Equality of opportunity and parental partiality

by Harry on February 5, 2009

When I picked my wife up from work the other day, she told me about a (teenage, black) kid in afterschool. He was trying to do his homework on the computer, and she sat with him as he worked. She pointed out that his sentences were very good, and asked some questions, eliciting further sentences. He wouldn’t look at her, and didn’t believe that his sentences were good. He mumbled “I’d be doing it on my own”. “What”. “At my house. I’d be doing it on my own. No help in my crib”. She understood that he was thanking her.

Now, Lemuel and Righteous kindly alert me to a wonderful and old passage from Dinesh D’Souza:

Equal opportunity seems like a logical fulfillment of the equality principle in the Declaration of Independence. Yet it is an ideal that cannot and should not be realized through the actions of the government. Indeed, for the state to enforce equal opportunity would be to contravene the true meaning of the Declaration and to subvert the principle of a free society. Let me illustrate. I have a five-year-old daughter. Since she was born—actually, since she was conceived—my wife and I have gone to great lengths in the Great Yuppie Parenting Race. At one time we even played classical music while she was in the womb. Crazy us. Currently the little rogue is taking ballet lessons and swim lessons. My wife goes over her workbooks. I am teaching her chess.

Why are we doing these things? We are, of course, trying to develop her abilities so that she can get the most out of life. The practical effect of our actions, however, is that we are working to give our daughter an edge—that is, a better chance to succeed than everybody else’s children. Even though we might be embarrassed to think of it this way, we are doing our utmost to undermine equal opportunity. So are all the other parents who are trying to get their children into the best schools, the best colleges, and in general give them the best possible upbringing and education. None of them believes in equal opportunity either!


Now, to enforce equal opportunity, the government could do one of two things: it could try to pull my daughter down, or it could work to raise other people’s children up. The first is clearly destructive and immoral, but the second is also unfair. The government is obliged to treat all citizens equally. Why should it work to undo the benefits that my wife and I have labored so hard to provide? Why should it offer more to children whose parents have not taken the trouble?

There are numerous errors here, some, but not all, of which Timothy Noah’s comments briefly point out. Here are a few. First, it is entirely possible to believe in equal opportunity while pursuing maximal advantage for one’s own kid. For example, one might not make the mistake of believing that when two values conflict in a particular circumstance, the one that should give way has no value at all. Or one might believe that one’s own actions are morally suspect. Second, it does not follow from the fact that parents should have some freedom to pursue the good of their children, that they should be free to do whatever they want to pursue the good of their children. Would D’Souza be justified in bribing a jury to get his (innocent) daughter off a drug charge? Third, there are numerous reasons why the government should offer more to “the children whose parents have not taken the trouble”. For example, the fact the equality of opportunity is valuable. Or the fact that it is wrong to allow misery to persist that one can relatively easily, and costlessly alleviate. What freedom of D’Souza’s or his child’s, exactly, was the government undermining when it paid my wife to sit with that kid the other day? Fish in a barrel? Sure, but while almost no-one makes all of D’Souza’s mistakes at once, many people make one or another of them. [1]

Anyway, this is mainly an excuse for some shameless self-and-other promotion. Swift and I, regrettably ignorant of D’Souza, nevertheless point out his errors at great length in a paper we have just published legitimate parental partiality. It seems not to require a sub, or registration. I’m rather proud of it, more so than I would dare to be of anything I had done on my own. But then, of course, it’s much better than if I’d been doing it on my own.

[1] Note that I have refrained from worrying about his daughter’s well being on the grounds that with parents like that one might become very materially successful but an emotional cripple. That’s because I imagine he’s exaggerating the repulsiveness of his behaviour for effect, and if I’m wrong at least she’ll have funds to pay for therapy.

{ 50 comments }

1

Matt 02.05.09 at 2:31 pm

I’d agree with almost all of this, and the paper is very good- I liked it a lot. But the one thing I’m not sure of is the claim that it was “regrettable” that you were ignorant of D’Souza. I’m nearly convinced that it never could be regrettable to be ignorant of him, though perhaps we should look with gratitude towards those who do take the time to deal with him.

