Based on the view that capitalism, ipso facto, yields unequal recognition of individuals, which the state must meliorate, progressivism turned America toward government that seeks equality of condition or outcome from our economic system. In President Obama’s brand of progressivism, one role of government is to create economic fairness: to equalize not only unfair inequality of economic outcome, but unfair inequality of economic opportunity as well.
It used to be, he says, “work hard and you can get into the middle class,” but “over the past few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart.” Our inequality “gives lie to the promise that…you can make it if you try.” Restoring middle class security “starts by making sure that everyone…gets a fair shot at success.” (The White House, Remarks by the President on the Economy in Osawatomie, Kansas, December 6, 2011)
President Obama’s depictions of the nature of our economic system give the false impression that it unfairly denies equality of opportunity to other than the rich. Much of the public is acceding to the view that greater dependence on government is needed for individual economic success.
According to a Pew poll, 70 percent of Americans “want the government to increase the equality of opportunity to get ahead.” And 61 percent of Americans believe that “the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy”; only 36 percent said “the economic system is generally fair to most Americans.” (For the Public, It’s Not about Class Warfare, But Fairness, Pew Research Center, March 2, 2012)
Equality or egalitarianism has been a guiding American principle since the founding. To the Founders, the prevailing principle was equality of opportunity, which accepted the inequality of income and other circumstances of life as natural, but held that persons of low rank could raise themselves and earn success in the economic and social order by free use of their innate talents.
Alexis de Tocqueville introduced Democracy in America (1835) with the conclusion: “No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of conditions.” In Commager on Tocqueville (1993), the late historian Henry Steele Commager explains that Tocqueville used the term “equality of condition” in the sense that the Founders used equality of opportunity. He was referring primarily to political and social equality—of status and opportunity.
But, economist Robert William Fogel notes in The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism (2000), by the end of the nineteenth century equality of opportunity began to be replaced by “a new ethic whose touchstone was equality of condition.” This was a different equality of condition than that heralded by Tocqueville; it was a sought-after economic outcome.
Progressivism, Fogel explains, came to have three components for achieving equality of outcome:
First, a conviction that society as a whole would be better off if income is transferred from the rich to the poor; second, a belief that the state is the proper instrument to effect such redistribution; and, third, the development and implementation of public policies and a variety of institutions to effect such redistribution.
In A Theory of Justice (1971), Harvard philosopher John Rawls turned progressivism towards the kind of fairness argument that President Obama now makes:
The principles of justice I shall call justice as fairness….Undeserved inequalities call for redress, and since inequalities of birth and natural endowment are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for. Thus, the principle holds that in order to treat all persons equally, to provide genuine equality of opportunity, society must give more attention to those with fewer native assets and to those born into less favorable social positions.
Justice as fairness envisions that the state not only redistribute material resources to the disadvantaged to produce equality of condition, but also socially construct genuine or fair equality of opportunity to enable equal prospects for success: economic justice
Ironically, in a 2001 radio interview about civil rights victories, then Illinois State Senator Barack Obama lamented the limits of the Constitution on economic justice as fairness (Jake Tapper, “McCain to Attack Obama for Public Radio Comments from 2001,” ABC News, October 27, 2008):
The Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society, and to that extent as radical as people try to characterize the Warren court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, at least as it has been interpreted…
But redistribution in the name of fairness is an important element of President Obama’s policies. He proposes to raise the tax rate on capital gains for fairness—even though the increase would both reduce tax revenue to the government and further penalize individual investors and retirees. His economic priority is to redress inequality, by raising the income tax rate on iniquitous capitalist millionaires (earning $200,000) to make them pay their “fair share”—even though that would reduce urgently needed job creation by small businesses. See my previous article "Taxation."
After watching oral arguments about affirmative action (Fisher) at the Supreme Court, David Leonhardt observed (“Rethinking Affirmative Action,” The New York Times, October 13, 2012):
Only one side talked about fairness. And it was not the side defending affirmative action….The defenders of affirmative action spoke instead about the value of diversity….The crucial choice…made long ago was to focus the program on race rather than more broadly on disadvantage….By foregoing a broader view of disadvantage, colleges ...‘forfeited fairness’…They have preferred a version of diversity focused on elites from every race.
Going to the other extreme to confer fairness, President Obama proposes to send everyone to college, which Peter Wood dissects in "College for All." In March 2009, Mr. Obama proposed to expand innovative charter schools to increase equality of opportunity. (Libby Quaid, “Obama Education Plan Speech,” Huffington Post, March 10, 2009) Then, in December 2009, he approved Democratic legislation that curtailed the District of Columbia’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. (Michael Birnbaum, “New students unlikely to get D. C. school vouchers,” The Washington Post, December 10, 2009)
It is not our economic system but higher and public education that has been unfair to our children—for now four decades. It is the abilities that graduates possess which give them equality of opportunity in the economy. It is the abilities they lack which make them unequal. Higher education is unfair to students by leading them to believe they can make their way in the workplace as purveyors of sustainability, social responsibility, and social justice. But the foundation for lack of needed skills is laid in public education.
In “The Mismeasure of Inequality” (Policy Review, No. 174, August 1, 2012), Kip Hagopian and Lee Ohanion similarly concluded, after a detailed evaluation, that:
Policymakers should address the very real impediments to achieving equality of opportunity, particularly for the youngest and least-skilled workers among us. We believe such efforts should begin with fixing our K‒12 education system…
Tocqueville predicted that democratic government would come to “flatter the passion for equality without ever being able to satisfy it entirely.” The democratic citizen would “naturally turn his regard to the immense being that rises alone in the midst of universal debasement”—the state. A democratic citizenry (now measured by polls) would evolve into “no more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd,” practicing what he called “mild despotism.”
President Obama would become that mild despot, imposing fair equality of opportunity and outcome through government to provide economic justice, the very kind of redistribution, he acknowledges, our Constitution does not envision.
His mission of government orchestration of the economy to furnish a spurious “fairness” will further suppress badly needed growth and intensify the threnodies of the American people and businesses. We need instead to unleash market capitalism, the subject of next week’s article.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).