When asked, “Are people equal?” we usually answer, “No.” For many on the right, innate differences attest to inequality. To many who see themselves as on the left, people are unequal because of the way they have been treated by society. The right sees inequality mainly as internal, as fixed in the human condition. Those on the more liberal side tend to view inequality largely as external, and amenable to remedy. Thus the right feels efforts toward equality can come to no good end. Leveling is inimical to nature and bound to be oppressive. The left would change the ways society is organized and believes such reforms would work.

However there are occasions where the two views intersect. One is “equality of opportunity,” which in America has been a conservative value as well as a progressive goal. Moreover, writers on the left seem to give inherited differences almost as much attention as conservatives do. The result is that while liberals, radicals, and socialists all favor greater equality, they have accepted certain assumptions which can undercut their aims. This is especially apparent in the books under review.

Christopher Jenck’s Who Gets Ahead? is a sequel to Inequality (1972) and must be read as such. So I will backtrack for a moment and recall that earlier volume.1 Inequality captured public attention because it had a social science “finding.” What Jencks and his collaborators found was that schooling in and of itself made only a minor contribution to individuals’ mobility. The key measurable factor was the status of their families. More money spent on schools wouldn’t shake up the social classes, or so Jencks’s data seemed to say. A further variable was “luck,” which really meant all the other elements social science couldn’t measure. Jencks cited several instances of how luck helps. For example, having “the ability to persuade a customer that he wants a larger car than he thought he wanted.” Or encountering “chance acquaintances who steer you to one line of work rather than another.”

But when we start to talk of “family background,” heredity and environment get intermingled. A phrase like “parental influence” implies elements of both. Many traits that make for success (Jencks’s central concern) might, if we accept his own analysis of the importance of heredity, come from combinations of genes going back for generations. The spirit revealed in a supersalesman may be sustained by an endocrine balance which is largely an inheritance from a hyperkinetic grandmother. While two brothers may seem to have had the same outward upbringing, we still know that no two siblings have identical home experiences. Even so, Jencks keeps returning to what he calls “genetic advantages.” Thus, according to Jencks, “the heritability of Stanford-Binet scores” runs to “around 45 percent.” Even if you aren’t your parents’ favorite child, you get your genes from them and that can be a help. Especially in a society that puts a premium on IQ.

Genetic inheritance has always appealed to conservatives, who invoke it without apology. Its latest expression is “sociobiology,” which states that as all species develop sets of gene pools during their emergence, the same should hold for identifiable groups of human beings. Jencks, who sees himself as a socialist, doesn’t want to explore this territory. For him genetic inheritance seems to operate randomly among families, but without regard for primordial ties some groups of families share. (How come that Russian Jews take so well to the violin?) Perhaps it is a hidden fear of the left that, on this count at least, the right could just be right.

In light of the “policy implications” of Inequality, Jencks was encouraged to go deeper into the data. The result is Who Gets Ahead? This time Jencks had eleven collaborators (four more than before) and, as he states in his introduction, grants of $300,000 from foundations and government agencies. His purpose was to review even more empirical studies, using bigger and better computers, in a final effort to answer the question in his current title.

Who Gets Ahead?, it should be said at the outset, is not a book for the general reader. In fact, despite its breezy title, it is not altogether clear that it is a book at all. Rather it is more a packet of research notes. What we are given are seemingly endless columns of statistical analysis including regression equations, mean deviations, and bivariate coefficients. Indeed, there are no actual numbers (e.g., how many miners’ sons become physicians) but rather mathematical notations. As with Inequality, Jencks did not send his coauthors out on interviews. All his computations come from other people’s research. Hence the reality he pictures is in fact a synthesis of the data in those studies.

Who Gets Ahead? revises some earlier estimates, owing to the wider data base provided by such studies as “National Longitudinal Survey of Older Men” and the “Kalamazoo Brothers Sample”—the latter being a study of 346 pairs of male Michigan siblings, tracing their careers over a forty-seven-year period. Inequality had said that “shared background characteristics” account for 32 percent of the variations in occupational levels. In other words, that was the correlation between the similar origins the people being surveyed shared and their ultimate employment. Who Gets Ahead? puts the figure at “more like 48 percent.” Family is apparently creeping up as a determining factor, almost overtaking luck (or is it pluck?). Education is also doing better. “The best readily observable predictor” of how much you will earn is now “amount of schooling.” However even with his larger study Jencks admits he and his collaborators “could not isolate any single personality characteristic that was critical to success.” At the same time, the phrase “genetic advantage,” used widely in Inequality, has been phased out in favor of “personal characteristics,” which has a less Jensen-like ring.


