“Economic fairness” was the topic of President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night.
But while he spoke of this as a return to American values, his blueprint for getting us there runs counter not only to the core principles on which our nation was founded but also the very idea of the American Dream.
America is exceptional because it is dedicated to the principle of universal human liberty: that all are fundamentally equal by nature and equally endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This principle and the constitutional framework of law that enlivens it makes possible a dynamic social order in which every member of society can work hard and advance based on individual talent and ability.
This is sound economic theory. When economic reward is available to all, and the protection of property extends to all, the amount of wealth throughout society increases exponentially.
A basic safety net is formed by civil society and public assistance, and the appropriate level of government can then protect those who are unable to care for themselves.
But what is truly revolutionary about the United States is that as the country grew the ladder of opportunity became available to everyone.
As a result, poverty has been vastly diminished. Even more important, it is no longer a permanent condition from which there is no real possibility of escape.
But about a hundred years ago, there arose a different dream: that rather than leave the people free to create a better society, government could engineer one for them.
Progressive reformers were convinced that government could reshape society and eradicate the inequalities of property and wealth that had been unleashed by individual rights, democratic capitalism, and the resulting growth of commerce and business.
A more activist government would redistribute wealth and level out differences through progressive taxation, economic regulations, and extensive social-welfare programs, all centrally administered by expert bureaucrats.
The progressive mantle sat squarely on President Obama’s shoulders during this year’s State of the Union address.
He proclaimed that free enterprise has so eroded “the basic American promise” of opportunity that the “defining issue of our time” is to “restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” And government, he insisted, is just the tool for that job.
In his view, “fairness” flows not from opportunity and freedom of the individual, but from more government power, federal education programs, economic regulations, and infrastructure spending. And, of course, raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for these “investments” would only be fair.
Such policy prescriptions lead to a governing class that insists on enforcing political and economic ‘fairness’ rather than letting us govern ourselves, choose our own vocations and earn our own success.
Indeed, the idea that the government can and should step in to guarantee economic fairness is contrary to the founding principles that make America so great—and that enable its citizens to achieve success. It is contrary to the very meaning of the American Dream.
Americans believe in equality as a principle – as in we are all created equal and are all equal before the law. They support equal opportunity for everyone. This leads to many differences, great diversity and much inequality in many things—which is the natural outgrowth of liberty and human flourishing.
What Americans oppose is a vast government trying to make all outcomes equal—regardless of individual effort.
Egalitarianism is bad economics because it is heavily regulatory, and bad politics because it leads to class warfare. Worse, it is a bad principle because it destroys freedom.
Matthew Spalding is vice president for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation and author of “We Still Hold These Truths.”
Matthew Spalding is associate vice president and dean of educational programs at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center in Washington, D.C.