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New Davenport-Lloyd Blog: Go Back to Come Back March 2, 2023

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Gordon Lloyd and I have started a new blog, Go Back to Come Back. We feel that some of our best work is going back into history to locate useful principles and practices to better understand today’s policy challenges. We plan to write blogs a couple times a month, starting with our first entry: Go Back to Come Back on Equality of Opportunity.

The website is still being improved but it’s up and running if you’d like to visit and/or sign up to receive email updates when new blog entries are posted. Please visit us at: goback2comeback.com.

Meanwhile, here is our first entry:

Welcome to our new blog, “Go Back to Come Back.”  We are scholars who have worked and written together now for 20 years.  We have co-authored 4 books, numerous book chapters and essays, and too many newspaper columns to count.  What we have learned, and are eager to share with you, is the value of going back into history to learn about the origins and development of policy questions in the air today, then come back to apply what history teaches us to our current problems and questions.

For example, we have recently completed a book manuscript on equality of opportunity, something that has been front and center in the many social justice debates of the 2020s.  Where did equality of opportunity come from, is it still an adequate goal today, or does it need to be replaced by something else such as equity or equality of results?

We begin, as we usually do, with the Founding period and, in this case, the Declaration of Independence which famously stated that “all men (people) are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  The Founders believed equality was a natural right that every American possessed and the role of limited government was to protect that right. 

But a century later, the Progressives came along and said that was no longer sufficient, if it ever was.  With the closing of the American frontier in 1890, people could no longer move West and find free land.  With industrialization, there were larger economic forces at work and people were moving to the cities.  It was high time, Progressives argued, that government play a larger role in regulating the economy and making certain people really did have equality of opportunity.  In short, the Founders thought equality was something people moved from and Progressives thought it was something government moved toward. 

All this came to a head in 1932 when President Herbert Hoover ran for reelection touting his “rugged individualism” coupled with “equality of opportunity” and his opponent, Franklin Roosevelt arguing that “equality of opportunity as we have known it no longer exists.”  In the throes of the Great Depression, people voted for Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal promises that government would protect “the forgotten man.”  Roosevelt greatly expanded the regulation of big business and the economy, and instituted Social Security to help protect people’s equality of opportunity.

In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson thought even Roosevelt’s approach did not go far enough.  He said that it wasn’t enough to get people to the starting line of the race for opportunity, but some people needed help being able to compete.  Johnson’s “Great Society” instituted a War on Poverty as well as major new federal investments in education, job training, and civil rights.  He sought to assure not only legal equality but some measure of economic and social equality as well.  Some even argued that Johnson moved the goal line away from opportunity to equal outcomes. 

Not until the 1980s did a president, Ronald Reagan, tack back in the direction of less government and more freedom of individual opportunity.  He cut taxes and government programs, arguing that leaving money in people’s pockets and the freedom to use it as they wish was how you really created what he called “an opportunity society.”         

This is the very debate we are having today.  The American principle has long been equality of opportunity, not results, but is that still sufficient with so much inequality?  Does government need to do more or less?  Should government be in the business of equalizing wealth or income, as some have suggested?  Or is there room for both individual freedom and government action in the equality arena? 

Fred Hoyle pointed out, things are the way they are because they were the way they were.  Understanding equality from the Founders through three consequential presidencies should help you better understand the equality debates today.  We have our own view—which tends toward limited government emphasizing legal equality and a hand up, especially through education—but, having gone back into history, you can come back and reach your own conclusions. 

David Davenport & Gordon Lloyd

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