Has Jencks revised Jencks? As a social scientist, he runs with the coefficients; even if much of the data deals only with Kalamazoo. Schooling now seems to count, or at least completing college. But Jencks’s second thoughts go deeper. His early emphasis on individuals, he says, was basically misplaced. Little is gained by wondering why one sibling succeeds whereas another fails. More important are the “structural features of the economy” which decide how people get distributed among the income levels. Why particular persons get ahead is not nearly so significant as how many actually do, and how the places they occupy came to get created. Unfortunately Who Gets Ahead? has no data on these questions. So Jencks ends by calling for redistribution of income, apparently on the assumption that so long as we have well-off people, they should be made to give over a good deal of what they have to those who are less successful.

If Jencks has come to the view that whether people will get ahead depends on the contours of the economy, then we have to know how many places are available at the top of its structure. Interpretations are bound to differ on what constitutes success. Still we have figures on income and employment that provide a good beginning.

Each March the Census’ Current Population Survey asks people for information on what their incomes were during the previous year. Its sample covers 56,000 households, a more than adequate number. During 1978, for which figures have recently appeared, the income of all American households totaled $1.4 trillion. This, in effect, is the pie that must feed all of us. What the Census can tell us is who gets how large a bite. It also has information on where the bite comes from.

Somewhat over $1.1 trillion, or 82 percent of the total, comes from the earnings of individuals. The greater part, $927 billion, represents the wages and salaries of 62 million full-time workers. (Full-time means doing a full week’s work for at least fifty weeks in the year, paid vacations included.) Another 49 million persons worked less than full-time, and received $218 billion. The median income of full-time workers was $14,961 in 1978. For the others the figure was $4,419. Of the full-time workers, 34 percent were women. Among those with part-time employment, women comprised 56 percent of the total.

The leftover 18 percent of the $1.4 trillion, about $250 billion, consists of nonearned income. Here the distribution is approximately as follows: Social Security, 34 percent; veterans’ benefits and unemployment compensation, 9 percent; welfare or public assistance, 5 percent—all of which are government (“transfer”) payments and add up to 48 percent of the nonearned total.

The remaining 52 percent of the nonearned category includes: alimony, child support, and gifts, 5 percent; private and civil service pensions, 17 percent; dividends and other property income, 29 percent. It is the last, of course, that usually arouses interest.

In actual dollar figures, proceeds from property amounted to $73 billion in 1978, slightly more than 5 percent of all household income. Most middle-class families have property income of some sort, which means the overall distribution shows a fairly spacious spread. Even so, the families with incomes of over $50,000 received 28 percent of aggregate property income, averaging $8,900 per household.2 It is only when a household reaches the $200,000 range that nonearned sources provide most of its spending money. Unfortunately the Census survey makes “$50,000 and over” the top category on its charts.3 Still, those who have made it that far can be deemed to have gotten “ahead,” even if $50,000 in 1978 only put you in the upper reaches of the upper-middle class.


Income distribution takes two principal forms, each having its own special shape. The top part of the table shows the spread for the country’s 57.8 million families, defined as at least one adult plus one or more children or other relatives. (Not included in the figure are 24.6 million people who live alone or with a non-related housemate. Their median income came to only $6,705, or 38 percent of the family figure.) That the median income for families was $17,640 and that for workers was $14,961 was due in largest single measure to the increasing number of households where both spouses are employed. While the second spouse does not have a full-time job in all such cases, the extra earnings are enough to raise the couple to a higher income bracket. Thus while the top part of the table shows 16 million households with incomes of over $25,000, the bottom part has only seven million individuals making that kind of money by themselves. This also holds at the $50,000 range, with a million individuals with incomes at that level, but double that many families.


