All Commentary
Tuesday, July 1, 1975

Equal Opportunity versus Individual Opportunity

Anne Wortham is a Research Librarian in the news syndication industries. One of her earlier articles from THE FREEMAN is included in The Libertarian Alternative: Essays In Social and Political Philosophy. This article is excerpted from her forthcoming book profiling race conscious prototypes among American Negroes.

Two hundred years have passed since Thomas Jefferson wrote, in behalf of his countrymen, that all men are created equal. The debate over the meaning of equality still persists as vigorously as ever. “What is at stake today is the redefinition of equality,” says sociologist Daniel Bell. “A principle which was the weapon for changing a vast social system, the principle of equal opportunity, is now seen as leading to a new hierarchy, and the current demand is that the `just precedence’ of society… requires the reduction of all inequality, or the creation of equality of result — in income, status, and power — for all men in society. This is the central value problem of the postindustrial society.”

Equality is not a concept concocted for their convenience by enlightened American revolutionaries to rationalize their demands for independence from the encroachments of colonial rule. It does not refer to the biological classifications of men, their socioeconomic status, nor to their attributes of character and personality. Yet it is to such things that so much of the continuing debate over equality refers. And when various pressure groups demand their right to equal opportunity, it is not political equality (as the concept properly means) that they desire but equality of condition. Their intent on divesting equality of its authentic meaning is as virulent today as it was ten years ago when President Lyndon B. Johnson told a graduating class: “We seek not just legal equity… not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”

The movement toward equality of condition reached its height during the nineteen sixties and has been gathering a steady stream of advocates who petition for the legal recognition and political sanction of everything from “rights of the unborn” to “rights of the elderly.” These egalitarians say that their motive is justice; that they speak in behalf of the decency and betterment of mankind. But their actions call for the rule of force, power, pull and pressure among men.

Equality and Rights

No one touts the phrase “all men are created equal” more than the egalitarian and no one considers its true meaning less than he. In the human context, equality refers to the fundamental identity of man which is equally applicable to all individuals: A rational animal—i.e., an animal possessing the faculty of reason. It is this self-evident truth of man’s nature that gives rise to human rights—those conditions of man’s nature that are required for his proper survival and which define and sanction his freedom of action in a social context. And it is man’s rights that give meaning to the concept of equality. Equality is an ethical-political concept, meaning that by their nature all men possess equal and inalienable rights to life, liberty and property. It measures man’s political relationship to other men and to political authority, meaning: (1) that all men should have equal status before the law and (2) that each person should enjoy equal conditions of civil freedom, asserted by objective law and based on human rights, in order to achieve whatever goals his own intelligence and industry will allow.

Man’s fundamental right — the one on which all others depend — is the right to his own life. The phrase, “all men are created equal,” means that all men are born with the right to life and the rights inherent in the ownership of life. But the process of living is not something done to man; rather it is continuous action that he must generate and sustain. Similarly, the actualization of human rights must be performed by the individual according to standards appropriate to his survival. He must act to achieve and maintain the values of life to which rights pertain and it is by that action that he asserts his independence of other men. This is the point made by Thomas Jefferson in his original (but later edited) declaration that all men are created equal and independent. Stressing the independence of man underscores the fact that human rights begin and end with the individual; that they are not permissions, privileges, or conditions granted to men by social institutions, by the law, or by one’s neighbors; that institutions should only protect and preserve them, and one’s neighbors should only respect them.

We cannot speak of equal rights without also considering the independent nature of man. Any attempt to do so is an attempt to bypass the objective evidence of man’s separateness and in the end to render the role of reason in his existence as null and void.

Rights and Opportunities

Few stop to question the egalitarian standards that dictate the meaning they attach to the concept of equality, and in every occasion of their misuse of it the definition of man’s rights is further evaded. The most prevalent misuse of equality occurs in the use of the concept of equal opportunity. Those who would subject man to the rule of faith refer to “opportunities” as though they were inexplicable miracles occurring in reality by the grace of a supernatural power. Those who see man as the servant of society’s “will” refer to “opportunities” as though they were arbitrary privileges dispensed by a feudal lord to his vassals.

When some egalitarians advocate equal opportunity, they mean that men of excellence should be reduced to the lowest common denominator of the least among them. Others advocate it meaning that the least among men should be raised by efforts other than their own to the level of men of excellence. Today we witness an alliance of the two: on the one hand, there is the demand that all men be given the opportunities and rewards of excellence whether or not they value excellence and have the will and ability to attain it.

On the other hand, we are surrounded by those who proclaim that the best life for man is that he rise no higher than the lowest among him — that to do otherwise is necessarily to exploit his neighbor’s weakness and misfortune. The result of this alliance exists in the person who would bypass the cause and identity of excellence and declare that the worst performance be deemed the excellent. Mediocrity is his vested interest and the destruction of merit is his goal. Such are the distortions of the concept of opportunities, made possible by the evasion of man’s nature and the rights it entails.

