The Spanish philosopher and sociologist César Rendueles has decided to attack a concept that usually arouses sympathy: equal opportunities.
So much so that Rendueles has dedicated a book to criticize that idea, which in his opinion tends to preserve or even increase social inequality.
“The problem with equal opportunities is that it is a reformulation of the meritocracy, which is always a way to justify the privileges of elites“, Explains Rendueles, who defines himself on the left, in an interview with BBC Mundo.
What follows is a synthesis of the dialogue with this professor from the Complutense University of Madrid, whose most recent book is “Against equal opportunities: An egalitarian pamphlet” and who participates in the Hay Festival Arequipa 2021.
In his book, he emphasizes that equality is “one of the bases of our life in common.” How is that?
We know that the lack of equality is the cause of an enormous amount of social problems. It is something that we sensed but that in the last two decades scientific research has demonstrated with great precision.
The most unequal societies – not those in which there is more poverty in general – have less life expectancy, more mental illnesses, crime, drug abuse problems, school violence …
We do not really know how it happens, how inequality gets under the skin in our bones and makes our life together worse, but we are certain that it is so.
How old is the concept of social equality?
Social equality has been the general pattern of human societies for most of the time that Homo sapiens has been on Earth.
Social equality to varying degrees, but at levels that today would seem practically revolutionary to us, has dominated hunter-gatherer societies until the Neolithic Revolution.
It is at that moment, some 10,000 years ago, when inequality begins to gradually increase. And it has not stopped growing.
The stratospheric levels of economic inequality that we know today are unparalleled throughout history.
And where does the idea of competition, of winners and losers among us come from?
Meritocracy, the idea that those who have privileges have them because they deserve it and that this is the fruit of a healthy competition that has put everyone in their place, is the ideal that the upper classes have spread for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.
The novelty of our time is that this meritocratic ideology is no longer exclusive to small elite social groups, but has spread to the entire population.
In those societies in which there has been a greater growth of the market and of inequality, the more people believe in meritocracy. It’s funny: an ideological compensation mechanism, if you want to say so.
From a logic of liberal capitalism they will say that it is through greater individual effort or capacity that collective progress is achieved, and therefore it is not wrong for someone to want to be successful and as a result of that earn more than others. That responds?
That in that statement, which seems like common sense, there are actually two mixed statements that have nothing to do with each other.
The first is that effort is important. I completely agree and also the effort of those who have certain scarce talents must be promoted. But that if you like is a defense of horizontal social mobility.
Another completely different thing is that it is necessary to award certain economic benefits and greater prestige to certain occupations compared to others. That implies a cartoonish view of the most talented people.
It is as if we think that doctors or engineers are some kind of spoiled children who must be permanently bribed to fulfill their obligation.
The reality is that people tend to fulfill their obligations when they feel that their work is valued, important, and makes sense. And that happens with all occupations, not just the most prestigious ones.
During the pandemic, we have seen that the social assessment of what is considered important is often wrong.
We give prestige or money to occupations that are socially very unimportant or even negative, such as financial speculation. On the other hand, occupations vital to the functioning of society are undervalued or underpaid.
Hospital cleanliness was more important than advertising, for example.
We also saw that people with low-prestige and low-paid occupations take these jobs very seriously, even risking their lives.
Carriers, supermarket cashiers or hospital cleaners risk their lives.
Different liberals also argue that egalitarianism tends to equalize downwards, that leveling economic differences removes stimulus from the search for individual improvement. It is not like this?
Sometimes it is, of course. That is one of the preventions that Marx himself had against certain forms of socialism. There is a very nice paragraph from Marx in which he warns of this downward equalization of talents.
But the truth is that the competition also does that very often: it wastes an enormous amount of talent.
Sometimes I think that the worst thing about inequality is not so much the disgusting luxuries we provide a small elite, but the amount of effort that is wasted below.
It is something that we see very well in the field of sports: we want there to be competition, but we know how enormously harmful extreme competition is, when all sports efforts are designed as if they were a funnel to generate a small elite of super athletes. This process prevents the sport from being enjoyed by millions of people.
Why have you decided to focus your criticism on the concept of equal opportunities?
Because equal opportunities is a slogan that sounds good. Who will be against? In fact, it is an essential model in many competitive processes, such as when we have to select for a scholarship or a position in the administration.
But when it is disseminated as the only model of social equality, it hides a trap: it means giving up real equality.
Because what equal opportunities offers us is the promise that everyone will receive what they deserve based on their merits. In the first place, we know that it is false, that both the educational system and the current job market reproduce and widen inequalities.
Second, the deep egalitarianism associated with democratic traditions is not giving everyone what they deserve, but giving everyone what they need to develop as a person.
Deep democratic egalitarianism is not a kind of doping control before social competition. On the contrary, it consists of limiting the most harmful effects of that competition.
The problem with equal opportunities is that it is a reformulation of the meritocracy, which is always a way of justifying the privileges of the elites.
You speak of a “real equality”. But the concept of equal opportunities arises from the premise that humans are naturally unequal and therefore it is necessary to adjust the starting point so that there is fair competition. What’s wrong with that?
There is nothing wrong where we believe there should be competition to regulate our common life.
The question is if we want competition to dominate our social life, turn our societies into a kind of football match in which there can only be winners and losers, from education or culture to the workplace.
I had a secondary school Greek teacher who didn’t let anyone fail. Not because he gave away the pass but because he repeated the exams as many times as necessary until you managed to pass. No one was left behind, with educational gaps. Not everyone got the same grade, but everyone ended up knowing what they had to know.
What if we decide that only in some areas of our social life there should be winners and losers? That, for example, in the field of housing there should not be them and we should all have decent housing. Or that in the field of food there should not be people who eat with obscene luxuries and people who have nothing to eat.
Of course we are not the same at birth. This is precisely why we need constant political intervention to generate equality, not as a starting point but as an arrival point.
Latin America is considered the most unequal region in the world, where the richest 10% concentrate a greater portion of income than in other regions. What example should I follow to alleviate these differences?
We know reasonably well how to reduce these extreme differences, because it is something that has already happened.
After the Second World War, in many countries there were brutal reductions in social inequalities in a very short period of time and also without generating large social fractures.
One of the basic elements of these processes is a profound transformation of taxes: basically forcing large companies to start paying taxes. The same with great fortunes.
During the 1950s, tax rates of over 90% were generalized in many Western countries – not in the Soviet Union, not only in countries ruled by the left – for the highest incomes.
That means that from a certain level of income, which today would be approximately US $ 300,000, of each additional dollar the State would keep 90 cents.
Without this fiscal transformation, educational programs, public health and housing programs cannot be financed.
And for that to happen we also need to regain economic sovereignty: those tax rates cannot be imposed if companies and large fortunes can betray the country where they were based and flee to tax havens.
Arguably, the right has often sacrificed equality in the name of economic freedom, but also the left often neglects freedom in pursuit of equality. Is it possible to achieve a perfect balance between the two?
Of course, it is not possible to find a perfect balance between equality and freedom. They are concepts in tension. But it is also true that they have such a complex relationship that they tend to get confused.
Freedom, if certain minimum levels of equality are not met, is pure fiction. But at the same time equality without freedom is the rule of mediocrity, of homogeneity. Who would want to live in such a society?
I tend to think that equality is a much more transversal value politically than we sometimes believe.
There have been times when both the left and the right shared certain values of equality that seem almost revolutionary today. Nobody claimed to be against equality. And in part I think that is still valid.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.