100 Words On: Confusing Equal Opportunity with Equal Outcome

Like it or not, in America, some folks will always have to work harder than others to succeed. The great economist, Milton Friedman noted that the word “fair” isn’t in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, or the Bill of Rights; those documents do, however, champion equal opportunity for anyone aspiring to achieve financial security. Even so, some folks espouse — often unwittingly — the idealism of equal outcomes for all, which kills the incentive society depends on for ingenuity and production.

The bottom line: While a free, merit-based society ensures societal inequalities will exist, it also offers virtually unlimited success potential — for everyone.

Photo Credit: public domain


  1. 1


    equal outcomes cannot even be called an “idealism”.
    an ideal cannot fail.
    equal outcomes is the promise of socialism and socialism has already been tried and proven to be a failure.

    • 2

      Len Penzo says

      In theory equal outcomes for all is a form of idealism — but I get where you’re coming from, Griper, and I agree with you. In practice, it isn’t practical — and doomed to failure (as history has shown time and again).

  2. 3

    Chris_S says

    I understand that in a free-market economuy, there will always be inequality. We all make choices, and those choices have consequences. I chose to go to college and get a bachelor’s degree. I found out on Day 1 of my first job that if I had gone for a Master’s degree, I would have been earning a good bit more. That was my choice and I had to live with it.

    After 12+ years in the corporate world, I quit and started my own business. My choice. I am not making as much money as before, but I am enjoying my life a lot more. That’s the consequence – less money. I could have chosen a more lucrative business, but my passion is landscape design, so I understand that I will not make millions.

    But I HAD the choice. What troubles me is that the very choices I had are no longer as available to others. I came from the middle class and with work and sacrifice, I got into an Ivy League school and within five – seven years, I paid off my student loan, no help from parents, and not a huge struggle, either. How many young adults can now afford to go to the college of their choice and pay off their loans so easily?

    Getting ahead on the job is harder; I receive dispatches on the corporate world from my husband, and those with connections get ahead, and the hard working quiet guys are usually the first to get laid off. (And the guys with the connections are not alwasys the guys with the most skills, either.)

    There are always the rare few who can make it up from the bottom rungs and acheive astronomical success. There always will be. But for the vast majority of Americans, it’s not possible. Why? No drive, poor education, too much good stuff on TV? Or are more doors to opportunity closing?

    What about pay? Why is the celebrated middle class falling so rapidly far behind while those at the top earn ever more? As a shareholder, I don’t necessarily see my share value increasing from the top 1%’s efforts. Nor do I see a flood of innovation in R&D commensurate with the outrageous bonuses being paid. Just sayin’. I am not demanding that we all be paid the same as the head of GE. But I am saying that a trend seems to exist that extravagently rewards the top, while the hard workers in the middle are asked to accept pay cuts or no raises or reduced benefits. Others smarter than me posit that this could be corrosive to our democracy.

    All this is to say that while I recognize that life is not fair, and the word FAIR is not in the founding documents of this country, we are in fact endowed with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that pursuit of happiness is increasingly difficult for a great many more people who simply struggle to make ends meet, with little hope of getting ahead.

    I’m open-minded, and willing to learn if I’m dead wrong about what I’ve said.



    • 4

      Len Penzo says

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Chris.

      I think the choices are still there, but the sacrifices that some of them require are greater.

      As an employee who works in the trenches for one of the biggest corporations in America, I can say your husband’s experience (that only those with connections get ahead) is not how it works with my company. While those with connections may get ahead at times, the Peter Principle tends to limit their rise up the ranks. Companies where promotion of the non-deserving are endemic do so to the detriment of their customers, the stockholders and the corporation. I have worked for one other very large corporation in my lifetime and I never felt as if I worked hard it would be all for naught.

      I still feel that way. To paraphrase a popular saying: the harder I work, the luckier I seem to get.

      As for the pay of the top one percent (by the way, I despise that term), most of them have earned it; either because they came up with a great idea, or are terrific entrepreneurs — or both. Besides, I refuse to measure my success on the salaries of others. I don’t envy the “one percents” pay — I use it as motivation and a hopeful sign of what’s possible for all of us.

