Where Right and Left Agree on Inequality
Both say that 'a fair chance in the race of life' does not come through the market alone.
William A. Galston
The Wall Street Journal.
Jan. 14, 2014
Opinion, Page A17
Mitt Romney's contemptuous dismissal of the "47%" has turned out to be the most consequential utterance of the 2012 presidential campaign. The line about those who are dependent on government and unlikely to vote for him was recognized by thoughtful conservatives for what it was: an economic and moral mistake as well as a political blunder. Even before President Obama's speech last month on inequality, conservative leaders had begun to speak out, and the pace has intensified in recent weeks.
Washington may be on the verge of something that has become rare—a serious debate on an important issue.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution on Monday, Rep. Paul Ryan laid out his understanding of the America idea: a society in which "the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life." He was echoing the founder of the Republican Party, who declared in 1861 that the principal objective of American government was "to afford to all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life."
As always, President Lincoln chose his words with precision. An unfettered start—without legal impediments—is necessary but not sufficient. A fair chance takes more, which is why the man who freed the slaves also established our system of land-grant colleges.
Today, we know that a fair chance means reaching kindergarten ready to read, graduating from high school and pursuing post-secondary education or training while developing the traits of character that enable young people to persevere in the face of inevitable difficulties. A fair chance also means a job market where people are hired and rewarded on the basis of talent and drive, not race, gender or family connections.
Many conservatives understand that what Lincoln termed a fair chance—what we now call equality of opportunity—does not come about through the market and civil society alone. Writing in the most recent issue of National Affairs, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner declare that conservatives believe in equality of opportunity, not equality of results, but also that "government holds some responsibility for creating the ground for that equality of opportunity, which is not a natural condition."
Leading conservatives acknowledge, moreover, that the United States is not yet an equal-opportunity society. In a speech in November, Sen. Mike Lee said: "Today, a boy born in the bottom 20% of our income scale has a 42% chance of staying there as an adult." According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, he added, "the United States is third from the bottom of advanced countries in terms of upward economic mobility." Speaking last month, Sen. Marco Rubio said that "70% of children born into poverty will never make it to the middle class," noting that there is more social mobility in Canada than in the U.S. The senators are both right. We are still far from Paul Ryan's ideal.
This is what makes the present moment so unusual. Most liberals agree with most conservatives that the objective is equal opportunity. Liberals agree that equal opportunity is a social creation, not a natural condition. And they cite the same facts to argue that the U.S. has not yet succeeded in creating an equal-opportunity society.
The question is what to do about it.
We know, for example, that many children reach kindergarten far behind their more fortunate peers and that they never catch up. Poverty is part of the explanation, as liberals insist. But so are parenting and family structure, as conservatives believe.
We have a choice. We can continue a useless debate between two half-truths, or we can agree that we should work together on both parts of a complex and stubborn problem. We can do more to ensure that children do not grow up in poverty and that they receive effective preparation for formal schooling. And we can do more to encourage a culture of work and marriage while acknowledging that for the foreseeable future, a large percentage of children will grow up in single-parent households whose mothers and fathers will need help to become more effective parents.
Here's another useless debate. Every serious analysis concludes that poverty in the U.S. would be far worse without the programs launched during the Great Society. So conservatives should stop repeating Ronald Reagan's canard that we fought a war on poverty and poverty won. It is more accurate to say that we fought poverty to a draw in circumstances that became increasingly unfavorable for lower-wage workers and their families.
But Lyndon Johnson launched the war on poverty to "open the gates" of opportunity and create a society in which everyone has a chance "to advance his welfare to the limit of his capacities." Cash transfers and in-kind supports may help the poor. But unless that assistance builds opportunity, it will never be enough.
“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; ...” ~ Thomas Jefferson
Assistant State Treasurer
Chief Investment Officer
State of Louisiana
Department of the Treasury