The incomes of individual workers form a Christmas-tree-shaped pyramid, more or less the classical shape for an industrial society. If we combine the two brackets at the bottom, we find 20 million persons, almost a third of the work force, making under $10,000. But the top part of the table displays family income (a scarecrow best defines its shape) with 42 percent of all households having incomes of over $20,000. Just what “class” this group constitutes is difficult to decipher. Especially if one spouse is a nurse and the other drives a truck, bringing in a total of $27,000. In sum, most Americans earn comparatively modest incomes as individuals. However a lot of two-wage households aren’t doing badly at all.

What needs explaining is why family income has so top-heavy a layer, on the one hand; and why, at less than $25,000, each income range has so similar a number of households. While one can cite the various “factors” that may contribute to this outcome, we have no clearcut answer to what it is about our economy that arranges us this way. Certainly it benefits the system to blur its income distribution. The well-off and the poor may be always with us; but the 72 percent of the families between $10,000 and $50,000 lack coherent identities.

The question of who gets ahead can also be answered by asking what people at the top seem to have done to get there. Here the focus is on the positions an economy makes rewarding. The best information we have comes from the decennial Census, which means we must make do with 1970 figures until the results of the 1980 count are ready in mid-1983.4

In 1970, a total of 221,716 men and 8,384 women had earnings exceeding $50,000, an income just about equivalent to $100,000 today. As might be expected, most of these top earners were professionals (95,388) or executives (90,380). Among the former, doctors (43,547) outnumbered lawyers (18,323) by better than two-to-one. Accountants (4,015) came further behind, as did a surprising number (4,475) of well-paid engineers. There were also 23,837 salesmen, including 6,747 in real estate or insurance, and 5,728 in stocks and bonds. High-income professionals were much less likely to be salaried (28,511) than self-employed or partners (66,834). With businessmen it was the other way around: only 14,840 ran their own firms, compared with 75,419 on corporate payrolls. While building up a fortune comes from being one’s own boss, the safer road to comfort runs through an executive suite. All told, 58 percent of those with $50,000 incomes in 1970 worked for someone else.

Only 4,702 of the 230,100 were artists, writers, or entertainers. As was noted, only 8,384 were women and even fewer (3,186) were black. Interestingly, almost 40 percent (86,697) had not attended college or had left before graduation. Of course these were men who had reached $50,000 by 1970, which means they began their career climb before the midpoint of the century. The years ahead may be less generous to the dropout. Even so, if lawyers, engineers, and doctors, all of whom need college degrees, are subtracted from the total, a majority of the remaining high earners were not college graduates.

The 1970 Census also reported 367,582 families with incomes of over $50,000.5 However only about half (185,161) had a single breadwinner, while almost an equal number (173,772) had two or more. (The other 8,649 families’ incomes were entirely from nonearned sources.) So even in 1970 the relatively well-to-do relied on several paychecks to get where they did.

Getting ahead, therefore, means getting to occupy a position that has a high salary attached; or one can create a high income for one’s self by doing such things as will cause large amounts of money to begin to flow your way. In either case, however, there are limits to the number of people an economy will allow to occupy these eminences. And after that has been said, we don’t really know why as many high income positions exist as have come to be created. Still, it is the context in which Jencks and others ask us to judge whether people have been treated “fairly.” What they are asking is that everyone have a fair chance at one of these prizes. Edwin Dorn seems to accept this assumption in his analysis of race.


Trapped Blacks

Because equality is difficult to achieve in the abstract, we prefer to aim at less grandiose goals, like equal rights and equal opportunity. Dorn speaks of these as “open rules,” and considers how they have worked for America’s different racial groups. It has for years been an official policy to work toward a society where people will no longer be classified on the basis of their color. However the “rules” (Dorn’s special term for rights) which most Americans prefer are “open rather than closed,” e.g., our freedom to move from state to state, which needs no special implementation. A “closed” rule requires that certain conditions be attained: serious steps will have to be taken if we are to see people treated in uniform, or at least similar, ways. To put it simply—which Dorn does not—the question is whether the results implied by rights will be imposed in practice.

