EQUALITY IN AMERICA: The View from the Top by Sidney & Gary Orren Verba

EQUALITY IN AMERICA: The View from the Top

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The idea of equality has been a powerful shaping force in American history, but as Harvard professors Verba and Often note (and they are not the first), precisely what Americans mean by equality isn't always easy to discern. By almost any measure, the US is one of the most politically egalitarian of the industrial countries (in terms of direct election of office holders, voting qualifications, etc.) and also one of the most economically inegalitarian (measured by public income assistance, social security payments, etc.). One reason for this, Verba and Orren note, is that Americans tend toward the notion of equality of result in the political sphere, but toward equality of opportunity in economy. To get at further nuances of belief, they did an opinion survey; and their first mistake was to do it on leaders in business, labor, agriculture, the media, and in ""challenging sectors""--feminism and civil rights. (Other groups include students from elite colleges, and intellectuals.) Their rationale is that policy formation is an important part of the equality issue, so they decided to focus on those most involved in it; but there is no reason to believe that an alternative vision of equality would emerge--since these leaders of the ""challenging sectors"" are also part of the Establishment. Indeed, Verba and Orren report universal agreement that business executives are not only the highest paid sector of the economy, but that they should be. Other unsurprising discoveries are that businessmen and farmers tend to see poverty as a function of individual incompetence, while feminists and blacks see structural causes--but blacks are more inclined toward positive government action to do something about it, while women tend to want more barriers removed. (Intellectuals and media leaders, curiously, show up in the middle of the pack on almost every equality issue.) But Verba and Orren run their questionnaires--jointly formulated and distributed by the Center for International Affairs at Harvard and the Washington Post--through so many statistical permutations that all but the most quantitatively oriented readers will lose track of whatever it is they are trying to argue. They conclude that some more advance can be made on political equality (e.g., complete public campaign funding) where a consensus exists, but that advances toward economic equality in the economy are further off because of the predominance of equality of opportunity. If they'd asked people on the outside, the results might have been less predictable.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1985
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press