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July 28, 2005

Why equality of opportunity is impossible to achieve - but intellectual elitism can offer opportunity to all

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

True equality of opportunity is unachievable - or could only be achieved through a level of social engineering that would make North Korea look like a paradise of laissez-faire; it would mean poverty, inhumanity and horror. Thus argues Theodore Dalrymple. However, if we embrace intellectual elitism, argues Theodore Dalrymple, at least some level of opportunity could be offered to all - something which is not the case now.

Almost nobody has a bad word to say for equality of opportunity, though as a concept it seems to me to be more confused, and certainly more dictatorial in its implications, than equality of outcome.

The arguments against equality of outcome have been more or less accepted. Not only is such equality impossible in practice human nature will always subvert it but it conflicts with the demand for justice, at least if justice has anything to do with the reward of individual conduct. Incidentally, I am always astonished by the way people always suppose that, if there were any justice in the world, they would be better rather than worse off. To the contrary, many should thank their lucky stars that there is no justice in the world: for otherwise they would die in prolonged agony.

I digress. Equality of opportunity is a thoroughly nasty and totalitarian concept. It is the demand that no one should start (or continue) life with any advantages relative to another. But how could such a condition actually be achieved? Leaving aside genetic differences, which must persist until all hereditary endowments can be made precisely the same, and which for the time being must be accepted even though they are unfair (not unjust, although most people nowadays seem to have difficulty distinguishing between the two), the only way environmental factors affecting opportunities can be made equal is by social engineering on a scale that would make North Korea look like a paradise of laissez-faire.

Parents would have to be separated from their children at birth and re-united with them, if at all, only when the environment had had its lasting and irreversible effect; children would have all to be taught precisely the same things, in precisely the same fashion, by teachers of precisely the same level of competence (or more likely, incompetence). No parent would be permitted to leave anything to his children, and therefore one of the great motives for economic prudence would be vitiated. In short, equality of opportunity would mean, if it meant anything, equality of poverty, inhumanity and horror.

Why has the notion of equality of opportunity been received almost without criticism in our society? Why would no politician dare to criticise it openly?

I can think of two reasons. The first, and lesser reason, is that the notion of equality of opportunity has given rise to a substantial bureaucracy, whose ostensible purpose is to bring it about, and that depends upon the notion for its livelihood. Bureaucracies have ways of defending their interests, and are often adept at co-opting intellectuals who pose questions as false dichotomies: if you are not in favour of equal opportunities, are you are in favour of unbridled hereditary privileges? Yes or no.

The second, deeper reason is this. While giving people equal opportunities is impossible, giving everyone, or at least the vast majority of people, a considerable level of opportunity is not impossible. And yet, often in the very name of equality of opportunity, we have created a society many of whose members have far fewer opportunities than they could and ought to have. In the pursuit of a classless society, we are close to having produced a caste society.

Perhaps I can give another example of how a large and impossible goal diverts attention from the failure to achieve a smaller but achievable one. I used to work as a doctor in the prison service. It was often stated that 70 per cent of prisoners had psychiatric problems that is to say, approximately 49,000 people.

It was quite clear that this figure, if true, meant that the medical services provided for prisoner could not possibly cope: and therefore they could not be blamed for failing to cope in any individual case. The sheer scale of the problem meant that it was quite beyond the capacity of the services to deal with it.

But the real scandal was this: that at any one time in the prison system there were a relatively small number of prisoners (in the low hundreds at most, rather than in the thousands) who would clearly benefit from treatment if it were provided, and whose condition would be substantially improved by such treatment: but, despite the expenditure of untold billions on the health service, it was quite incapable of meeting the needs of even this tiny number whose lives would be transformed by such treatment. The scandal was not that a huge number of people were going untreated (most of them were untreatable in any case), but that a very small number of highly treatable people were going untreated. This showed the true state of affairs much more revealingly than the larger and inaccurate claim, that 70 per cent of prisoners were unwell, to which the only reasonable response was a resigned shrug of the shoulders.

Likewise, the purpose of aiming for an impossibility such as equality of opportunity is to distract attention from the utter scandal that a quarter of our children, or perhaps more, leave school without being able to read or write properly. There is simply no acceptable reason why this should be so: I have often noticed, for example, that the mentally subnormal children of the middle classes are often able to read better, even much better, than the children of the working classes who are of considerably higher intelligence. The difference is not only in the parenting, but in the way that they are taught.

While it is pointless, short of instituting a horrible dictatorship, even to think of equality of opportunity, it is certainly not pointless to think about giving everyone at least minimal opportunity, by for example teaching them properly to read and write, and by trying to educate them to the best of their ability. The latter means an open and wholehearted acceptance of intellectual elitism: that some people, for reasons that will never fully be understood, will be able to achieve more intellectually than others. Such elitism is not snobbery or social exclusivity, as some pretend: it is, in fact, a precondition of the supposedly ultimate purpose of equality of opportunity, social justice. There can be no such justice without intellectual elitism.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and retired earlier this year as a doctor.


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You can make the argument that Nature does actually give everyone at least minimal opportunity, tailored to the individual's native competence. And Man cannot improve on that, he can only take opportunity from some and attempt, fruitlessly, to give it to others.

Posted by: Robert Speirs at July 28, 2005 06:59 PM
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I'm sorry, I just don't see what the prison example is supposed to show. It is perfectly possible that, of the 70% who are mentally ill, the majority are untreatable. If the prison medical service isn't trying to identify those who are, and then trying to treat them, what is it doing?

"Equality of opportunity" as practised by personnel departments, on the other hand, means no more than setting aside irrelevant factors in, say, hiring. Of course it's contrary to the "old Adam" side of human nature - the fact that we're all brilliant in the eyes of the boss who hired us, and rather less so in the eyes of the new boss who didn't.

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at July 28, 2005 11:01 PM
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"I'm sorry, I just don't see what the prison example is supposed to show. It is perfectly possible that, of the 70% who are mentally ill, the majority are untreatable. If the prison medical service isn't trying to identify those who are, and then trying to treat them, what is it doing?"

Erm... Isn't that actually a restatement of the author's point?

Posted by: Paul H. at July 19, 2007 02:29 PM
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As cleanliness is next to Godliness, so Equality sits close to envy. Equality is a good word, envy not so. Equality, gleaming, wholesome, fair, and reasonable knocks at the door and one feels compelled to welcome him in. Such a fine fellow! So upright and true! But as one looks more closely one senses a falseness, a hidden lie. This thing called Equality seems to be a cloak for something else. Indeed it seems more controlled by this other thing than to be something in its own right. Behind Equality lurks something evil and dishonourable - envy. Ever ready to cut down and bastardize that which is better, higher, more inspiring, that which involved effort. The boy in school who spills ink on the smart boy's homework is a banner for equality. He is the true advocate, the true meaning of the principle in action. So beware of equality and all its two-faced adherents.

Posted by: cybn at October 9, 2009 07:57 PM
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