Some Words in Favor of Opportunity or And then She Gave Me a Chance
An occupier demands economic justice.
Of late, I’ve felt great empathy for the droves of American men and women who are unable to find work–delegated instead to combing craigslist ads. The opportunity of all men and women to succeed financially is paramount to our democratic experiment–the baker who awakes each morning should have bread to sell and customers willing to pay, the secretary in the downtown office should have phone calls to answer and messages to relate, the investment banker and the venture capitalist should have numbers to analyze and companies to represent. In America, the opportunity to awake each morning with the baker’s hopes or the secretary’s anxieties is increasingly taken for granted. The capitalist mode of political economy we currently employ demands competition, guarantying neither success nor failure. Opportunity to compete in the market, through the judgment of merit instead of man, is the true moral justification for our current capitalism. Naturally, there are many problems with it, but through the up-and-downs of the last four years, opportunity has remained the innovator’s and entrepreneurs’ north star. And yet, someone is lying to the newest generations of Americans reaching adulthood. The Occupy Wall Street movement acutely implies the naive assumption: that humankind is divided between two types of people: employers and laborers, or the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Apparently, from their perspective, America has economic classes. Furthermore, they are transfixed: our baker, innovative tho he may be, can never own a bakery.
Sadly, the justifications for progress–the reasons we have iphones, Amazon.com, and sweet agave syrup–and the reaffirmation of opportunity–of empowering the individual to strive for a better life–have crumbled under the weight of cosmopolitan wisdom and chest-less, virtue-less compassion. We are fast approaching the height of our collective intellectual ignorance. Belief in state sovereignty has replaced individual sovereignty, and the blind, militaristic acceptance of a national “community” has replaced the social contract.
The newfound class-consciousness of American college students and other young people is in fact very much based on Marx’s proletariat and bourgeoisie. Regardless of what Marx claimed about history, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” there exists no inherent or universal “us” and “them.”
The original Marxist labels and their modern counterparts are not absolute qualifiers of a person within a free society. The existence of opportunity, of being able to climb up the economic ladder, undermines these classifications.
Within an economically competitive society, and especially within our modern meritocracy, there is opportunity and subsequently there is choice: choice in ones education; choice in ones career; choice in ones financial decisions. Our labels are not inherent or fixed, although they may indeed define a person for a period of time.
Individual success can, within a competitive market, ebb and flow just as easily as the market itself. Man is dynamic, continually moving toward his goals, whether those are monetary, or virtue or happiness or something else. And as one moves through the peaks and valleys of the golden mean they can become rich or poor, a proletariat or a bourgeoisie.
The Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola defended that ability of man to change–to succeed and fail. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, he wrote of God’s design for humanity:
“The nature of all creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you [humankind], by contast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody we have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. […] we have made you […] so that you can fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to superior order.”
Man is endowed with choice and with choice comes responsibility. Economic freedom is a firm way of viewing Pico’s claims. The economic choices of a rational actor are fluid: what one decides today may not be decided tomorrow. When someone enters the voting booth of the market place they are endowed with constant agency and autonomy.
Creative destruction allows for the market to act as a revolving door; new opportunity and choice are continually created and destroyed. Within a competitive market, an individual’s decisions are not arbitrary or predetermined, but valued, difficult, and demanding—the cream struggles to rise towards the top.
Within a free society, man may turn his ideas, hopes, and ambitions into prosperity. The ability to do so is never separate from the opportunities available—success is only possible in a world devoid of predetermination and rigid economic classes.
Although the reality of opportunities and the subsequent available choices in the United States are far different than Horatio Algers wrote, economic mobility is still a reality and still part of American consciousness. We are more of a meritocracy than perhaps ever thought possible. However, poorly thought-out regulation has created a society where the great many neither think of nor place hope in opportunity.
At first glance, the widening wealth gap reveals that opportunity is dying in America. However, when one looks past the façade of the numbers and instead to their cause, one comes away with a very different picture of the problem.
A 2011 study by the Congressional Budget Office revealed that while from 1979 to 2007 income grew by 275 percent for the top 1 percent of households, it grew only 41 percent for the rest of America. What caused this increasing disparity?
Well, as restrictions like Glass-Stegall have been lifted for those at the top, the 99 percent has witnessed a massive increase in regulation and red tape, limiting available opportunity and choice and thus economic mobility.
Americans have made a sad mess of human nature by using government to create ineffective or harmful regulation. This fixes the game by limiting the number of players and by giving existing businesses a leg up by making entry and compliance costs too high—like an incumbent trying to keep his Senate seat against a green and resource poor competitor. In the case of economics, just like in politics, the advantage almost always goes to the former.
When the game is fixed by legislative realities, opportunity begins to vanish. As stated, opportunity cannot exist in a predetermined world—even if those determiners are outwardly virtuous men. In the modern US, many of the outcomes that should be decided en mass by the consumers of the market are instead determined by the wills of “imperfect and biased men,” as Milton Friedman once eloquently defined our legislators and democratic leaders.
The central problem, the reason for this increase in poor regulation, is that we no longer listen to John Stuart Mill’s analysis regarding the purpose of law and other advice like it:
“They [our imperfect and biased leaders] have occupied themselves rather in inquiring what things society ought to like or dislike, than in questioning whether its likings or dislikings should be a law to individuals. They preferred endeavouring to alter the feelings of mankind on the particular points on which they were themselves heretical, rather than make common cause in defence of freedom, with heretics generally.” - John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
Those who determine government action, whether elected or unelected, have gone from trying to help society and America in general to pandering to the complaints and wishes of their constituents. These leaders, normative philosophers all, deal with the ought in a limited sense.
They promote their opinions, instead of dealing with acceptance and toleration in general. The current state of affairs is anti-liberal and anti-federal. Our leaders have become bioengineers through acrimonious pragmatism, shaping our collective environment around their own subjectivity.
We can no longer trust our leader to allow us to act as adults. We must instead instill trust in the individual, the rational actor. A major goal of our society and government should thus be securing people the opportunities to change their financial situations; creating a world where those who want to succeed have the opportunities to try but without the guarantee of success.
Perhaps afraid of failure or the struggles of progress, the main stream American progressive might howl here for Rawls’ “veil of ignorance.” Yet, this veil is also very important within a free society. What defines the difference between modern liberals and libertarians are the means by which we attempt to create a society that combats the lottery of birth, not that final outcome. The former favors equality of outcome while the latter should favor equality of opportunity.
If believers in the free market seriously want to praise the economic advantages and possible successes of economic freedom (meaning that with economic and personal freedom will arise a far more productive and equitable society than we currently have) then they must focus on expanding opportunity. The Marxist labels that limit humanity to the vacuum of class-consciousness are not rigid, nor truly applicable to our multifaceted society. The vitality of opportunity limits the rationale behind control and direction.
Only by working toward the goal of equality of opportunity can libertarians begin the discussion with liberals and progressives and others who also seek a more charitable and compassionate society, about the rationale behind the free market, spending cuts, and deregulation.