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Statism and Status: Part 2 of a Response to Fishkin's Bottlenecks

A counselor meets with job candidates during a job fair at Workforce1 in New York September 6, 2012. Workforce1 is a service provided by the New York City Department of Small Business Services that prepares and connects candidates with job opportunities in the city (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid).

Note: Part of a two-week series devoted to exploring what we can learn about social mobility from Joseph Fishkin’s new book, Bottlenecks.

In yesterday’s blog, I questioned Fishkin’s description of the United States as plagued with opportunity bottlenecks and lacking opportunity pluralism. Today I turn to his prescriptions, particularly those concerning state action.

The State Does Not Know Best

To pick up one of Fishkin’s examples, an employer may believe that a working knowledge of English is necessary for every job in his firm. Suppose the government disagrees. Does it follow that it is right for government officials, speaking in the name of “we the people,” to impose their judgment on the employer? In some cases, maybe so, but the burden of proof should be on the government to show that the employer is acting unreasonably.

In itself, the worthy goal of opportunity pluralism is not enough to warrant interference. Otherwise put: opportunity pluralism is itself situated within a plurality of worthy principles and goods, and it does not always trump the others.

The High Status Will Always Be With Us

Fishkin’s goal—opportunities structured more like a city than like a pyramid—is inspiring. It is also unattainable. Every society, no matter how diverse, creates a hierarchy of status and respect, and social locations at or near the top of that hierarchy are positional goods, hence intrinsically scarce. To be sure, within one and the same society, the identity of the highest status occupations and ways of life will change over time. During World War Two, individuals with military skills and virtues enjoyed unprecedented regard, a status that affected every aspect of American society—including politics—for a generation after the war ended. Today, the high-status heroes (especially for young adults) are the most successful entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg and Sergei Brin. Many will seek to emulate them; few will succeed.

Indeed, all high-status professions—the military and academia, for example—feature declining numbers of positions toward the top of their respective pyramids. Both the military and academia have structured competitions for scarce positions; both employ up-or-out policies. No doubt both could do more to provide better alternatives for those who lose out. Still, the losers are bound to regard these options as consolation prizes, and they are right.

Opportunity Pluralism Is Needed in the Middle

In sum, my reaction to Fishkin’s proposal is triadic. At one end, he is recommending pluralistic practices already widespread in the United States and other advanced societies. In this respect, his is a solution in search of a problem. At the other end, he offers a vision of a society in which occupations and ways of life are related horizontally rather than hierarchically. In this respect, his proposal is unattainable.

It is in the middle that some real work remains to be done—the social and economic spaces in which access to needed competences is needlessly restricted and in which misguided ideas steer young people away from options that many would find rewarding psychically as well as materially. To the extent that opportunity pluralism focuses on this middle ground, its effects can only be beneficial.

  • William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow. A former policy advisor to President Clinton and presidential candidates, Galston is an expert on domestic policy, political campaigns, and elections. His current research focuses on designing a new social contract and the implications of political polarization.

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