Equality of Opportunity: A Century of Debate

Considers the differing views of equality of opportunity in the United States—from the Founders’ conception to that of political progressives—and the role of the government in advancing it.

Publication Date: July 1, 2023 

For over one hundred years, Americans have debated what equality of opportunity means and the role of government in ensuring it. Are we born with equality of opportunity, and must we thus preserve our innate legal and political freedoms? Or must it be created through laws and policies that smooth out social or economic inequalities? David Davenport and Gordon Lloyd trace the debate as it has evolved from America’s founding into the twentieth century, when the question took on greater prominence. The authors use original sources and historical reinterpretations to revisit three great debates and their implications for the discussions today. First, they imagine the Founders, especially James Madison, arguing the case against the Progressives, particularly Woodrow Wilson. Next are two conspicuous public dialogues: Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s debate around the latter’s New Deal; and Ronald Reagan’s response to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty. The conservative-progressive divide in this discussion has persisted, setting the stage for understanding the differing views about equality of opportunity today. The historical debates offer illuminating background for the question: Where do we go from here?

Providing an often-overlooked historical perspective, Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport show how the New Deal of the 1930s established the framework for today’s US domestic policy and the ongoing debate between progressives and conservatives. They examine the pivotal issues of the dispute, laying out the progressive-conservative arguments between Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s and illustrating how those issues remain current in public policy today.

The authors detail how Hoover, alarmed by the excesses of the New Deal, pointed to the ideas that would constitute modern US conservatism and how three pillars—liberty, limited government, and constitutionalism—formed his case against the New Deal and, in turn, became the underlying philosophy of conservatism today. Illustrating how the debates between Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover were conducted much like the campaign rhetoric of liberals and conservatives in 2012, Lloyd and Davenport assert that conservatives must, to be a viable part of the national conversation, “go back to come back”—because our history contains signposts for the way forward.

Today American rugged individualism is in a fight for its life on two battlegrounds: in the policy realm and in the intellectual world of ideas that may lead to new policies. In this book the authors look at the political context in which rugged individualism flourishes or declines and offer a balanced assessment of its future prospects. They outline its path from its founding—marked by the Declaration of Independence—to today, focusing on different periods in our history when rugged individualism was thriving or under attack.

The authors look with some optimism toward new frontiers of the twenty-first century that may nourish rugged individualism. They assert that we cannot tip the delicate balance between equality and liberty so heavily in favor of equality that there is no liberty left for individual Americans to enjoy. In considering reasons to be pessimistic as well as reasons to be optimistic, they suggest where supporters of rugged individualism might focus greater encouragement and resources.

As a response to the Great Depression and an expression of executive power, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal is widely understood as a turning point in American history. In How Public Policy Became War, David Davenport and Gordon Lloyd go even further, calling the New Deal “America’s French Revolution,” refashioning American government and public policy in ways that have grown to epic proportions today.

Roosevelt’s decisions of 1933 were truly revolutionary. They reset the balance of power away from Congress and the states toward a strong executive branch. They shifted the federal government away from the Founders’ vision of deliberation and moderation toward war and action. Succeeding presidents seized on the language of war to exert their will and extend their power into matters previously thought to be the province of Congress or state and local governments. Having learned that a sense of crisis is helpful in moving forward a domestic agenda, modern-day presidents have declared war on everything from poverty and drugs to crime and terror.

Exploring the consequences of these ill-defined (and never-ending) wars, How Public Policy Became War calls for a re-examination of this destructive approach to governance and a return to the deliberative vision of the Founders. “If we are constantly at war,” the authors write, “America becomes a nation under siege.”