2

John Emerson 02.05.09 at 2:31 pm

Dinesh’s piece raises lots of questions. For one thing, it sounds like a version of the Society of Limited Good of the old peasant world, where one person’s good luck was assumed to mean someone else’s bad luck. (In terms of real property that was the actual case, since for peasants land is the predominant form of wealth and there’s only so much wealth). And he also seems to be treating education as a positional good rather than as an absolute good. I wonder if he would go so far as to say “If it weren’t for my tax dollars educating these competing children of less successful parents, I could manage my daughter’s education much more cheaply, since she would no longer need two foreign languages, linear algebra, and musical proficiency to get into the best school in the world”.

The odd thing is that those are both things that market conservatives should never find themselves thinking, since many deny that there are positional goods and they all deny the society of limited good. I don’t know if D’Souza is a market conservative, though; is he a theocon?

My real point, though, is that this cuts both ways. On the one hand, if our society remains hierarchal and competitive, you can’t change inequality via education. As the general level of education increases, formerly high levels of attainment (BA!!) become mediocre, and other levels of distinction are added on on top. So while it is possible to improve the educational level of the whole population, and possible to raise individuals into the middle or upper class, inequality will remain unchanged.

While it’s formally possible to believe in equality while pursuing maximum advantage for your kids, there’s a fine line there. Populists, egalitarians, caste reformers, etc., are characteristically militant about iniequalities keeping them down, but mushy about inequalities protecting them from those below (e.g. landless laborers, Dalits, black Americans.)

3

John Emerson 02.05.09 at 2:39 pm

To go one, one of the main functions of education today is to assign students to their class and make it seem just. The virtue of the kind of upward mobility we have is that talented people are able to rise up from their class of birth, so you don’t end up with talented, angry people working at menial jobs, and you also get the social advantages coming from the proper use of their talent.

But upward mobility and equal opportunity aren’t equality, and education still is, in fact, a way that wealthy parents can give their kids, even the lazy, mediocre ones, a head start.

4

Sam C 02.05.09 at 2:42 pm

Just to add a couple more objections to D’Souza:

(1) At least some people who give their child ballet lessons etc. are concerned about the child’s objective flourishing, not her relative ‘edge’ over other children.

(2) Equality of opportunity is not equality of outcome. The demand for the former, in this case, is a demand that children who currently have no access to the benefits of wealthy, child-focussed parents should have that access. It’s not a demand that every child end up the same.

Thanks for the heads-up on your paper, Harry.

5

LizardBreath 02.05.09 at 3:00 pm

This is a moral problem I’m dealing with right now — I have children in the NYC public school system. At the elementary school level, I’m perfectly happy with the neighborhood school they’re in. At the high school level, though, there are very good and very bad public schools. I am tutoring them in math, particularly, but their other subjects as well, consciously to affect their odds of being admitted to one of the better public high schools.

Now, I strongly disapprove of the fact that the public school system offers very unequal services. I would very much prefer a school system where I was indifferent among the possible schools my kids might end up attending. And I even more strongly disapprove of the fact that due to my own educational background and class I am very likely to be able to affect my children’s position within that system.

Nonetheless, given the fact of the system I have to deal with, I can’t see that failing to do what I can to serve my own children’s interests within that system would improve matters for anyone else, so I go on with the tutoring. But the issue generally really bothers me.

6

Hogan 02.05.09 at 3:14 pm

The odd thing is that those are both things that market conservatives should never find themselves thinking, since many deny that there are positional goods and they all deny the society of limited good. I don’t know if D’Souza is a market conservative, though; is he a theocon?

D’Souza: Well, Brian . . . I’m openin a boutique.

7

lemuel pitkin 02.05.09 at 3:40 pm

Equality of opportunity is not equality of outcome.

Except that it is. If your efforts to equalize opportunities do not, in fact, result in more equal outcomes, then evidently they have not succeeded. As somebody pointed out a while back,

1. What’s the point of doing anything if you’re not going to check whether it worked or not?
2. How do you find out whether a course of action worked or not, other than by the results?

It’s not a demand that every child end up the same.

Is that really how you understand equality?