The problem with rights as they tend to relate to race is that “nothing follows about the exercise of rights or about the distribution of other goods.” The point of equal rights (and opportunities) is to bring a submerged section of citizens into the mainstream of the population. And this, Dorn points out, has simply not occurred:

The degree of substantive inequality between the races is not decreasing…. The US economy has grown since the mid-1960s, and blacks have benefited from that growth. However, to say that blacks are absolutely better off is not to say that they have improved their position vis-à-vis whites.

Since 1968, for example, the median income of black families has remained forty percentage points behind the white figure. (More precisely, it has ranged from a high of 61 percent in 1969 to a low of 57 percent in 1977.) Thus the “opportunity” given to blacks has been to move ahead so long as they keep their distance behind whites. There has been, in short, no commitment to close the gap between the races. “Procedural equality,” Dorn says, “threatens to trap blacks as a group into a position of permanent substantive inequality vis-à-vis whites.” In this he is absolutely correct. Or he is in so far as he is speaking of blacks as an entire group.

It should be said that Rules and Racial Equality is another book not intended for lay readers. Dorn uses mathematical models, plus a highly formal logic that gives his prose an impersonal air. In a way this is too bad, because the statistics he begins with tell a fascinating story. In his eagerness to set his findings in equations he leaves out some intervening figures that are crucial to his theory.

It is certainly true that, taken in aggregate terms, the status of black Americans has not improved in relation to whites. At the same time it can be shown that more blacks are doing better; indeed have salaries and living standards approaching those of whites. If we start with the races as a whole the 1978 median income for all white families was $18,368, while for blacks it was $10,879, the expected forty-one percentage points behind. However, in families with a husband and wife both present, with only the husband working, respective white and black incomes were $20,834 and $15,222, putting these black families only twenty-seven points behind. And if we take husband-wife families where both spouses are employed, the white median is $24,627 and the black is $22,125, down to a ten-percentage-point gap. And to this may be added that black women who put in a full year of work had a median income of $9,020, only seven points behind the $9,732 for comparable white women. Finally, black working women who had college degrees earned a higher median income than did their white counterparts.

To go one step further, in 1978 black families accounted for just under 5 percent of the families having incomes exceeding $25,000. Back in 1970, the black proportion at the equivalent dollar level ($15,000) had been only 4 percent. While an improvement of 1 percent may not seem an earth-shaking event, it means that black families had come to occupy approximately 300,000 more places in the $25,000 bracket. Even more important, it also signifies that 300,000 fewer white families than before would be counted at that level.

It is only if this kind of interchange occurs that we will see any serious decrease in the racial income gap. What Dorn wishes to see, although he does not say so explicitly, is a discernible number of whites moving down the income hierarchy. So far, this changing of places has only begun to happen among black households that have both a husband and wife in residence. It should also be added that their near-parity with whites has thus far been achieved because both spouses work in more black households (64 percent) than is the case with whites (53 percent).

However the real obstacle to black income progress is that the proportion of black households having a working husband present declined sharply between 1970 and 1978. Put the other way around, the number of black single-parent families headed by women rose from 1.4 million to 2.3 million—65 percent—in this eight-year period.6 (For whites the comparable rise was 40 percent.) It was the addition of almost a million such households, virtually all at the lowest income level, that canceled out such gains as were made by black two-spouse families. And that is why black income as a whole has remained a fixed percentage of whites’. For every black family that moved up to middle-class status, three others were added to the black representation at the bottom of the pyramid.

The message in these figures is that black Americans now comprise an even greater share of the poor than they did at the outset of the Seventies. In 1970, black families accounted for 22 percent of all low-income households in the country; in 1978 they made up 28 percent. (For 1970, low income was measured as $3,000 or less; for 1978, $5,000 was the comparable figure.) Put another way, by 1978 the bottom bracket had within it 280,000 more black families and 130,000 fewer whites. In so far as this pattern continues, and it very likely will, we will continue to see a substantial income gap separating the races.

Women vs Men

If blacks—taken as a group—have not gained any ground, can the same be said for women? Much has been made of the fact that more women are working. For instance, between 1970 and 1978, while 6.5 million men joined the labor force, so did 9.2 million women. The question, as before, is whether women are beginning to occupy places previously held by men.

