that illustrate key concepts. Some of these imagined worlds Fishkin invents, and some he culls from the philosophical canon; in both cases, his alternative universes are far more effective than my Expansia and Abbrevia. The “big test” society is emblematic: This is a world, drawn by analogy to Bernard Williams’ warrior society, and not so very far from our own, in which everyone’s opportunities for many different kinds of lives are all determined by a single evaluation at a particular age. The big test makes vivid the idea of a bottleneck, which limits opportunities both for those who fail (because they can’t reach the opportunities on the other side) and for those who pass (because it shapes their preferences and ambitions).

2. Relatedly, Bottlenecks is a story about equal opportunity with far more emphasis on the opportunity than the equality. For everyone who ever wondered if equality theory or antidiscrimination law is leading us towards the dystopian world of Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron—where everyone is literally weighed down in direct proportion to her talents, whether mental or physical—Fishkin’s account offers a lucid answer: We should care about equality to the extent that it serves the goal of expanding individual opportunities (and inclinations) to pursue diverse concepts of the good—to become, per Raz, “‘part author of his life.’” An illustrative passage is this:

“A pluralistic opportunity structure . . . provides the structural conditions for the kind of freedom that makes autonomy possible. It is the difference between seeing only one path that leads to anything of value—a path one must pursue at all costs—and seeing many paths, leading to different lives marked by different combinations of forms of human flourishing, so that one must decide for oneself what to value and pursue.”

Reducing inequalities is thus instrumental to freedom, rather than the primary end we are seeking—at least as I read Fishkin.

3. Important to this pluralist vision of individual freedom is Fishkin’s rich account of how individual development occurs, including his argument that there is no normal environment which brings out the best in everyone. He draws on science and social science—arguing that philosophical accounts always rely on assumed facts, so we need to look to proven facts, not just hypothetical or unacknowledged ones—to make three important points about individual development. First, an individual’s apparent talents and motivations (and aspirations) are shaped in an interactive process with the environment, so that we cannot hope to separate out genes from environment, merit from circumstances. (This process is what he cleverly characterizes, drawing on disability theory, as the “social model of ability.”) Second, this interactive process of individual development begins at the earliest stages of life—even before birth—such that fully equalizing developmental opportunities is neither feasible nor palatable. Third, he argues that there is no one environment that is normal or ideal for everyone, and that individuals grow differentially in different settings—extrapolating from studies of “reaction range” including an evocative one from the 1950s in which no one environment was best for all strands of a particular plant.

4. Fishkin’s story is deeply inclusive, building surprising bridges in at least two ways. First, through his emphasis on the endogeneity of preferences. The theme of endogeneity in Bottlenecks is not only psychologically acute; it also shows what’s in it for everyone. One nice explanation of the endogeneity point comes via Mill: “‘Moralities’ and ‘sentimentalities,’ no less than laws and discrimination, shape our preferences and aspirations,” Fishkin writes, quoting Mill, and, from there, “the problem is not that people ‘choose what is customary in preference to their own inclination’ [but rather that] ‘[i]t does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary.’” Thus rendered, Fishkin’s ambitious project of a pluralist society offers something for (nearly) everyone, because it shows how bottlenecks are a problem not only for those who fail to make it through them, but also for those who succeed.

Second, Fishkin manages to convey sympathy, even empathy, for parents of all stripes. In his analysis of the unequal developmental opportunities children encounter, the parents of high and low SES children both come off as eminently understandable in their paths with regard to their children. A compassionate rendering of the parenting choices of lower income parents is not so surprising; given the struggles these parents face, and the typical authorial anxiety of the higher SES people who tend to write about parenting, low-SES parents tend to be treated gingerly in such books. But few writers concerned with equality can resist the popular sport of mocking high SES parents for their “helicopter,” activity-rich, educationally ambitious parenting style. Fishkin instead uses his theory to offer these parents some empathy:

“In the big test society, as in the warrior society, of course parents pass whatever advantages they can to their children. . . . It would be irrational to do otherwise, given that the test is the bottleneck through which one must pass to reach any path that anyone (without very idiosyncratic preferences) would value.”

In the big test society, moreover, Fishkin notes that even parents who intrinsically value a wide variety of life paths, and who hope their children will too, may become indistinguishable from parents who seek principally to win zero-sum competitions. Where basic necessities like decent health care, as well as opportunities for diverse forms of flourishing, emerge principally from two main competitive bottlenecks (college degrees and money), what could be more rational than to help your children succeed on those tests? This, Fishkin shows, is why we need structural solutions rather than individual judgments.

5. Fishkin’s analysis leads him to some surprising conclusions, both theoretical and practical. On the theoretical side, he concludes with an account of antidiscrimination law as properly concerned with systematic subordination and with victims rather than perpetrators (as we have come to expect from anti-subordination theories) but also with individuals rather than with groups (an orientation more common to anti-differentiation approaches).

