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Conservatism and Equal Opportunity

March 24, 2010

In a recent speech from the floor of the House, Paul Ryan reiterated a common misconception about liberals:

Do we believe that the goal of government is to promote equal opportunity for all Americans to make the most of their lives? Or, do we now believe that government’s role is to equalize the results of peoples lives?

The philosophy advanced on this floor by this Majority today is so paternalistic and so arrogant.

Chait counters Ryan by pointing out that liberals do not, in fact, demand that government “equalize the results” of people’s lives:

Liberals do not believe in equality of outcome in most spheres of life. There are myriad punishments for the losers of the free market that liberals can accept: less money, less vacation time, lower social status, more uncomfortable, dangerous, or physically draining work. But the denial of medical treatment should not be among those punishments.

What liberals claim is that some — but by no means most — outcomes should be equalized.  Given that access to education, health care, and a decent job do not depend on individual initiative alone, liberals contend, government ought to help those who cannot help themselves.

Conservatives claim that equality of opportunity is all that matters, but in reality tend to favor upward wealth redistribution.  As Chait points out, Ryan would transform the federal tax code “from a slightly progressive instrument into a sharply regressive one.”  Ryan would also slash Medicare, Social Security, and the employer-based health care system — all of which mitigate risk for ordinary people. More generally, conservatives reject anti-trust and fair trade laws, financial regulation, and other efforts to level the economic playing field.

(If we are going to convince conservatives that wealth redistribution downward isn’t always a bad idea, it would appear that we must first convince them that redistribution upward is not always a good idea.)

A closely related dispute is over the influence of money in politics. Here is the liberal position, as stated by Democratic Party founder Andrew Jackson way back in 1832:

Distinctions in society will exist under every just government.  Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth cannot be produced by human institutions.  In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society – the farmers, mechanics, and laborers – who have neither the time nor the means of securing favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.  There are no necessary evils in government.  Its evils exist only in its abuses.  If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and low, the rich and poor, it would be an unqualified blessing (from “American Lion,” p. 210).

Few conservatives would admit to disagreeing with Jackson’s remarks — provided that they are taken out of context.  In context, Jackson was condemning the Second National Bank’s use of its money to influence public elections.  To draw the obvious parallel, today’s conservative base opposes limiting the role of money in determining the outcome of elections. Outcomes are, after all, the result of merit, and merit is synonymous with money — right?

Then and now, conservatives favor equal opportunity, but with the Orwellian caveat that “some people are more equal than others” — people with money, that is.

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