Is equal opportunity incompatible with freedom?

When I first heard it suggested that equal opportunity is incompatible with freedom, I literally shook my head.  I said to myself, “self, that’s preposterous!”  This seemingly counterintuitive notion was offered in the comment section of an economics blog I highly recommend: Economics For Morons.

Here are the comments:

Milton Friedman was a proponent of Equality of Opportunity… of the few flaws I have with him, because by its very definition and aim, equality of opportunity must deprive some of their liberty and/or take from them in order to provide something for another/everyone.

Let’s put it this way….how can you ensure that the son/daughter of say Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith will have the equal opportunities of say the 3 children of a single mom who is a minimum wage earner from the projects?

You can’t elevate every child out of the projects to Will Smith’s son’s level….so you bring their kids down (a lot) and bring up the projects people’s kids (a little) to equalize.

Then a link was offered to an outside post for further clarification which further explained:

This notion of “equality of opportunity” has been taken up by everyone from Arthur Brooks to Milton Friedman.

But allow me to demur. Just think of what it would mean to take this idea seriously.

  • Do I have the same equality of opportunity as Steve Jobs’s children? Nope. So I guess that means the government needs to take some of their inheritance and give it to me.
  • Do I have the same equality of opportunity as Barack Obama’s children? Nope. So I guess that means the government needs to give me some of their connections.
  • Does the child of two morons have the same opportunity as the child of two geniuses? Nope. So what’s the government to do? It can’t make one kid smarter. Is “equality of opportunity” going to require it to bash in the brains of the intelligent child?

“Equality of opportunity” is incompatible with freedom. Indeed, in practice there is no difference between the egalitarian attempt to equalize outcomes and the attempt to equalize opportunity. One man’s outcome isanother’s opportunity. A parent’s success is his child’s opportunity. A business owner’s success is a future employee’s opportunity. The only way to try to equalize opportunities is to equalize outcomes.

The sad irony in all this is that freedom is the source of opportunity. When a country is free, everyone has the opportunity to succeed. Although some will inevitably face greater struggles than others, no one can stop another person from succeeding.

The more you promote “equality of opportunity,” the less opportunity any of us will have.

The slice of time at which this person is choosing to compare the opportunities of the subjects is not the proper place to start.

Take the comment from the Economics blog post.  In the example, the commenter is comparing the opportunities of already successful celebrities to a single mother from the projects with 3 children.

Will and Jada Pinkett – Smith were once not famous.  They were children who had to go through school, get decent grades, decide to want to be performers and then take the steps necessary to get discovered.  The single mother, on the other hand, is a single mother because of what she chose to do with her opportunities.  She chose to be sexually active with a man (or men) of questionable moral character.  She is now in the position of having 3 children to raise on her own — which is one of the leading causes of poverty.

But it didn’t have to be this way.  She could have chosen to wait to become sexually active and instead pursue a life of celebrity (programs like Jersey Shore prove it takes little talent to become a successful celebrity).  Her opportunity was present long before she was a single mother.  Just because she doesn’t have a perpetually open window of opportunity to take advantage of whenever she gets around to it, doesn’t mean she didn’t have the opportunity.

The same is true of the bullet points in the referenced post.

You have the opportunity to invent a product which will change the world, just like Steve Jobs.  Do it.  President Barack Obama ran for office and won, you can do it too.  I’m also willing to bet that there are countless numbers of successful people who were birthed from morons, in fact, I guarantee it.

The mentality expressed above seems to suggest that anyone who suddenly decides they are no longer satisfied with their lot in life ought to have the same access to the wealth and success celebrities and CEOs of billion dollar corporations enjoy… but with none of the effort or invested time and energy.

Every citizen in this country is afforded at no cost to them, an education through twelve years of school.  When people complain about not having the same opportunities, what they often mean is that they do not have the same results from that opportunity.  I think many people who do not think there is equal opportunity, equate opportunity with ease of success.

I agree that not everyone has an easy path.  But what we’re talking about is opportunity, not how easy it is to succeed.  When we get down to brass tacks, it comes down to individual motivation.

In my opinion, the most overlooked factor in this complaint is that failure is a choice.  The failure I am talking about is when someone starts at the bottom, and stays at the bottom.  Every child is afforded access to the public school system.  At this point, future success is dependent on the individual.

Whether you skip class to hang out with friends is up to the individual, not some wealthy CEO.  Whether you study and do your homework instead of hanging out with friends is up to the individual, not some Wall St. fat-cat.  Whether you engage in risky behaviors such as alcohol, drugs, and/or unprotected sex which dramatically effect one’s future and can result in dropping out of high school are choices of the individual.

There is this mistaken belief that you should be able to waste the opportunity afforded to you early in life (which is where the opportunity begins), and then after years of dead-end jobs complain that your lot in life is not the same as someone else who buckled down and utilized their opportunity to its fullest and succeeded.  Now they stand there comparing their life to their neighbor, no wonder something just doesn’t seem fair.