      In the end, I flatly reject the notion that there is little hope for us.

      My God, this is the United States of America, Chris! Of all the countries in the world, you and I are both very very fortunate to be born here. I count my lucky stars every day that I was born here. I mean, if I can’t make it here, I can’t make it anywhere — even in the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression.

      No doubt; most of us have to work harder now than the previous generation did — at least until the economy turns around — but the opportunity to succeed is still there. I am 100 percent certain that those who are willing to put their nose to the grindstone and innovate, or take a risk and start a business, or work harder than their peers will be successful.

      The proof is in the pudding. There are millions of immigrants (both legal and illegal) who have come here with little more than the shirts on their backs, and they have become wildly successful — raising families, owning a home. Most aren’t making millions of dollars — but they’re happy and living the American dream.

      In the end, a defeatist attitude usually ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      • 5

        Chris Shankar says

        Thank you, Len, for your passionate response. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

        After I read your resply, I went to my local library and borrowed Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” and Reagan’s diaries, and have been absorbing and wrestling with the ideas therein. I come from a deeply conservative, Reagan Republican family. Ronald Reagan was the first president I voted for.

        I have had the great good fortune to travel abroad, and, believe me, as wonderful as it is to see other lands and interact with people around the world, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude each and every time the plane touches down back on US soil. Having visited a number of countries, I know well how fortunate I am to live here.

        I own a small business. We have no debts. Our modest house has been paid off for a few years now, and we save like mad for our two passions: travel and photography. We never borrow money for these things. If we don’t have cash for it, and we don’t have a real need for it, we don’t buy it. My husband is from overseas, never read a word of Friedman, but his philosophy on business and the economy are right from his pages.

        I say all this because I am not a left winger protesting for socialism. I am concerned by what I see happening in our economy, not in the news media, because I’m usually too busy working to take in much of it, but by what I actually see in front of me, in my neighbors’ lives, my vendors’ businesses, and my clients’ lives. Maybe the economic situation is different in my part of the country.

        My very stern, conservative, mother would at this point remind me of one of her most important rules of life: never discuss religion or politics. And so I, too, am stepping off my soapbox.

        Thanks againg for your reply and for giving me a wealth of things to think about.



    • 6


      I think we actually have more choices now than we use to. The problem is that many of those new choices don’t lead to the old successes.
      Once upon a time, the only people who went to a ‘college of their choice’ for a ‘degree of their choice’, especially in liberal arts, were those who were rich enough to afford it. Other people looked at the cost/benefit of a degree program and made their choice.
      Modern students can still do well in school, earn scholarships, choose a great school with a degree program in an area that earns good money, and pay off any supplementary loans in a few years.
      But modern students now have the option of going to a super-expensive school, getting loans for the whole thing, maxing out their loans while not working, and graduating with a degree in sociology or political science, which a short study will tell you does not tend to lead to big earnings to pay off those loans.
      The massive freedom of choices now available means that people can make choices that can really really screw them over. But no-one is forcing someone into those choices.

  3. 7


    Inequalities exist in any system. The question is do you want them determined and dictated by a select few, or based on merit (or lack thereof)?

    (Love Friedman, btw!)

    • 8

      Chris_S says


      I’m voting for people succeeding – or not – on their own merits, abilities, plain old hard work and common sense. No arguments there!


  4. 10

    Edward says

    Well thought out and very much enjoyed reading it! However, “equal opportunity” can be difficult for many when Wall Street crooks and advertsing jackals are constantly stacking odds against the layperson. You can have a room full of equal opportunists, but you get one pickpocket thief in the mix and it will upset the balance quickly. It can be very hard to believe in “unlimited success potential” when those around you aren’t playing fair.

    • 11

      Chris_S says


      Exactly! I didn’t even want to use the word “Fair” in my reply but there seems to be an increasing sense among more and more people that no matter how hard you work, you’ll never get ahead. This isn’t the ideal that brought my immigrant parents here.


