Saturday, February 15, 2014

Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity

Joseph Fishkin

Updated Links to Posts about Bottlenecks (here and elsewhere):

Introductory post: What is equal opportunity? (Feb. 24, 2014)

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A review of the book by Hebrew University philosopher Avner De Shalit in the Journal of Social Policy can be found here (October 22, 2014).

A brief online review of the book in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews by the feminist philosopher Ann Cudd can be found here (June 25, 2014).

There's an interview with me in the UT Law alumni magazine about the book here (April 24, 2014).

UT held a bookfest about the book—a discussion with Cindy Estlund, Lani Guinier, and Gerald Torres, with comments from me, on April 25, 2014.  You can watch this event on video -- click this link if the player below does not play:

Social Mobility Memos Logo

The Brookings Institution publishes a very interesting blog called "Social Mobility Memos," which spent about two and a half weeks running a 12-part series of posts about the book, with responses from a number of very smart and interesting policy folks:

The blog Concurring Opinions ran an online symposium about the book in spring 2014 with posts by:

Original Post:

Talk of equal opportunity is in the air.  The President devoted his State of the Union address this year largely to declaring a year of action on his opportunity agenda.  Republicans (who likewise argue that their policies will best promote equal opportunity) have advanced some unusual proposals too this year, such as Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam's recent call for two years of tuition-free community college or technical school for anyone with a high school degree.

There's no great mystery, I think, why equal opportunity is suddenly so salient.  When economic times are good, and opportunities seem abundant, we worry less about questions of who has them and who doesn't.  When times are tough, as they've been for quite a few years, all of the policy issues that "equal opportunity" calls to mind seem that much more urgent.

Thus, this is an opportune moment to be talking about equal opportunity.  I'm happy to report that my own contribution to that conversation, a book called Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity, is now out!  For now, here is a brief abstract of what I have to say in the book.  In a series of posts here and elsewhere over the coming weeks and months, I'll flesh out these ideas.  (And I'll update this post with links to the full series as it develops.)  Here goes:

Equal opportunity is a powerful idea, and one with extremely broad appeal in contemporary politics, political theory, and law. But what does it mean? On close examination, the most attractive existing conceptions of equal opportunity turn out to be impossible to achieve in practice, or even in theory. As long as families are free to raise their children differently, no two people's opportunities will be equal; nor is it possible to disentangle someone's abilities or talents from her background advantages and disadvantages. Moreover, given different abilities and disabilities, different people need different opportunities, confounding most ways of imagining what counts as "equal."

This book proposes an entirely new way of thinking about the project of equal opportunity. Instead of focusing on the chimera of literal equalization, we ought to work to broaden the range of opportunities open to people at every stage in life. We can achieve this in part by loosening the bottlenecks that constrain access to opportunities--the narrow places through which people must pass in order to pursue many life paths that open out on the other side. A bottleneck might be a test like the SAT, a credential requirement like a college degree, or a skill like speaking English. It might be membership in a favored caste or racial group. Bottlenecks are part of the opportunity structure of every society. But their severity varies. By loosening them, we can build a more open and pluralistic opportunity structure in which people have more of a chance, throughout their lives, to pursue paths they choose for themselves--rather than those dictated by limited opportunities. This book develops this idea and other elements of opportunity pluralism, then applies this approach to several contemporary egalitarian policy problems: class and access to education, workplace flexibility and work/family conflict, and antidiscrimination law.

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