There is a lot to be said about equal opportunities.  Equal opportunity doesn’t mean everyone has the same result as everyone else.  I wholly disagree that anyone is resigned to squalor permanently.  Children may very well be behind the 8 ball so to speak when they are born to parents who have chosen failure.  But that’s not prescribed, use your opportunities wisely.


  1. Well, in a way, not all have the same opportunities. Not all people have the same intellectual capabilities which are required for reaching many goals of opportunity for those of higher intellect. Also, people with disabilities will not have the same opportunities for some goals as those without the disabilities. And financial situations can certainly limit opportunities if people are not able, due to disabilities or intellect or other circumstances beyond their control, to qualify for said opportunities.

    However, that being said, everyone has the same opportunity to better themselves, whatever that betterment may be.

  2. Well said John. I call this static thinking. There are roots to all problems that need to be discovered and addressed, rather than treat the symptoms, as in treating unequal outcomes.

    I was one of those with many things aligned against me. Neither of my parents finished high school. My father could barely read. Needless to say I was very poor growing up. Wherever the starting point was, I took ten paces backward before the starting gun for me was fired. I will never catch up.

    What I find most tragic in this position is it’s narrowness. The horizons need to be widened so that the world is not seen so materialistically. It would seem as if happiness and wealth are synonymous. And they are not. If equal outcome could actually be achieved, there would still be great disparity in happiness. What then? There are plenty of people who were born with the deck stacked against them, and who have very little hope of obtaining materially the same thing those who were born with everything in their favor have, who are actually happier and more satisfied in life than the ones who have everything in their favor.

    • Not to mention the fact that people define “success” and “wealthy” differently for themselves.

    • Danny,
      Sounds much like my life. Parents didn’t graduate, but at least they could read. My dad was actually quite intelligent, but dropped out in his senior year. Both were unbelievers. My mom got pregnant with my older sister when she was 15, and they married three months before she was 16 by going across the border to where the age was okay. My dad never managed money well, but we did okay living in apartments or doubles until I was 12 (I’m 16 mos younger than my sister), and then came bankruptcy and the divorce. After that my dad never held a steady job, filed bankruptcy two more times during his life time.
      My dad got me and my brother, and my three sisters went with mom. We lived with friends, in campgrounds, in small apartments, until I was in the 9th grade and we were consigned to the Federal Housing projects in Denver, with us being the only white kids. Suffice it to say that, with gangs and such, it was not a fun life and I got beat up regularly. Food usually was from brown boxes with Federal Stock Numbers. I did average in school, and couldn’t wait to be finished with it.
      Fortunately, my mom remarried and regained custody of us when I was 16 and we had a wee bit better living conditions. Low income level, but still better than with Dad. We had no money for college, and since I wasn’t a great student there was no hope of scholarship. But my starting point was when I determined that I wasn’t going to end up like my dad.
      I joined the Army right out of high school, joined a flying club after getting permanent duty, and began getting flight ratings as a plan to fly for a living. I did my best to be the best at my duties, which got me good assignments, as well as a good reputation. Meanwhile, as a voracious reader, I studied all about history and social issues, and I even came to know the Lord a year before I got out.
      When I got out of the Army, unlike many who sit around waiting, I immediately went job hunting, took the first thing I could so I had money coming in, and kept looking for better jobs, always hoping to fly. Never got to fly for a living, but I became an air traffic controller for 30 years, including 10 years as a front-line supervisor.
      Now, how many of those kids in the projects with me are still in that lifestyle? My guess would be quite a few – those that weren’t killed in the gangs anyway. It is a matter of taking the opportunities you DO have and not whining over the opportunities you DON’T have.
      Now, I could also be much “richer” (monetarily) if I had taken the opportunities I had to work at Chicago O’Hare with the much higher pay. But, that would have taken much more time away from family and I elected to make a lower income. Many others took the opportunity and became quite well off financially. It is a choice one makes depending on what one sees as priorities. When I left the supervisory job by leaving the Chicago area, my father-in-law was livid about me not being able to make up the loss of money, etc. To him money was more important – that money is what proves success. I felt that getting out of the Chicago area was better for my family. Again, it’s about choices because the opportunities are there. It may not be the same opportunities someone else had, but there are always opportunities for improving oneself.

      • What an interesting and inspiring story. You and I both look at the current situation, and know things don’t have to be this way. We watch tragedy in slow motions as being poor becomes a sentence of not only not having much, but having to live in dangerous circumstances. I’m always struck as I admire Norman Rockwell’s depiction of poor settings. The people are poor, yes, but the scene still depicts dignity and civility. That is gone, and it is a tragedy, and it doesn’t have to be that way. What’s really sad is knowing that everything they try to do to fix it will only make it worse because the roots of human existence are rejected.

  3. John,

    This post should have been an addendum to your previous post about poverty.

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