8

ajay 02.05.09 at 4:44 pm

lemuel: but measuring the outcome of an equality-of-opportunity project is trickier than you think, because everyone has a different utility function, and presumably you’d want to see whether everyone has maximised their own utility to the same extent, rather than something more easily measurable like income. If all you ever wanted to do was be an archaeologist, and you were given sufficient opportunities by The System to be one, and ended up as one, that would be a complete success for the System from your point of view; but archaeologists don’t earn very much.

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Slocum 02.05.09 at 4:51 pm

Now, to enforce equal opportunity, the government could do one of two things: it could try to pull my daughter down, or it could work to raise other people’s children up. The first is clearly destructive and immoral, but the second is also unfair. The government is obliged to treat all citizens equally. Why should it work to undo the benefits that my wife and I have labored so hard to provide? Why should it offer more to children whose parents have not taken the trouble?

Unfortunately, I think D’Souza need not worry that the government will undo the absolute and relative advantages he and his wife have worked so hard to give because, it seems, it is just not possible. It appears that family, neighborhood, and peer culture are much more powerful than government interventions. I’ve never found the claims of effectiveness even for intensive interventions like the famed ‘Perry Preschool Program’ much more convincing than, say, the claims for abstinence-based sex education or the D.A.R.E. anti-drug program.

My wife and a number of our friends have professional contact with ‘at risk’ children, and the disadvantage is often so overdetermined — low income, low parental education levels, family dysfunction, substance abuse, transient living situations, poor health, etc. It’s not that we shouldn’t try to help — obviously, we have to try, but there’s no conceivable state intervention that could put them on equal footing with the Mozart-in-the-womb kids.

And at a less extreme level, working class families don’t necessarily want what most of us do for our kids — nor is it obvious that they should. A desire for ‘the best schools’ and elite jobs more often than not also means living hundreds or thousands of miles from the community where you grew up. Most working class people I know really aren’t interested. They prefer to live close to their families, where grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins can be involved in kids daily lives rather than be visited a couple times a year. So they don’t want ‘the best’ school or job — they want a decent school and decent job where they live. Can we say that outlook clearly wrong and should be the subject of a state remedy?

10

richard 02.05.09 at 4:57 pm

No abstract? Really? And numerical chapter headings?

Otherwise, what Emerson said: D’Souza’s position seems to be mercantilism for education. I’m not sure how much virtue there is in the idea of a “trickle down” effect raising general social standards, but since public education as a social value is (I’m guessing) supported by having educated people around, and expectations and needs are socially mediated, I would expect that (selfishly and partially) educating your kids to the highest level you can would at least make it possible for higher educational standards to propagate (or, to belabour the point, if nobody tried to make their kids above average, there would be no chance for the average to rise).

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LizardBreath 02.05.09 at 4:58 pm

Isn’t a ‘decent’ school begging the question? If you define ‘decent’ as ‘sufficient to prepare one for an elite job if that’s what’s desired’, I don’t think anyone would call that wrong.

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John Emerson 02.05.09 at 5:03 pm

I think that Lizardbreath’s dilemma is just an instance of the fact that, even if we accept universalistic obligations, whether consequentialist or otherwise, the area within which we are able to act effectively is limited. Doing the best for your own family and community might not benefit distant strangers, but it’s something at hand to do where you can have a reasonable possibility of success. There’s certainly a dilemma if you directly harm people to help your family (e.g. the Mafia guy pimping on other men’s daughters while raising his own daughter in style), or if there’s an intelligible link to harm (holding stock in an environmental criminal), but deciding that every parent should divide their attention equally between the billion children in the world is too ludicrous even for Bentham.

I actually think that utilitarianism and consequentialism are administration philosophies and not ethical philosophies. Certainly “the greatest good of the greatest number” is a usable guide for a Federal Reserve Chairman or a President, where it really isn’t one for a parent raising two kids.

At the individual level, I think that consequentialism is only relevant when it conflicts with some other form of ethics. It’s more a check on ethics, or a critique of ethics, than an actual ethical system. So when you’re faced with a virtuous act that seems likely to have harmful effects, or a wrong act that seems likely to have good effects, you have something to think about.

Some form of consequentialism seem to ask that individuals serve as administrators of themselves, requiring them to figure out what an all-wise administrator of everything would tell them to do, if he existed. There are multiple enormous problems with this.

