[This is the first in a loose series of posts attempting to articulate the implications of inequality, of various sorts, in our society and economy. ]
It seems counter-intuitive to claim that we should hold something to be true when it isn't, but it seems to me that there are at least a few cases in which we should act as if something is true even if it is not. The example that I have in mind has to do with equality.
As Catholics we believe that all human beings are of equal dignity in the eyes of God. In the US, all people are equal in the eyes of the law. However, this does not necessarily mean that all people are of equal ability in regard to any specific quality. And indeed, it's readily apparent that people are indeed not equal in regards to ability. Some people have greater physical abilities than others. There is huge variation in mental ability, and among different kinds of mental ability. And there is a fair amount of evidence that much of this variation is either genetic, or determined by experiences so early in life as to be much more the result of your relatives choices than your own.
And yet, as I've written a couple times in discussing Charles Murray's ideas about education, most of us in American culture naturally rebel against making changes in how we educate children in our society based on "simple facts" such as Murray's:"Ability varies" and "Half of the children are below average". (If you want to test your sensibilities against this, read this 2007 WSJ piece on educating the bottom of the intelligence curve and see if you find yourself, like me, sputtering, "But, but... You can't say that.")
Some of this is just outraged sensibilities. We believe in equality, and so we rebel against hearing about a situation in which hard work and good mentoring can't make anything possible for anyone. And yet clearly, at a factual level, no matter how much we don't like it, it is not actually the case that anyone could go on to do anything. A lot of people simply don't have the abilities to "do anything". (Actually, no one has the ability to truly "do anything" -- but some people at least have the ability to truly excel in enough things that they don't worry about the rest.)
And yet, I think there may actually be a lot of good to our illusions in this case. Because while it's true that there are large differences in ability, I'm fairly skeptical of our ability to systematically identify those differences and provide people with education "suitable to their abilities" in some sort of organized fashion. There may be a certain amount of waste and heartbreak inherent in acting as if anyone could grow up to be president, or a CEO, or a concert pianist, but the risks of treating everyone as if they had great potential and then seeing who sifts out seem lower than trying to identify which people have potential, providing them with good educations, and then shunting everyone else off into some ability-appropriate program to turn them into good worker ants. There is a limit to how much money and time should be spent trying to achieve the unachievable, but going in the direction of a know-your-place, multi-track educational program such as is seen in Japan and parts of Europe seems to be an approach which would abandon something which is important and positive in the American psyche. And, perhaps because I participate in that American ideal, I find it easier to accept the idea of all people being offered opportunities, and many of them failing to reach the heights, than classifying people based on measurable ability and sending them onto an ability-appropriate track. The illusion of equality may be important here.