On the practical side, Fishkin’s pluralist agenda slices up the policy arena in some surprising ways. For instance, Fishkin lauds the Posse Foundation’s efforts to provide paths around typical college admissions processes (he casts college diplomas as the new high school diploma bottleneck, a la Griggs), while also highlighting the potential for residential desegregation that can come with private schools (“because it allows affluent parents to move to neighborhoods that contain peers they would not accept as their children’s school peers”). He urges a social welfare state that delinks employment from benefits like health care or retirement plans, while also critiquing generous parental leave policies in Western Europe for gender segregation and job steering. He encourages us to consider workplace policies more associated with an interventionist state, like modular work schedules (which must come with modular advancement, he notes), while also emphasizing that a pluralist society must be an entrepreneurial society, with widespread access to capital and also room for failure along the way to success.

*  *  *

Those were some of my favorite things about Bottlenecks. This provocative book also leaves me thinking about many issues. Here are several, most of them topics for the next book rather than questions Fishkin should have answered in this one:

1. To start with a fun one, is marriage a bottleneck? Early on, Fishkin alludes provocatively to the idea of experiments in living. Later, he writes, “There may be little the law can usefully do to cause people to be friends with those who are deemed overweight or ugly.” This juxtaposition might lead us to ask: Does the state’s decision to confer formal recognition on certain kinds of dyads, to the exclusion of other kinds of relationships, create a bottleneck that’s worth considering for this reason or any other? Or in any case, what are the experiments in living that he pictures and how can they arise?

2. I am deeply sympathetic with Fishkin’s preference for individuals’ directing their own lives, and having a multiplicity of paths (and even preferences) open to them. But I wonder how he reconciles this with the literature on the costs of choice. If we’re not always so good at choosing, and if we sometimes make poorer choices when we face more options, is this a problem for a pluralist account of this sort? I understand that the argument is more for a directional emphasis than a clear endpoint—not least because an endpoint so far from our own is hard to imagine—but do we not need to know something about the limits of this inquiry in order to choose among policies?

3. Relatedly, at what point does responding to (apparently) revealed preferences constitute steering? Fishkin tells us, in writing about gender-segregated job steering, that, “regardless of ‘nature,’ people ought not to be steered into gender-based bottlenecks.” But what does it mean to say “regardless of ‘nature”? If nature really did lead each group in a certain direction, then why shouldn’t they be steered that way? Is this in fact another way of denying gendered nature, or is there really some way that, regardless of nature, steering should not occur? If so, what would this look like? Children are probably entitled, by this account, to be steered even less than adults. In that case, if your son appears to like blue and your daughter pink—but you cannot be certain how much is perception of course—are you steering them (inappropriately, impermissibly, inadvisedly) into a bottleneck if you buy them clothes in the colors they say they prefer? What alternative is preferable? Dressing them in a complete rainbow despite their protests? For how long?

4. One specific dilemma seems to be how much energy we should put into helping people through the bottleneck as opposed to around it. The politics of disability set this problem into relief. Curing people of certain ailments will allow them to pass through a disability bottleneck, whereas accommodations could offer ways around it. In a world of limited resources, where should we put our money? In the context of “disfiguring conditions that are sufficiently extreme,” Fishkin thinks that cosmetic improvements may be worth funding, but in general he is attuned to the concern that supporting such interventions “may send a strong signal about what ought to be considered beautiful and ugly,” and in this way, “by helping people through the bottleneck, we may be making the bottleneck itself more severe.” This is presumably one reason that disability rights rhetoric is often hostile to talk of cures. Fishkin tells us at one point that “[t]here is broad agreement . . . that physical health is important;” however, not everyone thinks that curing disability is the best way forward for disability rights.

Similarly, consider a program like Prep for Prep, which identifies and supports children from minority backgrounds to enter elite private schools in New York City. Such programs are variously celebrated for enabling diversity at the highest levels of elite education, on the one hand, or criticized as skimming especially talented students from the public school system, on the other. Under Fishkin’s account, should we see Prep for Prep and its ilk as useful workarounds to the bottleneck of race, or as counterproductive clogs rendering more severe the bottleneck of elite-private-school-privilege-in-college-admissions? How do we choose whether to pour resources into Prep for Prep or the Posse Foundation? Or into the public school system more generally?

5. Finally, in Fishkin’s pluralist regime, should new opportunities be privileged over continuity in existing pathways? At one point, Fishkin tells us, I think as a descriptive legal matter, that “[i]t is not enough to say that the law ought to protect people from being treated differently on the basis of characteristics irrelevant to, for example, the job for which they are applying.” He then goes on to say that we can discriminate on the basis of green eyes, say. But should we be able to do so? More pointedly, would a “for cause” regime be an advance under bottlenecks theory? I’m not sure it would, since it tends to favor incumbents over new employees. The same has been said of age discrimination laws. Bottlenecks focuses “squarely on the interests of individuals,” Fishkin tells us. But which individuals? Do those branching out into previously untrodden paths warrant more solicitude than those who want more of the same?

Bottlenecks has led me down many provocative new avenues, for which I thank Joey Fishkin. And in conclusion, I thank you, dear Reader, for staying with me till the end, for supporting my pluralist vision, as I sought freedom from the constraints of the world of Abbrevia.

You may also like...