The United States of America was founded on the principle of equality. This principle has guided the country throughout its history. There have been times that we have fallen short of this goal, the most obvious example being slavery. However, lately there appears to be disagreement on what really constitutes equality. For some, equality means guaranteeing a certain outcome for all, regardless of any difference in ability or effort expended. However, this is not what the founders intended when they wrote, “all men are created equal.” We should be grateful for their interpretation of what equality means.

The Founders were deliberate about including the concept of equality in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” No matter the differences between people, they still all possess the same natural rights. No one, neither the elite nor the majority, is qualified to take away those natural rights. The Constitution and the government it set up are designed to accomplish this end.

Equality of opportunity means freedom to pursue one’s private interest and vocation without arbitrary restrictions based on irrelevant personal characteristics. In business, this means freedom to conduct a trade, but it does not mean you can compel someone to participate in a trade with you. People are inherently unequal in their talents and preferences. This compels them to spend their time and money in different ways. Some may choose careers that give them plenty of time for leisure, while others go for very time-demanding careers. There is no reason they should be rewarded equally given the inequality of their choices. Having a system based on merit means there will be inequality in outcomes. Some will simply earn more than others. Nevertheless, while one might expect otherwise, income inequality in market-based economies is less than income inequality in non-market economies. 

Suppose equality of opportunity represents the ideal that everyone starts the race at the same time. Equality of outcome would dictate that everyone must also finish the race at the same time. The argument the equality-of-outcome advocates make, they will often point out, is not that everyone should necessarily have equal amounts of everything. Instead, they argue everybody should at least have their “fair share.” As Karl Marx would put it, “To each according to his needs, from each according to his ability.” This requires somebody or some group to determine what that fair share is and then they must have the power to enforce that decision. That is not the role for government envisioned by our founders. They created a government designed to protect people’s rights and property but would otherwise stay out of their way.

The irony of “equality” of outcome is that it requires we treat everyone unequally. Those who are in charge of making decisions inevitably reward themselves before helping anyone else, and they give themselves far more than they give anyone else. It requires that government take from those with more than their “fair share,” whatever that is, and give it to those who have less. Such a system destroys the incentive to produce. Unless forced, why would one want to work when all his needs would be provided for, and he could not rise above a certain threshold? Even if every person were given the same amount to start with, they would soon become unequal. Some would spend $50 out of their share to see Paul McCartney in concert, or other entertainments that might not be as healthy, and they would soon have much less than the average person.

People do have a duty to help their fellow man when he’s in need, especially when in need through no fault of his own, but government is the least effective way to accomplish this. Prior to our current welfare system, Americans supported each other through mutual aid societies and charity, and this system was very effective. Throughout the twentieth century, this system was undermined by laws and regulations meant to restrict mutual aid societies’ ability to function, such as laws that required mutual aid societies to show a gradual improvement in reserves. These artificial barriers drove many of these organizations to disband or discontinue services. The government services that replaced them have not been successful in their goal of eliminating poverty. In fact, even as the equivalent of charitable aid has grown as a percentage of government budgets, measured poverty has barely budged.

Americans need to remember the principles this country was founded on. All men are created equal. Anyone who puts in the effort has the opportunity to succeed. Limited government and free enterprise make it possible. The idea that everyone must end the day at the same time and place undermines this ideal. Forcing one person’s descent into poverty to lift another into equal poverty when both could realize greater individual wealth, though unequal, is cutting off the nose to spite the face. It is a petty attempt to make people feel better about their lot in life. As the movement to guarantee equal outcomes picks up steam, so must our resistance to this dangerous idea. A focus on our founding ideals has never been more important.

Spencer Cadavero is a Research Associate at 1889 institute and can be reached at

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.