In Praise of Unachievable Goals – Response to Fishkin’s Bottlenecks

Note: Part 2 of a two-week series devoted to exploring what we can learn about social mobility from Joseph Fishkin’s new book, Bottlenecks.

Joseph Fishkin has proposed a real improvement on our understanding of a core aspiration of American life. But I wonder if he doesn’t understate the appeal of his idea by overstating its differences from our longstanding pursuit of equal opportunity.   

Political Ideals: For Aspiration, Not Achievement

Fishkin asserts that his new approach is necessary because “equal opportunity cannot actually be achieved.” But surely this misstates the character of an aspirational political ideal. The fact that perfection is impossible is not a reason to give up on improvement.

Indeed, Fishkin himself is not offering an alternative goal that can be perfectly achieved but a general objective that can serve as a guide for ongoing gradual improvement. He contrasts an utterly idealistic form of equal opportunity with a far more incrementalist form of “opportunity pluralism.” So why not think of equal opportunity itself in similarly incrementalist terms?

That, after all, is how Americans have tended to pursue our egalitarian ambitions in practice. Think of Abraham Lincoln’s stirring description of what America’s Founders were up to in launching a new nation dedicated to an ideal of equality:

They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.

Might not the promise of equal opportunity have a similarly edifying effect on our national life and our public policy, “even though never perfectly attained” or attainable? For that matter, hasn’t our goal really always been about achieving not perfectly equal opportunity but more equal opportunity? Surely that is not impossible.

The Powerful Promise of Equal Opportunity

In fact, not only is it not impossible, it is actually the goal that Fishkin’s own proposal has in mind. “Opportunity pluralism” substitutes a procedural objective for a substantive objective—a means for an end—but it is a means adapted to serve the end of greater opportunity for all, and therefore also of more equal opportunity.

Why, then, does Fishkin need to insist that opportunity pluralism is a substitute for the goal of equal opportunity? Perhaps he seeks to avoid getting caught up in our polarized partisan politics.

His argument points toward a society with a greater diversity of ends, and therefore a less regulated, regimented, and centrally-managed life—a society friendlier to markets and civic institutions and less beholden to consolidated, centralized authority. This would seem to leave him vulnerable to attack from the Left and to attempts at cooption from the Right. But both would be unfair to his subtle argument, and Fishkin seeks to avoid the trouble by positioning himself not as a critic of the Left’s or Right’s approach to pursuing equal opportunity but as the champion of a different goal. In other words, maybe he’s trying to get around a bottleneck.

His wise and rigorous argument deserves a broad audience, so I hope he succeeds.