When John Roemer proposes to approach public policy from the point of view of our “intuitive idea of equal opportunity” he takes on one of the principal tasks of political theory: to clarify our political ideas and cast a cold eye on what is conceivable for us. But by wishing away the ambiguity and incoherence that characterize American political ideology and constrain the policies that are possible for us, Roemer gets our intuitions wrong.

“Equal opportunity” draws its meaning from particular historical experiences. In the United States, it means that the chance to get what we need or deserve should not be tied to race or gender, religion or national origin. Equal opportunity, in short, is opposed to discrimination. As such, it directs attention to the conduct of those who distribute social goods, not to recipients’ behavior. Our core intuition about equality has almost nothing to say about personal responsibility and what lies within or outside a person’s control.

Moreover, no inexorable logic — of philosophy or politics — leads from this anti-discrimination view of equal opportunity to level playing fields. The Supreme Court pronounced education the most important function of the state and ordered the desegregation of public schools in Brown v. Board of Education, for example, but denied a right to equalized funding for public schools in San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez; neither Congress nor the vast majority of state legislatures has said that, constitutional rights aside, equal opportunity demands such equalized funding. Americans accept with considerable equanimity their membership in two distinct public orders: a political world of equal citizenship and a social world of radical inequality. Roemer generously attributes to us egalitarian ideals that are commonplace in academic philosophy but rarely reflected in public opinion or policy.

In one area, however, American political ideology really is fixated on personal responsibility. We insist on the connection between earning and first-class citizenship. Our public standing and often our self-respect are dependent on employment. This dependence is not the result of some generalized work ethic, however. It is in large part the result of our miserable history of subjection of women and of slavery. In a society where women were legally excluded from most employment and where slaves worked without earning, it is hardly surprising that male citizens defined themselves as earners. (Because the context was slavery not aristocracy, Americans, Roemer included, have never been much concerned with unearned inherited income or the irresponsibility of the idle rich.)

This powerful link between first-class citizenship and economic independence produces familiar incoherences in our thinking. We suffer diminished dignity as well as income if we are not earning — even when we understand perfectly well that unemployment is the result of systemic economic crisis or the changing structure of the labor market, and not choice. We insist on workfare for the long-term jobless — whether or not the work is economically productive or socially useful, and even if the labor is dirty, degrading, and too poorly paid to provide adequate support. Because the issue for us is less private morals or gross national product than the tie between citizenship and earning, a policy to insure civic equality would focus less on whether dependence is beyond a person’s control than on simply guaranteeing jobs, even expensive state-created ones.

The heightened moral clamor about taking responsibility for ourselves, to which Roemer responds, should not distract us from the underlying reason for this clamor. We do not invoke Emersonian self-reliance or propose throwing people back on private benevolence simply because we have gotten in touch with our deep intuitions about the virtue of autonomy. Our current preoccupation with personal responsibility owes at least as much to political despair. Whether we view human suffering as injustice or misfortune depends on whether we think it could have been prevented. Our attitudes toward the welfare state follow a similar pattern: social conditions make us indignant only if we think they are politically corrigible. Today, the grim view that many government programs amplify inequality, weaken community, and destroy personal virtue is widespread. It is not restricted to libertarians. Nor should it surprise us, since distrust of government is a recurring element of American political thought.

Declining faith in our own political agency goes far to explain our ambivalence about public responsibility to alleviate suffering — which has always been a stronger motivation for welfare policy in the US. than equality. It also affects our thinking about personal responsibility. The less confidence we have in our own democratic political agency, the more we demand of others.

Roemer wishes all this away. He exhorts us to commit ourselves collectively to some — any! — systematic account of what circumstances are beyond a group’s control, imagining that if we do, the will to remedy (actually, to indemnify) undeserved inequality will revive. This project is wildly off the mark of anything psychologically or politically possible for us. Awash in a popular culture obsessed with real and metaphorical “victimhood” and “self-help,” surely, our massive confusion about personal responsibility is clear. So is the faltering of that modicum of political hope necessary to sustain a strong sense of public responsibility.

The sensible way to proceed is by acknowledging that our intuitions about equality are ambiguous and contradictory, and for perfectly intelligible reasons. And then, with tolerance for the intractable messiness of our political ideas and fluctuations in political faith, to suggest modest moves toward at least civic equality.