I confess to being a big fan of the République des Idées collection from publisher Seuil. This collection is great for short works on sociology of inequalities, work as well as economic sociology. François Dubet‘s Les Places et Les Chances is no exception. In this book, Dubet explores the old sociological debate over equality of position (roughly similar to equality of results in the anglo-speaking world) and equality of opportunity, and pretty much settles the issue in less than 120 pages.
The book has a very clear structure. First, Dubet reviews the idea and application of equality of position using the French example. Then, he details the critiques of this model. He then turns to equality of opportunity, using the example of the United States, and then explores its shortcomings. Finally, based on this exploration, he explains why he thinks equality of position is actually better as a matter of policy and social justice.
The differences between these conceptions of equality is based on different conceptions of social justice. Equality of position is based on the idea of reducing inequalities of income or quality of life, or inequalities in access to vital social services and inequalities in security. These inequalities exist between social positions occupied by individuals that are different in terms of age, qualification, talent, etc. The point of equality of position is then to “tighten” the gap between position that organize the social structure. The point is not to prioritize individual mobility but to reduce the gap between positions. As Dubet puts it, the point is not to promise to the children of blue-collar workers that they will be able to move up the social ladder, but rather to reduce the gap in quality of life between SES. Egalitarianism is central.
On the other hand, equality of opportunities (égalité des chances, in French) is based on meritocracy, that is, to offer everyone a chance to reach the best positions in society. The point is not to reduce inequalities between positions but to try to eliminate discrimination and other obstacles that would distort competition between individuals that create preexisting hierarchies. This conception considers inequalities to be fair only if positions are open to all. The point is to have a fair competition without calling into question the gap between positions. In this model, diversity of racial and ethnic background have to be taken into consideration as well.
So, depending on which conception of social justice prevails, one might end up with very different social policies: reducing inequalities between position versus eliminating discrimination without touching the structure of inequalities. As Dubet notes, under the former configuration, one might push for an increase in minimum wage and improvement in living conditions in housing projects versus promoting access to higher positions for children from these areas. On the one hand, one can work to eliminate unjust social positions, or work to allow some to escape from them based on merit.
Similarly, these different conceptions of equality and social justice have been promoted by different social movements. Traditional left-wing, labor and unions movements have pushed for equality of position whereas identity-based movements have tended to promoted equality of opportunities.
For Dubet, the French system is based on a very Durkheimian conception of equality of positions combined with an organic conception of social solidarity. It is less an egalitarian system than a redistributive one based on social rights. Less inequalities leads to greater social integration. This system has its problems, though in that it enshrines regimes of social redistribution based on protected statuses and positions, often tied to work and organized labor. It is not a system that is well adapted for higher levels of unemployment and precarization. When this happens, resentment can happen as privileged workers resent paying for those excluded from the system and these excluded resent their very exclusion from it. This system does not prevent gender and racial discrimination and the presence of a glass ceiling.
This is usually when discourse to equality of opportunities: those left-behind by equality of position. For Dubet, then, the discourse of equality of opportunities gives voice to traditionally invisible categories: women and racial / ethnic minorities and other discriminated categories. In this conception, society is a mosaic of individuals with categorical privileges and disadvantages that define their life chances. This conception of social justice then involves fighting against discrimination and promoting access and reducing exclusion. This may involve compensatory policies. Cultural identities, as carried by individuals are central to this.
This conception focuses on individual mobility and individuals are seen as active agents, responsible for their actions as long as the competition is fair and the most meritorious have opportunities to advance as far as their merits will allow. Society is not seen as an integrated whole but as a dynamic entity based on individual choices and actions. Therefore, public policy is based on empowerment. Initial equality is provided but after that, every individual is on his/her own. There is no social contract, only individual ones.
For Dubet, this conception is based on a statistical fiction. The focus is on the elite of society: one counts the number and percentages of women and minorities in high position in politics, business, academia, etc. and deplores their underrepresentation, while relatively ignoring that their overrepresentation at the lower levels of society is just as unfair. For Dubet, the equality of opportunity model is more sensitive to success and the few Horacio Alger success stories than to the larger numbers stuck without possibilities of mobility for structural reasons that are the fate of the larger number.
Also, to conceive of inequalities in terms of discrimination leads the oppression Olympics and the establishment of hierarchies of oppression whereby individuals get to make the case for their victimization. This kind of accounting is a source of resentment (see poor whites resentment against African Americans for instance). For this model to work, individuals have to be obligatorily assigned to reified categories and identities, attached to certain amounts of privileges and disadvantages.
So, the social contract, instead of being based on equal dignity for all labor, becomes one of sports competition just as long as one ensures that the race is fair and some do not have greater socially-established obstacles than others. After that, let the best man/woman wins, and those finishing last can only blame themselves, their poor choices and lack of certain ethos. The moral order becomes one of personal responsibility. In this sense, the winners deserve what they get and should not have to share with the losers. The wealthy (a product of their superior characteristics) can individually decide to engage in charity, but it is indeed an individual decision, not a socially-enforced one in the name of social solidarity. This individualization of success and failure has been thoroughly discussed by Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman.
In this sense, for Dubet, such a conception is reactionary as it harks back to the day of social assistance only to the deserving poor based on moral criteria decided by their benefactors.
Another way in which this model fails, for Dubet, is that it categorizes (locks one into one’s identity) only to individualize. This model is incapable of truly reducing structural inequalities that would allow minorities, as category, to improve its conditions. That is only available to select individuals. So, the social justice granted to individuals does not translate into social justice for categories.
So, which model provides greater social justice, considering the fact that neither is perfect and has its problems? For Dubet, equality of position because it is more sensitive to the weakest members of society and is more likely to lead to greater equality of opportunities (whereas the opposite is not true). Furthermore, in an argument reminiscent of The Spirit Level (which makes the statistical argument for equality of positions as well), an equal society works better and is healthier and less structurally (and therefore interpersonally) violent than an unequal one, even for the wealthiest. Inequalities are corrosive to social life especially when the wealthiest categories disconnect themselves from the rest of society through gated communities or living in Richistan. Unequal societies are also more likely to face a political crisis of legitimacy which may promote extremist movements.
So, if equality is a social good in and of itself, it makes sense to promote policies of redistribution within a framework of equality of positions. Moreover, Dubet shows that equality of positions is more likely to reduce inequalities of opportunities and to increase social mobility. Indeed, data show that social mobility is greater in more equal societies. After all, smaller inequalities make upward mobility easier and downward mobility less painful (and let’s be spared once and for all the arguments about reduced productivity, freedom and creativity, these are bogus). Overall, equality of positions creates a less cruel society and certainly a less hypocritical one where the elite accepts the idea of equality of opportunities while using all means to block access to their own level through policy, social networks and all forms of capital.
Ultimately, following Nancy Frazer, Dubet states that social rights (redistribution) have to be separated from cultural rights (recognition). Social rights are matters of social justice whereas cultural rights are matters of ethics and democratic participation, but not necessarily social justice.
In the end, for Dubet, only equality of positions can lead to a sustainable egalitarianism and is a prerequisite to equality of opportunities and has fewer negative externalities.
I have to say that the demonstration is thoroughly convincing. Highly recommended.