What does the concept really mean and how is it related to the concept of equal rights?

Just as the principle of individual rights gives meaning to the concept of equality, so does it give meaning to the concept of “opportunity.” As rights are defined as “conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival,” opportunities are defined as situations, conditions, occasions or a combination of circumstances of man’s social existence that are favorable for the attainment of a goal. There is an attempt by some egalitarians to equate opportunities with rights; but while rights give meaning to opportunities, they are not interchangeable concepts. An individual has no more right to opportunities than he has to happiness; but as in the case of happiness and all rewards of successful living, he does have the right to pursue opportunities. Man’s rights are his by moral principle and by his nature. An individual’s opportunities are his by moral principle and by his choice; they are the resulting expressions of man’s rights. Man’s rights are self-evident, but his opportunities are not. They do not spring forth like the goddess Athena from the head of Zeus, fully formed and perfected. As with everything else man needs, opportunities must be discovered by his mind and brought into existence by his effort.

Just as all living organisms must generate the course of action that is biologically appropriate for their survival, man — the being of conceptual consciousness — must initiate the course of action necessary to create and choose opportunities — the intellectual and social conditions appropriate to his survival. The fundamental condition that man requires for his survival is the right to freedom —intellectual and political freedom. The right to intellectual freedom is the right to make the voluntary, uncoerced choice to think or not to think. The corollary of man’s right to intellectual freedom is his right to political freedom — the right to make the voluntary, uncoerced choice to act or not to act. Just as man’s survival requires that his mind be free of the interference of ignorance, fear, guilt and irresponsibility, so does it require that his social existence be free of the forceful interference of others. Political freedom affords man the opportunity to attain such social goals as peaceful coexistence, profitable exchange and accumulation of knowledge and material goods, security and safety of person and property.

Opportunities and Freedom

Opportunities are not the cause of individual freedom, but a consequence of such freedom. All the opportunities in the world can be of no use to a man who is not intellectually free to use them to his advantage. And a man who is not intellectually independent cannot create opportunities, or determine with any confidence which conditions and circumstances in his environment are potential opportunities (i.e., appropriate to achieving his goals), or potential adversities (i.e., inimical to achieving his goals).

Individuals differ in the methods and standards by which they identify, evaluate and choose opportunities. The opportunities a man creates and chooses depend on the extent of his knowledge, context, interests and values. One’s knowledge of the existence of opportunities does not guarantee that he can or will take advantages of them. A tribal priest may learn that his village sits atop a vast oil field. But if he does not discover the scientific means of extracting the oil and then choose the proper economic means of converting oil into a marketable commodity of exchange, the bituminous mixture of hydrocarbons will remain where it is and be of no practical meaning or use to him at all.

He may encounter men who are willing to apply their knowledge to its extraction and use, but refuses their assistance because he believes the oil is the drink of evil spirits that habitate the earth below. In such case, it is not the fault of those who realize the potential opportunities inherent in the extraction and marketing of the oil that the tribal priest continues to live in squalid conditions. The choice is his and he alone is responsible for the consequences of his choice.

In this instance, it is not even the man’s lack of knowledge that hinders him from choosing to achieve the opportunities that the production of oil would afford him.

It is his lack of intellectual freedom — his enslavement to the idea that the oil is not his to use but belongs to evil beings underground — that holds him at a level of primitive subsistence rather than the more beneficial level that industrial productivity provides.

It is not easy to live and produce in a society based on freedom of the individual and where success is measured by individual initiative. The issue in America is not so much whether men have equal political freedom to create and choose opportunities, but whether in an atmosphere of social freedom, they will choose the intellectual independence necessary to take advantage of that freedom. The responsibility to maintain the intellectual sovereignty one needs to achieve opportunities is always his own. A man whose mind is locked by his belief in underground spirits, by psychedelic drugs or by public opinion polls is automatically locked out of the opportunities of political freedom.

Opportunities and the Law

Because all men are equal in their possession of a rational faculty, they need moral laws that treat them as equals. But there is a further reason why men must be equal before the law: to protect each individual’s execution of his capacity to reason. If all men executed their reason in the same way and to the same degree, they would be robots instead of men and there would be no need for the social recognition of reason or rights. It is the inequality of men — the unidentical conditions of human existence that individuals create for themselves — that objective law must give identical protection and preservation.

