Opinion | Inequality

The illusion of “equal opportunities” for all

Giving people equal opportunities sounds like a no-brainer. But the common-sense idea is not properly put into practice today, argues Spanish sociologist César Rendueles
On the illustration is a portrait of a man with suit. The head is cut. The face is a red area.

Today we seem to think that equality can only be compatible with individual freedoms if it's about removing any obstacles to rewards arising from personal effort. So equality becomes a bit like a politically-aligned video assistant – it's a way of checking that nobody cheats in our societal contest. In this way, we leave our egalitarian ideals behind in favour of a meritocratic project.

But of course, we all know that things don't work that way. The education system and the labour market serve to extend inequalities. Perhaps even more importantly, when linked to the evolution of modern democracies, egalitarianism - roughly defined as "the doctrine that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities" - was not about giving individuals what they deserved. It was supposed to give individuals what they needed so they could develop to the best of their potential.

Egalitarianism in democracies is not like checking for drugs before a sporting contest; it is an attempt to limit the more negative consequences of social competition. Many of us accept this principle because we confuse it with social mobility. Obviously we should try to ensure that anybody who has the ability, can become a doctor, engineer, journalist or singer, if they wish to. But this idea becomes mutable when these professions come with social or financial rewards, or so the defenders of meritocracy would say. They believe that individuals should be rewarded for developing such skills – otherwise they may not be willing to take the time to acquire the demanding knowledge they need to, in order to do the jobs that make life better for all of us.

“Real equality is the result of a complex mixture of policies and it emerges from the kind of democratic citizenship that we need to cultivate deliberately.” 

But this argument has flaws. Firstly, it's a negative presupposition about human nature. It's absurd to think that human beings wouldn't make an effort to develop themselves unless they get social recognition or money in return. That's like dealing with naughty children who will not behave unless they are bribed into it. Secondly, it also indicates how bad we are at recognising, and rewarding, some of the most useful jobs in our society. During the COVID-19 pandemic we saw just how essential the work done by truck drivers and cleaners was. And in contrast to that, we'd probably all survive if we didn't have any real estate speculators. And even if we accept social inequalities – particularly if they can be traced back to lack of individual efforts rather than nature or luck – then questions still arise. For example, what level of inequality is acceptable?

How much more should the richest earn relative to those who have the least? Three times as much? Ten times as much? Does anyone seriously believe it's OK for the manager of a large company to earn 400 times more than the average wage of their employees? Ultimately, seeing equal opportunity through the lens of meritocracy is simply a contemporary way of justifying the far older system of elite privilege. My argument is that we shouldn't try to understand equal opportunity as a starting point but as an outcome. Real equality is the result of a complex mixture of policies and it emerges from the kind of democratic citizenship that we need to cultivate deliberately.           

From the Spanish by Raul Zelik