    • 12

      Len Penzo says

      I don’t deny there are plenty of Wall St. crooks, just as there are plenty of government crooks.

      When it comes to stacking the odds against the layperson, the Wall Street crook will get his illicit gains to be sure — however, his impact on “the layperson” is negligible compared to the government crooks who make the laws that affect us all.

    • 14


      I agree. Which is why I’m okay with outreach programs that aim to help people reach the same base of opportunity.
      Much better than a program which demands a certain outcome

  5. 15


    Equal opportunity = good
    Equal outcome = bad

    I think we all have equal opportunity… and we’re all in control of the paths we take in life. Outcome must be based on performance and achievement… not equality!

  6. 17


    Like Chris above I agree college education is becoming too expensive, and that middle class purchasing power has declined.

    I am sure though, that these problems are “government driven” rather than the fault of the evil folks on Wall Street. The market will take care of evil folks, it may take time but they will get their comeuppance. (I like that word…)

    When government pays so many people to go to school, and subsidize the education system, the students have no motivation and care not what it costs. Just as free health care will always drive up costs and increase utilization. And those who think every college in the country needs to have a degree available in 100’s of esoteric subjects that will never allow the degree holder to pay back their student loans. But no one is telling the dance major that there are no high paying jobs in their field.

    Allowing and encouraging young people to “follow their passions” without an accompanying easily followed warning such as:

    “To obtain this degree with student loans will likely result in years of servitude to Sallie Mae and the high likelihood of default and with all it’s consequences.” Please sign here with your blood…

    is just wrong on so many levels.

    • 18

      Betsy22 says

      Its not just dance or liberal art majors who are running into issues. STEM majors are also having to take out those crazy loans, and aren’t necessarily getting the well paying jobs (especially with just an undergrad degree) to be able to pay back those loans. In my science-based field, the current retirees were able to get good jobs with just a B.S.; the currently 45-50 year olds were able to get the same good jobs right out of grad school. My generation (mid 30’s) has been able to get in with a B.S. AND a M.S. AND several years on internships/fellowships/temp jobs. .

      Personally, I’m doing alright (even though it took me a couple of years longer than expected to get here), but I am uneasy that the overall trend in so many fields seem to be continually raising the bar for entry level jobs. If i were an incoming college student, I’d think long and hard before signing up for a crushing undergrad debt load, regardless of how lucrative I think my major will be.

  7. 20


    Do you believe a society with high government spending, high taxation rates, and onerous regulation is also a ” free, merit-based society”? Just curious if you think this applies to America as it exists today.

    • 21

      Len Penzo says

      Certainly, America isn’t as free, or merit-based as it was when the nation was founded. In the 20th century, America started losing its way — in my opinion, the cracks in the foundation occurred with Woodrow Wilson and then were exacerbated with FDR. And it’s been a steep downhill slide since then.

      Still, America is still at the top of the heap IMO in terms of being free, and merit-based — but she has fallen back to the next tier of free countries, and she is a shadow of her former self. Hopefully, after 100 years of decline, the pendulum is finally swinging back in the direction of the Founders’ original intent (where the primary role of federal government was for protecting the homeland, establishing the order necessary to nurture a free market, and adjudicating domestic disputes) and moving away from a strong central government that now devalues its own currency by distributing cradle-to-grave entitlements it can’t afford, over-regulates, and has their fingers in every aspect of our lives telling us all how to live and what to buy.

      I’ll get off my soap box now! LOL

  8. 22


    I agree with Chris – almost. However, some folks are born to poor families and for them it’s hard to get out of that “mold” and free themselves from the old ways of doing things. College or not, it’s the human struggle to achieve success, not necessarily in monetary terms though.

    You can make your own path in a vast landscape but you need tools to do that. Big businesses and government can help.

  9. 23

    Betty says

    Talk about “equal opportunity” when you’ve experienced being 50+ years old, have to find a job, and contending with the background search websites that display your age in 24 point bold letters. Truth is, we don’t stand a chance in that proverbial hot place!

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