Society Needs to Improve the Chances of Equality of Opportunity

As we live in a society that emphasizes the individual, that is, individual effort, individual morality, individual choice, individual responsibility, individual talent, often makes it difficult to see the way in which life chances are socially structured. The dominant ideological presumption about social inequality is that everyone has an equal chance of success. However, systemic inequalities based on group membership, class, gender, ethnicity, and other variables that structure access to rewards and status determine who gets the opportunities to develop their abilities and their talents. Neoliberals believe individual effort, responsibility and talent determine how life chances are socially structured. The fundamental dogmatism of this economic system of minimal government and regulation is codification of a political ideology defended by proxies. The level of equality of opportunity determines how people perceive inequality. Societies in which individuals have the same chances to obtain valuable outcomes such as income, education, and health, have a higher tolerance to inequality.

According to Hayek’s theory of cultural evolution, rules, norms and practices evolve in a process of natural selection operating at the level of the group. Today the term “cultural evolution” refers to the evolution of a tradition of learnt rules, norms, ethical precepts, and practices, “especially those dealing with inherited property, honesty, contract, exchange, trade, competition, gain, and privacy”. Hayek’s main argument on group selection is that by choosing rules individuals change their group and become a member of the group from which they adopt the rules. To empower these ideas corporate money supported think-tanks along with scholarship and intensive use of media. This think-tank network wasn’t for creating new ideas, but for being a gate keeper and disseminating the existing set of ideas around individual freedom and minimal government in support of Hayek’s theory of cultural evolution.

In the past, the main criticism of Darwin’s natural selection was the requirement of multiple generations before change occurred, which did not fit with the business model. With the discovery of epigenetics, this thinking has changed. It is now known that genetic change can occur much more quickly than previously thought, responding from messages coming from other genes, hormones, and from nutritional cues and learning. The reactive oxygen radicals can modify, or turn off and on, genes that effect events further downstream. This can cause chronic diseases within a few decades. The great recession has created a perfect storm for poor health. The realization that the epigenome is highly sensitive and responsive to environmental influences, including toxic exposures, dietary factors, and behavioral impacts, serves to focus future state priorities. How we develop mentally and physically have a tremendous impact upon our inherent capabilities and our set of life options.

How does inequality becomes systematically structured in economic, social, and political life? Laissez-faire supported by Hayek’s cultural evolution has no vision of the good society or the public good and no mechanism for addressing society’s major economic, political and social problems. Under the cultural trope of ‘individual responsibility’ welfare for the poor is cut and restructured to make welfare recipients more responsible for their economic status. This takes the focus from the inherit inequality in the system and focuses on the distribution, specifically its disproportionate effect on the excluded – such as the unemployed, minorities and immigrants. A consequence of this ideology is the reconfiguration of class relations in a society where the explosion of inequality and economic instability has profoundly dismantled the working class. Social inequality describes the unequal distribution of valued resources, rewards, and positions in society. The privileged position of the middle class has steadily been eroded by growing inequalities of wealth and income.

Influenza vaccine is not a magic bullet, it only augments the efficiency of an individual’s immune system. During seasons when the flu vaccines are similar to circulating flu viruses, flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the chance of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40 percent to 60 percent. The best chances of not getting flu occurs in vaccinated individuals under age 65. People aged 65 and older have weaker immune responses and are at increased risk of serious illness, hospitalization and death from influenza infection. Thus, a seventy-year-old gets the flu vaccine because in a typical influenza season, it reduces his or her chances of being hospitalized by one third and chances of dying by 50%. Similarly, older people getting the COVID vaccine won’t necessarily get 100% protection, but vaccination will reduce the severity of the disease, including significantly reducing the chance one would die.

The meaning of chance is supposed to be apparent only at a level of abstraction afforded by large sets of data to the cool eye of a scientific observer or the indifferent machinations of an algorithm. But markets, for Hayek are held to be the only social form that properly accounts for the chance or randomness that is by nature a part of the spontaneous development of order within complex – that is to say partly chaotic – systems. Klein observes that the neoliberal system of laissez-faire is the obscure, disavowed public face anonymous, implacable, inscrutable – of an authoritarian scheme to restrict chance to fate. In summary, they use a heady brew of chaos and market (dis)order to protect the largest and most powerful interests – the 1% – at any cost. Thus, neoliberalism seems to have it both ways: to both restrict the meaning of chance in advance, and to reproduce randomness, risk and disorder that is susceptible only of market “solutions.”1

Nietzsche claims, “No victor believes in chance.” Many of the individuals that Trump has pardoned do not leave things to chance: Michael Milliken rose to prominence the 1980s as the head of the high-yield bond department, also known as junk bonds, at the now defunct firm Drexel Burnham Lambert. Milken was accused of taking part in an insider trading scheme and eventually pleaded guilty to several counts of securities violations. John Boultbee, Peter Atkinson and Conrad Black were convicted of fraud in connection to a scheme involving paying themselves bonuses from Hollinger International earnings, cheating shareholders and American and Canadian tax authorities. Former Rep. Chris Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump, is sentenced to 26 months in prison in insider trading case. “I am not upset that you lied to me. I am upset that from now on I can’t believe you,” concludes Nietzsche.

Foucault’s theories primarily address the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. Power is all the more cunning because its basic forms can change in response to our efforts to free ourselves from its grip. The contemporary neoliberal “regime of truth,” to use a term from Michel Foucault, greatly influences the ways in which knowledge is being interpreted and implemented. Recognizing that reason has been one of the disciplinary technologies of modern societies, Foucault repeats, reminds us that much of history cannot be explained by anything other than ‘the iron hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance’ (quoted from Nietzsche’s Dawn). Foucault celebrated the role of chance in history because chance makes change easier to imagine. If we do not think of history as proceeding in some inevitable or predictable manner, then history is not so deterministic, and it is easier for us to imagine that things might be different in the future.

Epigenetic risk is not merely a medical risk, but implicates the fundamental principles of fairness and justice underlying the present social contract. The role of epigenetics provides high quality evidence supporting the importance of DNA in shaping people’s lives. While epigenetic changes can be passed on from parents to children, they can also be altered by stress, diet, environment and behavior. Early life stress alters how DNA is packaged, which makes cells function differently than their original mandate. These epigenetic switches are triggered by many factors such as our lifestyle, environment, diet, stress, emotional deprivation or hormones and our age, and as the development of a growing fetus in the womb is totally dependent on these signals, it can alter the function of its cells. Epigenetics explains how environmental factors can switch genes on and off, based on choices we make. Early studies show an association between epigenetic marks (in the human genome) and socio-economic status.

The emerging field of epigenetics provides a chain of connections between what used to be qualified as social and natural inequality, leading to a reformulation of these contested boundaries. This also leads to a rethinking of the time-frame and scope of equality of opportunity. Epigenetic risks explain how environmental factors can switch genes on and off, based on choices we make. We now realize we can change gene expression by the way we think about our lives and ourselves – epigenetic marks are reversible. Controlling epigenetic harms, or environmental harms, is about treating an individual’s potential as a freedom. It is necessary to challenge the status quo of neoliberalism with its causal determinism, and create conditions where individuals can incorporate epigenetic risk into a new social contract. The relevant consequence of this approach should be a society that increases the chances or opportunities for individual fulfillment for all members of society.

1 Joshua Ramey (Dec 2015) Neoliberalism as a political theology of chance: the politics of divination https://www.nature.com/articles/palcomms201539

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