Even with more women working, their median income relative to men’s remained the same throughout the Seventies—as it happened, just about 60 percent, the same as the black-white quotient. An explanation occasionally given is that only 43 percent of women who worked held full-time jobs, compared with 65 percent of the men. Nevertheless, even women with year-round jobs earned 60 percent of the sum received by men. The same lack of change appears in the higher brackets as well. In 1970, only 0.7 percent of women had salaries of $15,000 or over; with comparable salaries of $25,000 in 1978, only 0.8 percent were women.

Even if there are more women in visible positions, they have not necessarily got there at the expense of men. This can be seen particularly in the professions. Between 1970 and 1978, the number of women lawyers trebled, from 13,078 to 45,026, rising from 4.8 percent to 9.4 percent of that profession. Progress, of a sort. But in this period, while 31,948 new women became lawyers, so did 174,592 new men. The same held in banking and financial management, where 119,702 new women joined the field, and so did 143,698 new men. Between 1970 and 1977 the women’s proportion more than doubled among persons receiving medical degrees. However total medical enrollments also rose, adding 5,147 new places, of which 36 percent went to women and 64 percent to men.7

In some fields women made net gains. In graduate studies as a whole, new entries by women (380,000) have not been matched by equal numbers of new men (160,000). The same happened with certain occupations, such as real estate and personnel relations. With women’s admissions increasing at medical and business schools, and with total enrollments holding steady, the time will certainly arrive when women will start taking at least some men’s places in the higher income levels. (Complaints have already been heard that employers are more likely to use white women for their affirmative action quotas than black men.)


Richard de Lone’s Small Futures is also a team effort. According to its title page it was written “for the Carnegie Council on Children,” whose eleven members, plus a research staff of twenty-seven, contributed to the project. Still, it is written in straightforward prose, and sticks to selected source materials. The book’s argument is that too many American children don’t have much of a future. De Lone begins by introducing us to “Bobby” and “Jimmy,” both hypothetical second graders. However Bobby’s father practices law, while Jimmy’s is a janitor. So far as their futures are concerned, the scripts are all but written. Bobby will almost certainly go to college; Jimmy will inherit his father’s broom.

This may be the way things will turn out, although de Lone is rather vague about the actual odds. (At one point he quotes from a well-known study of occupational mobility, but leaves out one half of the original sentence so as to make it appear more sweeping than the authors intended.) He wants Jimmy and others like him to have the same chance for a decent life as seems in store for Bobby. Unfortunately, “liberal social policy, apparently aimed at providing equal opportunity for all, has not made much progress in that direction.” By liberal policy, de Lone is thinking of programs like Head Start, which are intended to equip Jimmy for the competition he will face.

However de Lone’s analysis of equal opportunity turns out to be ambiguous. If it means that everyone should have the same chance to get ahead, then that is the ideal any competitive system, capitalism included, should rightly set for itself. Here the aim is to bring everyone to the starting line together and then have the race begin. (Interestingly, the purpose of Head Start has been to tune up the skills of poor children so as to deliver them to the starting line along with everyone else.) A talented Jimmy should be able to pass by Bobby on the competitive course. We will know that justice has been done when we see a middle-aged Bobby vacuuming Jimmy’s corner office.

De Lone might seem to want a meritocracy, with those at the top deserving their places—as do those who end up at the bottom. His final chapter uses as an epigraph R.H. Tawney’s allusion to the romantic “illusion that men are equal in character and intelligence.”8 To say this opens the whole question of what to do with people who are weaker in either or both. Treat them kindly, of course. But on what positions they should hold, de Lone has no advice.

Instead, Small Futures shifts ground, and ends with an extended plea for “an egalitarian society.” We should begin with guaranteed employment at a decent minimum wage; plus further income redistribution; and a corps of “professional service providers” to assist parents who lack the resources to raise their children properly. If this last has elitist overtones, de Lone would probably reply that such intervention is necessary for a transitional period. But there is another aspect to the transition that Small Futures doesn’t mention.

At one point de Lone remarks that “Americans may never have believed firmly in equality for all; but they have certainly believed in equal chances for all.” I am not so certain this is so. Better-off parents have always made efforts to ensure that their unexceptional children will weather the competition. Even as Head Start was being established, middle-class parents were enrolling their youngsters in private nursery schools to retain their extra edge. The exodus to the suburbs came in large part from a desire for class advantage. Lip service toward “equal chances for all” has always been undermined by anxieties lest one’s offspring slip down the social scale.