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Harry 02.05.09 at 5:08 pm

A journalist at American Radio Works has tracked down some of the original Perry teachers, and is making what promises to be a fascinating documentary. I’m inclined to share slocum’s scepticism about success against the odds stories, and agree that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay close to family (far from it), but there are strategies that promise to raise low end achievement (though not eliminate the achievement gap or anything like it) — summer school, extended school day, attacking child poverty rates, early on-site screening for hearing and sight difficulties, even, perhaps, pro-marriage initiatives. A lot of this is unglamourous, and quite difficult. More on school improvement/achievement gap issues in an upcoming post.

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John Emerson 02.05.09 at 5:09 pm

I agree with Slocum for once. Education can’t bear the weight people put on it — even beyond the fact that actual education reinforces existing class structures at least as much as it challenges them. It’s just unreasonable to think that you can rescue kids from multi-problem families in multi-problem neighborhoods simply by giving them good educations. I am a socialist, more or less, and don’t object at all to spending money or intervening, but putting all the weight on the schools is a convenient copout.

15

Harry 02.05.09 at 5:09 pm

richard — there must be an abstract somewhere, and anyway the intro (section I) does the work. House style.

16

Watson Aname 02.05.09 at 5:18 pm

As an aside, the other day Brett (iirc) mentioned that this site was extremely slow for him on entering text. I’ve just noticed that (probably due to implementation the preview feature) the site “www.gravatar.com” is contacted on every single keystroke. Regardless of how much people like their little icons, that might be seen as excessive. If you have a slow connection and/or DNS lookup, this could be painfully slow.

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Slocum 02.05.09 at 5:53 pm

Isn’t a ‘decent’ school begging the question? If you define ‘decent’ as ‘sufficient to prepare one for an elite job if that’s what’s desired’, I don’t think anyone would call that wrong.

But I wouldn’t necessarily define ‘decent’ that way. To take a concrete example, consider Grand Valley State near Grand Rapids, MI. Decent? Sure. If you lived in Western Michigan and wanted to be a respiratory therapist or an accountant, it would serve admirably. But is it appropriate to prepare for an elite job at the national or international level? I dunno — would the Kruger & Dale results hold even for 3rd-tier regional universities with only a 50% 6-year graduation rate?

18

Righteous Bubba 02.05.09 at 5:57 pm

Now, Lemuel and Righteous kindly alert me

The shout-out is kind but I too was alerted by Lemuel and found the link he would have passed along in any case.

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LizardBreath 02.05.09 at 6:03 pm

16: But that’s a tertiary institution. The worry about inequality in education is much more serious at the primary and secondary school level, where there are many schools that don’t adequately prepare students for further ‘elite’ education, even if they do desire it and are otherwise capable of achieving at that level.

20

Lisa 02.05.09 at 6:07 pm

That’s completely mad. But almost kind of beautiful in its madness.

It reminds me of a passage in Nozick where he is talking about some advantage or other and how it made it possible for him to court his wife. Nozick’s claim was a bit more respectable but it was funny to me in the same way. Kind of the argument: ‘I am better than you and this is good for me. It’s so good! You just can’t imagine all the great stuff I am getting. Egalitarianism is wrong because it wouldn’t allow me to be better than you.’

Maybe some of it is a failure of imagination? They are almost (or maybe entirely) unable to imagine that someone might not prefer to be advantaged with respect to another person. Maybe the problem is that they always suspect egalitarian ideals of necessarily being based in some kind of envious attempt to snatch what they’ve got.

David Brooks recent column is a fascinating example of this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/03/opinion/03brooks.html?_r=1

We’re giving my kid guitar lessons. In case she is out of work, we want her to be able to make a living in some fashion or other–busking on the street and the like. But now D’Souza makes me worry that someone might come along to destroy her musical abilities. Some other beggar will resent her advantage and smash her guitar. (I guess we’ll also teach her to sing, just in case.) One thing that will help her though, I think, is that we’re going to teach her to share. Actually, she’s already fairly good at sharing.

21

lindsey 02.05.09 at 6:26 pm

The government is obliged to treat all citizens equally. Why should it work to undo the benefits that my wife and I have labored so hard to provide? Why should it offer more to children whose parents have not taken the trouble?

