Equal Odds


Life Chances, by Ralf Dahrendorf, Chicago and London: Chicago University Press and Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979, 181 pp., $15.00.

Suppose that you have heard social scientists comparing the "life chances" of members of those several classes that they have identified for study, and perhaps proceeding to promote vast federally funded programs that they see as properly intended to achieve the progressive equalization of these life chances. Then suppose that you know the reputation of the present author—how after a brief but brilliant career as an academic sociologist in Germany he went to Brussels as a commissioner in the European Economic Community, and that he is now director of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Certainly you will approach this book with hopes high: Dahrendorf can be relied on, surely, to sort things out.

Not true, I have to report; not true at all. Life Chances is an elusive, oblique, meandering, undirected, and inconclusive causerie. There is no attempt to analyze what is supposed to be the central notion nor to make and to insist upon any of the fundamental and commonly neglected distinctions. No attempt is made to relate what is said or, rather, suggested to any of the current great divisive issues of political economy. The whole production is so wretched, and so miserably inferior to Dahrendorf's earliest work, that we have to grope about for some explanation. Is it, simply and boringly, that he has been trying to do too much: to be at one and the same time both an active administrative director and a creative academic worker? Or is it, more interestingly but less creditably, that he has realized that to unleash his own full intellectual force, and to follow the arguments where he can see that they are leading, would be bound to precipitate uncomfortable breaches with old political associates as well as with a large and vociferous fraction of his faculty at LSE?

Whatever the source of the inhibitions, of their crippling strength there is no doubt. "Life chances," says Dahrendorf, "are the moulds of human life in society; their shape determines how and how far people can unfold." A little later he admits as reasonable the quite inconsistent contention "that this abstract potential of man is of little relevance to real people," adding the paralyzed parenthesis: "(One may even suspect built-in reasons why the entire potential could not possibly be realized at one time.)"

This is a ridiculous grotesque. For it should be as obvious as it is fundamental that at some stage someone may face two or more alternative ways of spending (the rest) of his or her life, without having a further alternative of opting for both or all of these together. More generally still, it is an essential and distinctive fact of our human nature—a fact that both sociologists and socialists are for their own good reasons reluctant to admit to the front of their minds—that we are creatures that do, and cannot but, choose. But to make a choice precisely is to realize one of two or more alternatives, at the necessary price of precluding all others.

These points once grasped, we can and should go on, as Dahrendorf so lamentably does not, to show how, and why, there is so much confusion around and about his chosen subject. There is, for instance, chronic confusion both between life chances and lives actually lived, and between equal chances in a fair competition and equal likelihoods of success in such a competition.

Thus it is normal, yet nonetheless wrong-headed and methodologically muddled, to offer evidence of inequalities between the average levels of achievement attained by the children of various social or racial groups, as if this could be a direct measure of the degree of inequality of opportunity as between these groups. The conclusions of the Coleman Report in the United States, of Raymond Boudon's parallel surveys in France, and of virtually every socialist writer on education in Britain are all equally vitiated by this gross fallacy.

Again, it has become normal, notwithstanding that this too is manifestly fallacious, to argue that any deficiency making it unlikely that I shall win in some competition must constitute an unfairness in the organization and conduct of that competition: I am, it is complained, being treated unfairly and unequally as compared with the rest of the field. Yet if the chances of success—the probabilities of success—were indeed exactly the same for all participants, then what we should have would be not a fair competition but a fair lottery, not a contest but a pure and perfect game of chance.

Antony Flew is the author, most recently, of A Rational Animal.