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Is there Equality of Opportunity in the United States?

Two nights ago while working on I listened to my MP3 collection from when I was fifteen for the first time in a year. I had found the CDs the songs were burned on in a shoebox while cleaning out my dorm. Listening to the songs, mostly of rock and punk rock genre, reminded me of my life at fifteen. It reminded me of how hopeless things felt sometimes in Bradenton, Florida, how screwed up most people’s lives are, and how lucky I am that I am where I am and I have the education and opportunities I have.

It reminded me of the girl I met when I was fourteen who wanted to commit suicide. It reminded of my friend Kiely who killed herself when I was fifteen after a bad LSD trip. It reminded me of James Brier, who was murdered in broad daylight by two high school bullies when I was sixteen, it reminded me of the gansta rap emulating white boy who stole speed bikes and knocked my lights out at sixteen, it reminded me of the new girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend who tried to kill me at sixteen, it reminded me of the girl I saved from killing herself when I was seventeen.

In short, listening to my old music reminded me of all the crap that occurs in real life. It woke me up from my eight months in nearly utopic Chapel Hill. It reminded me of how hopeless things felt sometimes growing up as a teenager, how screwed up most people’s lives are, and how lucky I am that I am where I am and I have the education and opportunities I have. It got me thinking about equality, and the fact that a lot of people just get dealt bad hands. It made me realize that one’s disposition and possibilities in life depends heavily on to whom and where he or she is born.

A child born to a wealthy family in Bethesda, Maryland will have a very different life and set of opportunities than a child born to a peasant family in Zimbabwe. Comparing these two persons does not prove very fruitful, as the economic and political situation between the United States and Zimbabwe are vastly different. But what about a child born to a wealthy U.S. family versus a child born to a impoverished U.S. family? And what about a white child versus a black or Hispanic child? Are the opportunities the same? Is there truly equality of opportunity?

Surely there is not. The white child born to the wealthy family will undoubtedly grow up in a good neighborhood, go to good primary and secondary schools, likely private ones, be cared for by both parents, be encouraged to go to a college, have his college paid for, be provided with a car, house, and a good job upon graduation, and receive a large sum bequeathed to him upon his parents passing. The poor minority child will likely only have one parent, not have that parent around too often, be living in poor conditions, be exposed to drugs and violence at an early age, and have a good chance of impregnating someone before he reaches adulthood. He will attend poor schools throughout and never have the encouragement or additional assistance needed to do well. He will likely never reach college or finish high school and end up uneducated, an early parent, and with a low-wage job. The cycle of poverty will continue to the next generation.

So how, if I believe that there truly is not equality of opportunity in the United States can I so vehemently support its economic system. Well, perhaps the following anecdote will illustrate the answer.

Standing Up for the Free Enterprise System

Exactly a month ago today, the day after the start of the war in Iraq, my very-liberal PSYC 10 professor decided to postpone the class on development psychology in favor of having a ‘discussion’ on why he was against the war and why it was an immoral and illegal war. While I had no problem with him expressing these feelings, I did have a problem when he turned the anti-war speech into a tirade on the American competitive market economy.

Thankfully, Dr. Lawson opened the floor for comments after his twenty minute speech. With three hundred students in the lecture hall looking on, no one raised their hand to speak. I raised my hand, and taking my notes with me, proceeded to the front of the room as the professor handed me the microphone. I began with a comment that in Iraq Professor Lawson would have been stoned, hung, shot, or otherwise killed and what I liked about this country was that one could speak their mind without fear. I continued that he in fact did have free speech in the university setting, but personally I had come that day to learn psychology. This caused the students to cheer. I think they were quite surprised by this point. Who was this kid taking on his professor in front of hundreds of people?

Fortunately, we all knew Dr. Lawson well, or at least knew he was a very easy-going guy. Somehow we discerned this by stories of his twelve years living in developing countries and going to the beach and doing yoga every day. I was sure that he would welcome differing opinions, so I continued. I mentioned that I was not going to talk about the war, as we had all heard the pros and cons ad nauseum, but rather, wanted to give a rebuttal to some of his comments about the free enterprise system. I felt that I someone had to fight for the competitive market economy. Being an economics major, entrepreneur, and Vice-President of the Carolina Entrepreneurship Club I thought I was a good person to do it.