This is the most absurd thing I’ve read in quite a while (ever?). I guess I was just unaware that children are merely the property of their parents and not persons with their own interests and claims. This reads something like, “Why should the government help the Smiths landscape their lawn when I just spent all this time and money improving mine just so it will look better than theirs! If they’re not going to bother, and I am, then it’s right for my yard to be superior.” Of course, because the children involved have no more claims than a yard. Leave them at the total mercy of their parents. That sounds right.

Totally ridiculous. If for only efficiency reasons we all have an interest in those other people’s children reaching some high level of their potential. That kid who’s parents won’t bother may have the inner makings of a brilliant medical researcher. And if D’Souza knew I’d bet he’d wish that child was being played Mozart in the womb, etc.

22

Righteous Bubba 02.05.09 at 7:17 pm

I guess I was just unaware that children are merely the property of their parents and not persons with their own interests and claims.

Thanks. That’s really an answer to this from Slocum:

And at a less extreme level, working class families don’t necessarily want what most of us do for our kids—nor is it obvious that they should.

There is an extent to which the interest of the parent is to be ignored. I may want my child to follow in my footsteps as a dogfight entrepreneur, but bravo to the state for providing options.

It’s interesting, though, that so many places around the world that bleeding hearts like myself point to when complaining about America are so active in restricting options to children so early by streaming them into this or that vocational discipline, turning them into medical workers or welders at 18 and so forth. The high-school-education-as-ticket-to-anything has to be one of the great American accomplishments.

23

John Emerson 02.05.09 at 7:30 pm

Bubba, I think it’s highly problematic. A lot of graduates get neither the ticket-to-anything nor the welding job, and are just unemployed and unemployable. A lot of students reject the ticket-to-anywhere and fuck off until they’re allowed to leave.

My solution would be to let kids leave HS at 16 and get free college (including remedial) at some later date. You want second chances, and those are less and less available now. Poor kids get one shot right when they’re most insanely teenage, and then never get a second shot. Kids who hate HS should leave.

24

Righteous Bubba 02.05.09 at 7:38 pm

Bubba, I think it’s highly problematic. A lot of graduates get neither the ticket-to-anything nor the welding job, and are just unemployed and unemployable. A lot of students reject the ticket-to-anywhere and fuck off until they’re allowed to leave.

I agree that there’s an element of fiction to the high-school education dream, but is it superior to the European pragmatism that churns out people who by design do not have the qualifications to pursue further academic training?

25

John Emerson 02.05.09 at 7:54 pm

I went to HS with a lot of (white Protestant) people who mostly had a firm intention of not going to college. My HS had a lot of shop and ag classes for them. I still see a lot of them around here, and many of them are doing fine. There are always people who are going to be doing the non-college jobs. Attaining equality by making everyone middle class is like making the perpetual motion machine.

26

Righteous Bubba 02.05.09 at 8:02 pm

My HS had a lot of shop and ag classes for them.

I think that’s a good option too. I’ll bet that if some of ’em got good grades they could still get into university or a community college if they liked, whereas if you’re steamed into X vocational program in Germany (which is getting lots better but I’ll pick on their history anyway) you may wind up with no options for further education should you decide that being a mechanic is dull.

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Righteous Bubba 02.05.09 at 8:02 pm

Steamed or streamed, same difference unless you’re a clam.

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lemuel pitkin 02.05.09 at 8:07 pm

IMO, 21-24 really illustrate why equality of outcomes (awful phrase) is much *more* important than equality of opportunity.

The goal should not be to give everyone a fair shot at being the happy banker rather than the miserable welder. It should be to minimize, as far as possible, the distinction between being a banker and a welder as far as status, security and access to the good things of life are concerned.

29

John Emerson 02.05.09 at 8:11 pm

Exactly, Lemuel. Raise the floor and lower the ceiling.

30

Righteous Bubba 02.05.09 at 8:13 pm

The goal should not be to give everyone a fair shot at being the happy banker rather than the miserable welder. It should be to minimize, as far as possible, the distinction between being a banker and a welder as far as status, security and access to the good things of life are concerned.

The first is a goal for an education system and the second’s a goal for a society. Both are fine to me.

