Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity

ISBN : 9780199812141

Joseph Fishkin
288 Pages
163 x 241 mm
Pub date
Apr 2014
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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.


A. How We Think About Equal Opportunity
B. Opportunity Pluralism
C. Implications of the Theory
Chapter I: Equal Opportunity and Its Problems
I.A. Conceptions of Equal Opportunity
I.A.1. Rawlsian Equal Opportunity & Starting Gate Theories
I.A.2. Tests, Bias, and "
I.A.3. Luck Egalitarianism and Natural Talents
I.A.4. Talent, Luck, and Dworkin
I.B. Beyond Distributive Justice: Opportunities and Flourishing
I.C. Four Problems for Equal Opportunity
I.C.1. The Problem of the Family
i. Parental Advantages
ii. Mitigation and Compensation
iii. Families and the Principle of Fair Life Chances
I.C.2. The Problem of Merit
i. An Admissions Example
ii. Merit for Luck Egalitarians
iii. Roemer's EOp Proposal and the Limits of Merit
iv. Merit and Self
I.C.3. The Problem of the Starting Gate
i. Limits of the Ex Ante Perspective
ii. Compounded Advantage and the Concatenation of Opportunities
iii. Focus on the Youngest?
iv. Them That's Got Shall Get
I.C.4. The Problem of Individuality
i. Schaar's Nightmare and Nozick's Dream
ii. Toward A Different Kind of Equal Opportunity
Chapter II: Opportunities and Human Development
II.A. Natural Difference in Political Theory
II.B. Intrinsic Differences, Nature, and Nurture
II.B.1. Intrinsic Difference Claims
II.B.2. Models of Nature and Nurture
II.B.3. Not Even Separate
II.C. The Trouble with "
II.C.1. There Is No "
II.C.2. The Flynn Effect: An Object Lesson in the Role of Environment
II.D. An Iterative Model of Human Development
II.D.1. Developing Capacities
II.D.2. Interaction with Family and Society
II.D.3. Interaction With the World of Employment
II.E. The Trouble With "
II.E.1. A Simple Equalization Problem
II.E.2. What if We Don't All Have the Same Goal?
II.E.3. The Endogeneity of Preferences and Goals
II.E.4. Essential Developmental Opportunities
Chapter III: Opportunity Pluralism
III.A. Unitary and Pluralistic Opportunity Structures
III.A.1 Individuality and Pluralism
III.A.2 Positional Goods and Competitive Roles
III.A.3. The Anti-Bottleneck Principle
III.A.4. Who Controls The Opportunity Structure?
III.B. The Dynamics of Bottlenecks
III.B.1. Types of Bottlenecks
III.B.2. Legitimate Versus Arbitrary Bottlenecks
III.B.3. Severity of Bottlenecks
III.B.4. How Many People Are Affected By This Bottleneck?
III.B.5. What To Do About Bottlenecks
III.B.6. Bottlenecks and the Content of Jobs
III.B.7. Situating Bottlenecks Within the Opportunity Structure as a Whole
III.B.8. Bottlenecks, Efficiency, and Human Capital
III.B.9. Potential Benefits of Bottlenecks
III.C. Flourishing, Perfectionism, and Priority
III.C.1. Equal Opportunity Without a Common Scale
III.C.2. Thin Perfectionism and Autonomy
Chapter IV: Applications
IV.A. Class as Bottleneck
IV.A.1. Fear of Downward Mobility: A Parable About How Inequality Matters
IV.A.2. College as Bottleneck
IV.A.3. Segregation and Integration: A Story of Networks and Norms
IV.B. Freedom and Flexibility in the World of Work
IV.B.1. Flexibility, Job Lock, and Entrepreneurialism
IV.B.2. Workplace Flexibility and Gender Bottlenecks
IV.C. Bottlenecks and Antidiscrimination Law
IV.C.1 Some Cutting-Edge Statutes and Their Implications
IV.C.2. Whom Should Antidiscrimination Law Protect?
IV.C.3. An Example: Appearance Discrimination
IV.C.4. Bottlenecks, Groups, and Individuals
IV.C.5. How Should Antidiscrimination Law Protect?

About the author: 

Joseph Fishkin is an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas School of Law, where he teaches and writes about the law of discrimination and equal opportunity in areas from employment to voting rights.

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