Here, at least, Jencks was ready to grasp the nettle. In Inequality he proposed devoting “the entire resources of the schools” to the disadvantaged, with its corollary that any child “who was reading above the norm for his age should be sent home.” Not only sent home, but presumably with a note warning his parents to be on guard against providing class-based advantages.

If this sounds ludicrous, it shouldn’t. If moves toward an egalitarian society are to be serious they must include abolishing privilege; especially as it places certain children on an inside track. But that still leaves open the question of whether such a society, once achieved, will continue to be competitive, albeit with promotion based on merit. Jencks’s willingness to talk of “genetic advantages” and de Lone’s citing Tawney on the “illusion that men are equal” brings us back to that position. To ask that a janitor’s son have his rightful chance to get ahead is to accept the competitive premises of the world we currently know. If justice for Jimmy means letting him become a winner, then justice for Bobby is that he end up a loser. In The Critique of the Gotha Programme, Karl Marx remarked on the limits of moral reasoning: “Right can never be higher than the economic structure and cultural development of society conditioned by it.” This applies to most “egalitarian” sentiment encountered in current literature.

Randall Collins confronts this issue in The Credential Society, where he examines the structure of success. His is an altogether serious book, with a playful style as illustrated in its chapter headings: “The Ethos of Technocracy,” “The Myth of Meritocracy,” “Cultural Currency Production,” “Occupational Sinecures and Positional Property.” Collins deserves quotation at more than usual length:

The great majority of all jobs can be learned through practice by almost any literate person. The number of esoteric specialties “requiring” unusually extensive training or skill is relatively small.

Schools have relatively little effect on learning, except as they…certify displays of middle-class discipline.

It has been by the use of educational credentials that the lucrative professions have closed their ranks and upgraded their salaries; and it has been in imitation of their methods that other occupations have “professionalized.”

We have elaborated a largely superfluous structure of more or less easy jobs, full of administrative makework and featherbedding, because technology allows it…. In effect, leisure has been incorporated into the job itself.

As a university teacher, I confess chagrined agreement with these statements. In the past, craft unions commandeered certain trades, and created overpaid employment for a working-class elite. (Carpenters had specialized knowledge, but not superhuman skills.) By the same token, that part of the middle class with an aptitude for schooling has created a category called “professions” to justify their claim for extra status and upper-bracket incomes.

Collins asks that we put aside our pieties about the complexity of modern knowledge. He is not arguing that we are all equally talented, or that everyone can pursue every field. Rather, his point is that most of the skills we use come to us on the job, and that what we learn in formal schooling has little effect on job performance. People who excel at what they do owe it to having temperaments suited to those tasks, aided by the trial-and-error which comes with everyday experience. Merit obviously exists. Indeed, there is a lot more of it around than most people will admit.

However, The Credential Society shows how what we tend to view as “merit” has been reduced to a special set of skills, centering on classroom learning and a narrow type of logic. The former calls for turning in performances teachers judge as creditable. The latter means having a mind attuned to the rhythms of modern tests. I wish Collins had said more on this particular score, because we tend to link quality and competence to where a person ranks along a sliding scale.

Testing, as everyone knows, plays a determining role in deciding who will enter selective colleges, go on to professional schools, and have the necessary credentials for a growing range of occupations. As matters now stand, to become a police lieutenant, a real estate broker, or even a CIA agent, depends as much as anything on picking the correct answer on machine-graded tests. In fact, the questions are puzzles, either mathematical or verbal, and what they test is one’s capacity for responding to some logical sleight-of-hand. One is given a paragraph to scan, a geometrical figure to transpose, or synonyms to sort out. Here is one not untypical question:9

Given these four statements:
R is equal in worth to S.
T is better than S.
X causes T to degenerate to Z.
Y is equal in value to Z.
Which of the following can be inferred?
R is equal in worth to Z.
T is better than R.
T is better than X.
Y is better than T.