31

Righteous Bubba 02.05.09 at 8:21 pm

Or to be nicer about the first point, a fair shot at being the happy welder as opposed to the miserable banker is also good.

32

Harry 02.05.09 at 8:57 pm

Lisa, worse, someone might be training their child to be a better guitarist. Think what a disaster that would be. Or the government might be providing guitar lessons to the children of poor parents who can’t be bothered (note, not who “can’t afford”) to provide them.

RB: ok, lemuel alerted me to it, and you actually bothered to take the time to do the googling that I probably would have done, eventually, but didn’t have to because you did it.

33

Slocum 02.06.09 at 12:47 am

There is an extent to which the interest of the parent is to be ignored.

Yes, there is an extent, but that extent is pretty limited. The parent must send the child to school and provide food, clothes and housing, but beyond that the state does not intervene to require any particular kind of upbringing. And if you think that it would be a good idea if the state intervened more readily, you have to remember that child welfare officials are — all too often — bureaucratic nutjobs (as in this story involving a family from Ann Arbor where I live). So it’s not at all clear to me that the kids would be better off if the state were more intrusive.

34

Righteous Bubba 02.06.09 at 1:26 am

I agree that a reasonable standard of education starts us on a slippery slope toward taking all kids away from all parents everywhere.

35

Jake 02.06.09 at 2:58 am

The goal should not be to give everyone a fair shot at being the happy banker rather than the miserable welder. It should be to minimize, as far as possible, the distinction between being a banker and a welder as far as status, security and access to the good things of life are concerned.

Ideas can be copied much easier than physical objects. As society gets bigger and spreading ideas around gets easier, the difference in value between idea-creation and object-creation will continue to diverge.

There’s nothing you can do to make the work of the welder worth as much as that of the banker, all you can hope to do is to take the banker’s money and give it to the welder. This might not be a bad idea, but all it’s got nothing to do with education. There’s also the risk of the banker deciding that welding is a lot more fun than banking, and if they pay the same why the hell is he in an office at 9pm staring at a spreadsheet when he could be home drinking a beer and watching TV, in which case we’d all be a little worse off.

Of course, at the moment bankers are a bit of a red herring what with their losing hundreds of billions of dollars and demanding the rest of society bail them out, but the same logic applies to any 100k/year knowledge-type profession. Programmers and IT techs vs. shipping clerks and call center workers.

36

Eli Rabett 02.06.09 at 3:18 am

Clearly my kid and D’Souza’s kid are in competition. Therefore I am morally obligated to do everything I can to stop her from taking my kid’s place at the best university in the world. Thus D’Souza mus try and kill me if he can, and since he is trying to kill me, I have to use my second amendment rights to shoot him on sight.

See, in the end you come to the right conclusion

37

sara 02.06.09 at 3:59 am

Isn’t it just as deadly for upper-middle-class college graduates with humanities degrees to enter law school and become lawyers even though they have no particular interest in or aptitude for the law? This seems to be the fall-back professional degree for B.A.s with decent grades no idea what they want to do except that they want to belong to the professional class. Our nation is overlawyered as a result.

38

Helen 02.06.09 at 5:41 am

Why should it offer more to children whose parents have not taken the trouble?

For two reasons.

One is that children and their parents are two separate entities. D’souza seems to conflate the two. Without some egalitarianism in education, children are simply punished for the educational poverty of their parents, whether through fecklessness or simple lack of resources. In that pool of under-resourced kids there will be a few who, if given the chance, can really make a difference – your Bernie Frasers etc.

Following on from that, offering a decent education to all children doesn’t mean that you have just handed them a brilliant career on a gold platter. The outcomes will vary according to what the kids themselves make of it (barring serendipitous or tragic life accidents, I guess, which will always happen.) A kid given an identical start to D’Souza’s kid won’t have the identical endpoint and end up competing for exactly the same position.

39

dsquared 02.06.09 at 7:42 am

I’ve never found the claims of effectiveness even for intensive interventions like the famed ‘Perry Preschool Program’ much more convincing than, say, the claims for abstinence-based sex education or the D.A.R.E. anti-drug program.

