Inequality, Opportunity, and Conservatives

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Yuval Levin and I wrote an article for the most recent NR on how conservatives should respond to the liberal campaign to make the fight against inequality “the defining challenge of our time.” We review the evidence suggesting that Americans are not especially fixated on the topic of inequality, but note that they are concerned about the sustainability of the American Dream in the modern economy. While we do not issue a detailed policy agenda that recapitulates the argument of other articles we have written, we argue that a properly oriented conservatism is better equipped to address the public’s concerns sensibly than liberalism is. An excerpt:

Health care, higher education, and the costs of raising children are some of the most pressing concerns of middle-class families, but the case for conservative reforms in these areas applies in others that also matter to many such families. This suggests the possibility of a broad conservative agenda that would lift burdens off the shoulders of parents and workers, strengthen the market economy while making its benefits accessible to more Americans, and better enable the poor to rise.

That agenda would include more than policies to reduce the cost of living for working families; such policies would be part of a broader growth agenda consisting of sensible tax, regulatory, monetary, and infrastructure reforms. Conservatives have increasingly proposed such a growth agenda in recent years, but if they stop with those broader and more familiar economic goals — or, worse, stop short of them — they run a dangerous risk. The reach and the character of economic growth do matter. We don’t, for example, want to repeat the performance of the Bush years, when economic growth coincided with stagnant wages for most people because the rising cost of health care ate up raises. To stand a chance of being enacted, the agenda conservatives offer must speak directly to the needs and wishes of middle-class voters.

Such an agenda, one of broad-based prosperity, might meaningfully lower inequality, or it might not. It would, however, undermine the damaging perception that the Republican party is interested in helping only the rich and big business. It would move the economic and political center of gravity of American life markedly to the right. And it would be in keeping with the actual state of public opinion. The case for economic growth, opportunity, mobility, family, and reform of our governing institutions would almost certainly be far more appealing to voters than a case for just narrowing gaps. If everyone is rising swiftly, it matters less who rises fastest of all.