Social reformers tell us that unless men have the same social opportunities, they cannot know individual freedom. All the political freedom in the world can be of no use to a man who is hungry and indigent, they say. But it is the man who is hungry and indigent who needs intellectual and political freedom the most. He needs intellectual freedom in order to discover the means of changing his situation; he needs political freedom in order that his activity will be protected from the interference of others. A hungry man in a slave state is limited to accepting whatever someone else does to eliminate his hunger (and that could very well include sentencing him to death as undernourished and therefore useless to his masters); but the hungry man in a free state is limited solely by his own choice. He may seek food by his own means; he may rely on the charity of others to maintain his life; or —he may enlist the power of government to create special conditions that guarantee his livelihood at the expense of others.

Egalitarians say that if men are equal in their identity as Man, they should live equally; that if individuals have equal status before the law, then it is the purpose of the law to provide the means by which they can achieve equal status in fact. The law, they say, cannot operate to give equal justice to men whose knowledge, values and productivity are unequal. The law cannot address itself objectively to the prince and the pauper, the manager and the laborer, or the educated and the uneducated. Therefore, they conclude, to insure equal treatment from the law, the circumstances of men must be made equal. Men must be all princes or paupers — all managers or laborers — all educated or all uneducated.

But the state of collective equality in which social evangelists would have men exist clashes with reality and contradicts the independent nature of man. There can be no justice without political equality; but social equality is unfair — a breach of justice and a threat to political equality. Social equality requires that men lose respect for their own freedom and individuality; it requires that they become indifferent to the manifestations of individuality on the part of others. It requires that men be equals, not in freedom but in slavery.

The law — objective law — addresses itself to man’s mind, not to his social position, his pocketbook, his stomach, or his academic credentials. The idea that government must provide or create opportunities for men is a contradiction in terms which ignores the proper relationship of political authority to individuals and evades the role of man’s free will in the creation and pursuit of opportunities. Government’s function is not to provide opportunities but to protect those which the individual creates for himself. Government cannot provide opportunities without also violating man’s rights. And in a society where man’s rights are not protected and his nature as a rational being is not respected the issue of opportunities is moot.

Privileges Versus Opportunities

Opportunities are favorable conditions of human existence but they are not unlimited. The opportunities of one man can extend no further than where the rights of another man begin. When one man trespasses another’s property to catch fish in his lake, what he perceives as an opportunity to catch a meal is not an opportunity to which he is entitled, since the lake and the fish in it are the property of someone else. He has the right to create the means for feeding himself, but he does not have the right to a court order forcing the owner of the lake to give up his fish.

When men attempt to bypass reality by invoking the force of government to create opportunities for themselves at the expense of the rights of other men, the conditions they create are not opportunities as such, but political privileges: special advantages peculiar to themselves that exempt them from the usual course of law. They wish to be excluded from the conditional nature of opportunities —to secure a guarantee against effort — to render effects immune to their causes — to secure protection against the facts of reality.

A widely disputed speech regarding the issue of equal opportunities was made by the ex-slave and educator, Booker T. Washington, in 1895 before an audience of Negro and white southerners at the Atlanta Exposition. In that address he stated: “the wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.” By “privileges” Washington meant socio-economic privileges those rewards of opportunity that are the achievements of individuals and not the province of governmental policy and administration. As opposed to political privileges, socio-economic privileges are autonomous advantages that are achieved voluntarily and meritoriously within the confines of the law. Not all socioeconomic privileges are honestly or justly earned but they are, by definition, achieved by lawful means. Political privileges, on the other hand, are achieved not within the law but by distortion of the law; they are not earned but exist as the spoils of legalized plunder.

The Legitimacy of Equal Opportunity

Equal opportunity does have a legitimate meaning: equal political freedom to create and choose conditions and circumstances favorable to man’s existence. The concept properly refers to the political freedom to act and express oneself as an independent individual. It means that as each man has the freedom to think, so must each man have equal freedom from the interference of those who choose not to think; that if man is to express his thinking, equal freedom from the interference of others is necessary in order that such expression may be manifest; that as each man must survive as an end in himself — as the owner of his life and person — so must each man have equal freedom to control his environment to produce what is needed for his survival; that the moral conditions of each man’s existence (his rights) must be given equal recognition and legal protection by objective law.

It is here that equal opportunity among men ends. Anything less than this must be identified as a condition of slavery; anything more than this must be identified as a condition of political privilege. The principle of equal opportunity operates as a restriction on governmental power, commanding government to leave each man to pursue the values of his life as he sees fit. It is not the role of government to determine what values a man should pursue — nor to hire think-tank intellectuals to declare what values should guide a man’s life. The government is as much prohibited from interfering with a person’s success as with his failures. It is just as much an encroachment on personal freedom when the government acts to circumvent private failure as when it acts to promote personal success or to impede the success of one’s competitors.

It is not the business of government to guarantee success or safety — only to uphold the right of each person to act upon the opportunities he perceives. 

  • Anne Wortham is an associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University. She is a rare voice in the liberty movement — a scholar and rogue academic. She wrote her first piece for The Freeman in 1966.