Not only that, the puzzles must be solved at a one-a-minute rate. (The Law School Aptitude Test allows 185 minutes for its 215 questions.) I have always believed that most people could probably get a decent score if they were allowed to take the test home for a week; and could work on it on and off, going back over questions they found especially perplexing. I can understand the need for quick reflexes in certain occupations, like those of air traffic controllers and ambulance paramedics. But I am not at all sure why a value should be given to speed in solving paper puzzles. But that, as much as anything, is what the tests are testing.

This, at all events, has become the “merit” we look most for when deciding who will have initial entry to better-paid careers. But, to make matters worse, the tests have only a tenuous association with career competence. The Medical Colleges Admissions Test, for example, only claims to predict performance during the first two years of medical school, when learning is chiefly in the classroom. How well medical students do in their next two, clinical, years reveals no correlation at all with their scores on the entry tests.10 What this means is that many people who might well make splendid physicians don’t even get into medical school, because they are eliminated by tests that bear only a marginal relation (if any at all) to actually practicing medicine. (Of course a doctor should “know” some chemistry. The question is whether the best way for a fledgling physician to obtain that knowledge is by sitting in a classroom.)

At least one highly rated business school, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton, will only consider students who have a mastery of calculus. The point is not whether mathematical models should play a part in business. At issue, rather, is a training system that rejects people who have an intuitive flair for sales, or even general management, but cannot deal with exponential equations. The same thing is happening in the military, where officers who do not take well to writing seminar papers are retired before they make lieutenant colonel. As a result, the services lose effective field officers, which may help to account for our defeat in Vietnam despite the sophistication of behind-the-lines strategists. And even Harvard is installing a “quantitative reasoning requirement” for all its students, including computer programming, sampling techniques, and tests of statistical significance. Some prospective poets may have to settle for Yale.

The requirement of credentials, based on technical skills, alters the rules of competition and the structure of opportunity. Class advantage will still help, but not as much as before. Groton will not lead to Harvard for those who cannot master math. By the same token, new vistas will open for youngsters from modest homes who can see why X causes T to degenerate to Z. From one standpoint, certainly, this is the American way at work: new people ascend as new needs must be met. But it will not be equality of opportunity in the sense that everyone has an equal chance. Success and failure will be largely predetermined by your ability to perform well on tests that have, for the most part, no demonstrable correlation to success in the work you will do for the rest of your life. Nor will the outcome be an egalitarian society. Rather, it will pride itself as a hierarchy based on merit. Or it will unless more people like Randall Collins begin to call its bluff.


But what of the proposition that people are in fact equal? Not just abstractly but in character, intelligence, competence. The affirmation of equality was prominent in political thought for at least two centuries beginning with the work of Hobbes. We hear little of that tradition today. Even writers of progressive persuasion seem somewhat embarrassed by it, if they are aware of it at all. We “know” too much to be ingenuous about equality. The “data” of the British psychologist Cyril Burt purporting to show that intelligence was largely determined by heredity muted even R.H. Tawney’s socialism. (That Burt’s findings have since been discredited only adds to the irony.)

Serious thinkers of an earlier era were willing to say that all of us enter the world with essentially similar capacities. Thus David Hume could remark on “how nearly equal all men are in their bodily force, and even in their mental powers and faculties.” Thomas Jefferson concurred with Hume when he said we are all “created equal.” And he was referring to our mental potential. To claim that everyone is born with brains of “equal” (or “nearly equal”) quality is something few people in our time can bring themselves to say. Yet it was not so long ago that people could and did.

If Jefferson and Hume had a sentimental side, this was certainly not so of Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith. Yet they were prepared to write:

Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of the body and mind; as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another, the difference between man and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can there-upon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend.

The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of…. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education.

Hobbes and Smith were nobody’s fools. They were aware of the role played by differential inheritance (“nature”) and they had a high regard for talent. After all, both had revolutionary aims: rebuilding politics and economics would need all the brains and energy society could muster. So their paragraphs are put to us as empirical observations: not how things ought to be, but the facts of the human condition as they were disposed to see it. And they chose to see people as pretty much on a parity. And that clearly includes intelligence: Hobbes’s “faculties of the mind” and Smith’s equivalence of “natural talents” among philosophers and street porters.