Well fair enough, but I’m going to believe James Heckman rather than you (or Henry or John). I think that the work done on the Perry Preschool program rises to a rather higher level than “claims” – people talk about it not so much because it’s a superfantastic magic preschool program, but precisely because it has had so much detailed longitudinal work done on measuring its effectiveness over such a long period of time. I mean really. Show me someone who won a Nobel Prize in part for proving that abstinence based sex education was effective, and then maybe you’d have a point.

40

dsquared 02.06.09 at 7:44 am

(or Henry Harry or John)

just to show that this idiotic mistake happens to the best of us …

41

Zamfir 02.06.09 at 9:10 am

Righteous Bubba, I am from a country with a very German-style education system, where children get ‘sorted’ into tracks at age 12 or 13. I happen to share most of your criticism of such systems, but most people around here do not. And there are some points in its defense, also from an equal opportunities point.

In the first place, the systems are less rigid then they seem on they outside. I had several friends in (sort of) graduate school who started at a low vocational track and worked their way up.
Second, the conveyor-belt you describe also works the other way round: whena smart kid from a poor background gets sorted into a high level of high school, she will get good support and perhaps more important the expectations to continue to a high level of tertiary schooling (keep also in mind that tertiary schooling is in general more subsidized than in the US). But of course high-class children get on the good tracks in disproportionate numbers.

I personally believe that the system should be more flexible, with later sorting ages. But other systems, including the US, are not doing a that great job either in providing fair, classless education opportunities. I guess the real problems go much deeper tahn the implemented structure.

42

Scott Martens 02.06.09 at 10:38 am

The government is obliged to treat all citizens equally. Why should it work to undo the benefits that my wife and I have labored so hard to provide? Why should it offer more to children whose parents have not taken the trouble?

Let me offer a simple answer that should be near and dear to anyone who considers themselves a free market libertarian: because those children will be the ones feeding you, clothing you, housing you and giving you medical care when you are old, while your children are pursuing better careers than working on farms, in mills or taking care of old people.

43

mpowell 02.06.09 at 11:00 am

The thing about D’Souza’s argument is that there is a relatively trivial sense in which he is absolutely right. Even in the best society I can imagine, some people will be more dedicated to their children than others. Whether this means they’ll be giving their kids more loving attention or directing their education better, probably those kids will be in some ways better off. And we would never see true equality of opportunity in my ideal society for precisely that reason.

But this is a strawman that D’Souza is attacking. Our concern for the wellfare of the disadvantaged is really about observing enormous systematic disadvantages that these kids face. I think what we are really targetting is a minimum opportunity for everyone. When every kid receives proper nutrition through the school system or because his parents are paid a living wage, nobody is forced to live in an exceptionally high crime neighborhood and poor kids attend schools that are at least as well funded as those attended by rich kids, then we can talk about the degree to which we should back off our expectation of equality of opportunity because otherwise we would be interferring with parent’s ability to go ‘above and beyond’ in their efforts to do the best by their kids.

Maybe equality of opportunity is the wrong phrase to use. It certainly gives the libertarians some ammunition (not really sure if they’re actually persuading anyone outside their clique, though), but it is really quite poorly defined. I think it is a minimum of opportunity that is a more accurate way to describe what we’re seeking.

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harry b 02.06.09 at 1:43 pm

mpowell — I’m happy to continue using equality of opportunity. Nobody wants equality of opportunity — or equality of outcome — at all costs, and that’s something we talk about in the paper (not even Jerry Cohen!). There are several principles including, in our view, the value of the family (which we make more precise) and they have to be weighed against each other in circumstances where they conflict. D’Souza seems to think that because the value of the family sometimes conflicts in some ways with equality of opportunity, equality of opportunity doesn’t matter at all. Just because one thing is better than another doesn’t mean the other isn’t good. Further, he spectacularly fails to understand what is distinctively valuable about the family and what presevring that value requires and, in the exaggerated rhetoric he uses seems equally spectacularly to value his daughter. All that said, I agree with you that some other principle is more important than equality of opportunity, but I wouldn’t say it was “minimal” or “adequate” opportunity, I would say that it was elevating the prospects for a flourishing life of those whose prospects are least (a more perfectionist version Rawls’s difference principle). (Note, I’m speaking just for myself, not Swift).