Comments like, "Money is the root of all evil," that the "rich are battling the poor in America," and other anti-capitalist overtones drove me past the brink. So I stood up and told Dr. Lawson that in fact money is the root of all prosperity. That without it societies would have to resort to barter, greatly reducing the amount of trade and welfare in the world. Further I explained that the only reason that we had the awesome facilities in that room was because of free enterprise – that without a competitive market for desks, lights, seats, microphones, projectors, carpet, wood, paint, and construction the room we were in could never exist, that the high standards of living we have are directly due to the competitive market economy, and that without a competitive market economy we would have no incentive to produce and to make high quality goods at low costs.

In response to his comment that there was ‘the biggest disparity between rich and poor since slavery’ I added that anybody that was motivated enough could, through entrepreneurship, support themselves and break out of poverty. I added that it was not the disparity that mattered, but rather the ability of anyone to become anything they dream. This was what truly mattered. A large pie unevenly distributed is much better than a small pie divvied up exactly in equal proportion. As former Chinese ruler Deng Xiaoping once noted, "I can distribute poverty or I can distribute wealth." It is better for there to be inequality and the worst-off person have $10 than there to be equality and everyone have $5.

So did this anecdote elucidate my views? Essentially, I submit the fact that in the U.S. there is not equality of opportunity. However, I retain that anybody of solid mental faculty can, with enough desire and perseverance, reach the same heights as anyone born into money and a supportive family. While it is not perfect, there are great opportunities in the economic system we have, and without the incentives provided within it, we would all be worse off and there would be a lot more of us in poverty. Surely there is some corruption within the economic system we have, but surely it was much less that that in other countries and other systems. The competitive market economy is the best system man has created to date.

A Preface to the Beliefs & the Beginning of a Treatise for Change

I was completely sure of this view talking that day in psychology. I stood up there and vigorously and eloquently defended what I held to be dear and true.

A girl came up to me after class that day, however; a girl named Allison. Allison just asked me to consider that perhaps many poor persons did not have the opportunity I had had. It was true. I had two loving parents, a mom who always encouraged me to follow my dreams and be independent, and a supportive childhood during which I received a good education. I also had the luck to become good at web site development and web marketing and help build a company to a million dollars in sales my senior year of high school, providing at least some financial comfort for me.

I had never considered how difficult it would be for a person taking on loans to get through college to start a business. I had never considered how difficult it would have been for me to start a business without loving parents supporting me. I had never considered how difficult it would have been to obtain a good education without the encouragement to go to school and do well. I never considered how difficult it would have been to start a business if one of my parents was a drug addict. I had never considered how hard it would have been to start a business if I would have grown up with murder and drugs outside my door. I had never considered how hard it would have been to start a business if my parents didn’t tell me what I needed to know about sex and I would have impregnated a girl at fifteen.

So do these considerations change my views on the competitive market economy and entrepreneurship? No, not one bit. It just added a bit of compassion to them. I realize that our world is not perfect and as long as there are things like heroine, guns, and gangsta rap out there it will never be. I realize that as long as the animalistic nature of aggression resides in the instinctual genetic make-up of homo sapiens the world will never be perfect. While we may not be able to start people out on the same footing, we can through competitive market economies, entrepreneurship, public education, charity, and a little bit of compassion provide any person who wants to take hold of it the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty and make something of themselves. It is up to that person to take the initiative. It is up to us to spread the word that this possibility is there.

I will be taking next year off from college to start to spread this message. I will start with the United States. Throughout my life, I will spread this message and work to improve the standards of living in developing nations by improving the understanding of entrepreneurship, working to create legal frameworks where private property is recognized, and developing systems of law and political frameworks that can rout out corruption. I will be an entrepreneur myself and use the majority of any profits to found a foundation that will have these aforementioned goals.

I am smart and I know there is lots of hurt out there. All I am doing here is reading fiction books and studying abstract subjects. I’ve been in school for fourteen years. It is time to take a break and get on the streets. Make a true difference.

This Entrepreneurship article was written by Ryan P Allis on 2/9/2005

Ryan P. Allis, 20, is the author of Zero to One Million, a guide to building a company to $1 million in sales, and the founder of Ryan is also the CEO of Broadwick Corp., a provider of the permission-based email marketing software and CEO of Virante, Inc., a web marketing and search engine optimization firm. Ryan is an economics major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he is a Blanchard Scholar. [learn more.