That, to their mind, was how we are “created.” At conception, we are all equals. Unfortunately, immediately after that instant (environment begins in the womb) talents which are inherently ours can get repressed or smothered or worse. Yet even here we must tread carefully. For example, it may seem suitable to say that while we are all “created” (conceived) as equally talented creatures, an unfair environment does not always allow those abilities to develop. Hence the current calls for “equality of opportunity” so that each person’s capacities can be discovered and developed.

Yet this position assumes that in the society we know, those who begin better off are more likely to “get ahead.” But that usually means succeeding according to contemporary lights. Jefferson was not so sure that privilege brought out a person’s best:

State a moral case to a plowman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.

The professor, in this equation, is not inferior to the plowman. His mind has just been muddled by too much methodology. With a little help, he can be restored to common sense. So for Jefferson and those who shared his view, “human inequality” did not mean what we usually have in mind today. It did not mean genetic or environmental circumstances which lead to some people scoring higher while others do less well on society’s various tests. Rather, inequalities for them were the “artificial” striations created by a world that wishes to have ranks.

Count on Jean-Jacques Rousseau to put the matter in perspective with his customary aplomb: “All the inequality which now prevails owes its strength and growth to the development of our faculties and the advance of the human mind.” Of course Rousseau always got himself in trouble by overdoing irony. What he means by the development of our faculties and the advance of the human mind is the perverse kind of cleverness encouraged by society, which leads not only to discovering differences but creating them as well.

Differences take on importance, indeed come into existence, as we find it useful to invent designations like superior and inferior. Thus could Gracchus Babeuf say that “the worth of intelligence is only a matter of opinion.” Because:

The plea of superior ability and industry is an empty rationalization to mask the machinations of those who conspire against human equality.

On reading this, most of us would tend to say: “It does not apply to me”—while knowing also that we accept all sorts of doubtful distinctions because our particular culture chooses to make them marks of differentiation. “Intelligence,” as we currently conceive it, is a prime example.

The best way, therefore, to make sense of the belief in equality is to watch how those who espouse it deal with human differences. No one, obviously, contends that people are “the same.” Individuals obviously vary. The issue is how we view these differences and what actions we decide to make consequent upon them.

Such differences as we do note can simply acknowledge variation, without overtones of “inequality.” A parent with three children may remark on their different traits and temperaments, yet refrain from ranking one any higher than another. “Inequality” comes into being when we begin to talk of higher, better, superior. And that was a temptation these writers wished us to avoid. Such disparate thinkers as Hobbes and Hume and Rousseau could agree that there are many kinds of talents, that intelligence comes in varied forms. But they were not ready to say that one person’s mind or sphere of competence should be ranked superior to another’s.

Of course this is simply talk. Only at the end of a rainbow will we find a society which ascribes equal value to conducting a symphony orchestra and telling stories to children, to managing a steel mill and planning a neighborhood party. Such a community would have to be a lot more relaxed about who does what, and agree that most tasks are a lot simpler than we now believe, or can be rendered so. To be sure, not everyone will have an aptitude for performing neurosurgery; however a taxicab driver who does his job well should not suffer by comparison to a neurosurgeon. It would be a place where while we might agree that one person plays the violin better than another, the word “better” will not evoke vanity or envy, or connote success or failure.

Yet it would be wrong to lay too much stress on intelligence and talent. For the egalitarian outlook raised another, equally important, consideration. Equality also held that we can all be equally decent people. Thus Jefferson: “I believe that morality, compassion, and generosity are innate elements of the human constitution.” Indeed, an egalitarian community would value compassion over competence. It would be more concerned to foster a humane way of life than organized efficiency.

Of course history has intervened. We have seen movements begin with egalitarian aims and become oppressive regimes. Attempts to enforce equality have taken momentous human tolls. (Nor have they always succeeded: new elites emerge, often with lofty privileges.) Moreover we are not unaware of inclinations within ourselves that dampen the egalitarian prospect. All this we realize. Yet despite its risks and problems, the idea of equality remains a powerful one, not least because it embodies more than a few recurring truths. Jencks, Dorn, de Lone claim affinity with this tradition, and say they want a more egalitarian society. Yet they are not prepared to grant that those who would inhabit it are by nature equal. If they were willing to do so, their proposals would come across with greater coherence. And they would also be truer to the facts.

This Issue

March 20, 1980