Daniel — I’m glad to see, looking back, that I didn’t say anything negative about the effects of Perry, or the studies. I’m not at all sceptical about those studies. I, and I think a lot of other people, am bemused at the way they are used to support funding for, for example, half-day 4 year-old kindergarten, or even full day 4K provided through existing day care facilities (start talking about universal 4K and, immediately, the local day care providers fear for their market and say “we can do that”). Part of the problem is that no-one really knows what the Perry teachers were doing (which is why the radio documentary is so interesting). Heckman knows all this and is not only very clever but also very careful — lobbyists for 4K are often not so careful (and rarely so clever).

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harry b 02.06.09 at 1:59 pm

And just to add, I’m completely in favour of funding pre-K, and trying to ensure that it is very high quality at least for kids in the bottom 3rd (in case I give an impression tot he contrary), and more in favour of that than expanding KIPP etc, about which I am, indeed, quite skeptical (but which I’d also be happy to expand somewhat, its just not a priority given what we know about its effects, which is not much). And, more than either, eliminating child poverty, integrating neighbourhoods, curtailing the segregating powers of zoning boards, etc…

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mpowell 02.06.09 at 2:47 pm

Harry,

That’s a good point you make about maximizing the opportunities of the least advantages a la Rawls. Also, for pointing out that you can regard equality of opportunity as competing with other values. Perhaps sticking with ‘equality of opportunity’ is the best path.

What I am really trying to get at is a way of easily addressing the complaint that D’Souza makes. It is really quite obvious when you think about it the right way, but I have heard similar arguments enough that it seems some people do struggle to understand. (or maybe their misunderstanding is not wholly unintentional!)

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SamChevre 02.06.09 at 2:54 pm

Harry,

All that said, I agree with you that some other principle is more important than equality of opportunity, but I wouldn’t say it was “minimal” or “adequate” opportunity, I would say that it was elevating the prospects for a flourishing life of those whose prospects are least (a more perfectionist version Rawls’s difference principle).

I think that is the core of the disagreement. Your answer is the Rawlsian answer; providing adequate opportunity to everyone is an alternative definition of justice–a more traditional one.

I (and mpowell, and D’Souza) are arguing that providing adequate opportunity equally to all is more appropriate than trying to equalize. I KNOW that’s not just in the Rawlsian sense; assuming Rawlsian justice is the agreed-on justice system seems to me a mistake in this context. ((Although not in the paper.)

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mpowell 02.06.09 at 9:16 pm

SamChevre,

Well it is certainly true that there is a lot of ground to cover between making no commitment to improve the opportunity of the least advantaged and Rawl’s principles on the matter… I’m not really sure where I stand on the issue, though, I think it’s clear that the level of inequality of opportunity that we currently see is unjust. D’Souza seems to be located much further down the spectrum. My personal view is that he is trying to use an argument against a much stronger version of equality of opportunity than anyone is actually advocating to argue that we shouldn’t really do much more than we already are. And I’m actually more interested in how one would combat that in a rhetorical sense than anything else.

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wj 02.07.09 at 10:04 pm

I thought D’Souza was supposed to be a Catholic.

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Chris 02.10.09 at 3:58 am

My personal view is that he is trying to use an argument against a much stronger version of equality of opportunity than anyone is actually advocating to argue that we shouldn’t really do much more than we already are. And I’m actually more interested in how one would combat that in a rhetorical sense than anything else.

If he’s really doing what you’re saying then he’s being a dishonest hack; there’s not much you can do, other than trying to make him commit to and defend specific positions rather than sweeping generalities that allow him to equivocate between Head Start and Harrison Bergeron at will. A dishonest hack will, of course, refuse to engage on the specifics – but a skilled dishonest hack will make it easy to not notice.

The government is obliged to treat all citizens equally. Why should it work to undo the benefits that my wife and I have labored so hard to provide? Why should it offer more to children whose parents have not taken the trouble?

I think it’s interesting that the answer that came immediately to my mind – that children are not morally responsible for the failings of their parents – doesn’t seem to have even occurred to D’Souza. If that’s the moral superiority of the religious, I want none of it. (And of course government shouldn’t work to undo the benefits – it should work to *spread* the benefits. Those are two different things unless you see the benefit as *purely* positional and all of society as a zero-sum game.)

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