(1) No. Everyone does not have the same opportunity.
(2) Even if everyone gets the same opportunity on paper, not everyone has had a lifetime of opportunities to develop the skills required to exploit an opportunity. So in practice, no, everyone does not have the same opportunity.
It’s like telling a prisoner, sure you can open the window and jump out. You’re not a prisoner at all, your freedom is just inconveniently placed! Oh but just so you know, when you jump out, you’ll crash on the rocks below because your cell is fifty storeys above ground and we took away your rope. What do you mean you are being treated differently than the guy on the first floor? We took away his rope too.
The likelihood of success
Yes sure, your entire family could be on drugs, you could have narrowly escaped being shot every day of your life, resisted temptation to drop out of school and made quick money, studied for your exams by the light of streetlamps, and worked so hard that you started your own business and twenty years later ended up a millionaire.
If you work hard, you will find the opportunity. A success story.
The thing is, we all hear of the success stories. We realize they are possible. And indeed they are. They are possible. But you know what? They are also highly improbable. There are many, many, MANY more who don’t make it. Their stories are just not as much fun. So we end up with the media feeding us those rare, inspirational success stories with the caption, “You can do it” or something trite like that. Since we hear more about one outcome (success) than about the other (failure), we assume that the former is more likely than it really is. A psychological trap.
The truth is that there are a lot more people who end up successful in life because they had initial social connections, money and access to education than those who ended up successful by beating all the odds. Because those odds are still pretty steep.
Yes, there are a lot of opportunities out there. But availing of these opportunities is neither simple nor necessarily rational.
It’s life not war.
It’s useless pointing out that one person who beat all odds and took advantage of the opportunities out there. That one person who fought against social conditioning, discrimination, family, friends, opposition and reached the finish line a victor.
It’s commendable but my god, so inefficient! If we were all training to be Navy Seals, this would be a great method for doing things. Not that I know anything about this, but the point of Navy Seal training is to weed people out. The point of public policy on the other hand is to provide feasible opportunities to as many people as possible, so you have widespread productivity in society. We want more people ‘in’ not more people ‘out’. For purposes of economic efficiency, this kind of obstacle race approach to providing people with opportunities is wasteful. It may build “character” but it is wasteful.
The brouhaha over child labour in developing countries has been around for a while now. I remember having heated arguments with friends about whether children in extremely poor families should do wage labour or go to school.
It would be wonderful if they went to school, but what would that achieve? Theoretically, education is supposed to increase your career opportunities and allow you to earn greater wealth. But that kind of foresight is difficult to base your decisions upon when you have a family of five and everyone is starving. Especially when the future paytoffs from education seem uncertain.
If you belong to a race, caste or social group that is systematically discriminated against, education may not help further your job prospects. It would be a costly investment indeed; one would be better off taking advantage of immediate opportunities. Providing the opportunity of education to everyone in such a society might appear to level the playing field, but obviously it doesn’t.
It is easy to say that one should work hard and do what is right, and so on. But social conditioning is pervasive, pervasive, pervasive. What you see around you every day of your life growing up influences your million daily decisions in a million subtle ways. Your basic assumptions and worldview are shaped by these constant influences.
Sure all of us know that we “should” complete highschool if we are in the United States because it guarantees better jobs that being only partially literate. Sure all of us know that we should make an attempt at college. These are decisions we take for granted.
But what about more complex decisions? Should we aim for a good college or an acceptable college? Community college or private college? Do we really believe that a college education will get us a good life? How do we define a “good life” ? To work at a corner store 9-5? To own a corner store?
Our ambitions are shaped by what we believe is possible. Our decisions are shaped by our ambitions. Our ability to take advantage of the opportunities we get is influenced by these decisions.
We all know this to be true in our personal lives. But somehow, we forget the complexity of all this when we talk politically about social issues of health, education, welfare and unemployment.
Why do we do this?
Take education. Education is an investment whose return varies widely. Whether we think we “should” pursue education or not depends on what we think we will get from it.
But today even those who are graduating from Ivy Leagues are sitting at home unemployed! Here is an article by Paul Krugman on how today’s youth face more depressing job prospects than ever before. With high interests on student loans, an education that is more expensive than ever before with fewer returns than before, not all of us will find it a net gain to go in for higher education.
But the opportunity is there for everybody isn’t it? No, not really. Not all of us will find the risk in this investment a rational one to take. There will be those who can afford it of course. Those who are assured of a high income job that can help pay back those loans.
But that’s not all of us.