Rep. Allen West (R-FL) had a stirring response to President Obama’s latest “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth” class warfare attack, posted on his Facebook page:
President Barack Obama contiues to display his lack of understanding the ideal of American exceptionalism. All Americans are born with a silver spoon. It is represented in the liberty, freedoms, and democracy this Constitutional Republic affords. It is in the unalienable individual rights granted to us by our Creator of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (property). It is the reason why so many have departed other countries to seek the silver spoon which provides equality of opportunity. Sadly, we are witnessing hope and change being replaced by divide and rule. God has blessed America with the silver spoon which we pass onto subsequent generations, honor that blessing.
Coincidentally, David Weinberger – writing in response to the latest unlovely outburst from New York Times sideshow Paul Krugman – published a fine piece about equality of opportunity at the Heritage Foundation on Friday. Krugman wrote:
When you hear conservatives talk about how our goal should be equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes, your first response should be that if they really believe in equality of opportunity, they must be in favor of radical changes in American society.
Weinberger responded with a thoughtful dissertation, quoting Frederick Douglass along the way:
If men were born in need of crutches, instead of having legs, the fact would be otherwise. We should then be in need of help, and would require outside aide; but according to the wiser and better arrangement of nature, our duty is done better by not hindering than by helping our fellow-men; or, in other words, the best way to help them is just to let them help themselves.
The debate about equality is not merely between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. It’s also about the meaning of equality of opportunity. For the left, it means government must manufacture an equalized starting point in life. Short of socialism, this is impossible. Even so, an equal economic start would be no guarantor of equal opportunity, for that would also require controlling natural talents, abilities, and work ethics, which start on different levels. For the right, equal opportunity is about clearing obstacles and removing legal impediments to moving ahead in life. The difference explains why both sides can claim the mantle of equal opportunity yet be talking right past one another.
I would add that manufacturing an “equalized starting point in life” is impossible for socialism, too, although of course its overlords strenuously insist otherwise, as they address the starving masses from the balconies of their posh presidential estates.
West’s remarks captured my imagination, because it occurred to me that Americans don’t realize just how precious our treasured equality of opportunity is, how difficult it was to capture, and how jealously it must be guarded. The American standard of equality entered the world as a unique achievement, and it remains difficult to find anywhere else.
Most of the West now embraces the premise, but Krugman – an outspoken admirer of European socialism – illustrates why it’s so difficult to achieve. The temptation to make “radical changes” in society, in pursuit of a cosmic equality of outcome, is extremely potent. Cultures with a history of privilege and authoritarianism succumb to it more easily, but even America has already succumbed plenty.
Those “radical changes” – what Barack Obama likes to call “transformation” – require enormous levels of compulsive force, by definition. A vision is conceived by the high and mighty, and imposed upon lesser men. If the people were voluntarily changing in the direction conceived by the elites, no political power or “radical changes” would be necessary. No law is needed to force people to purchase a product they desire, develop a resource necessary for their prosperity, or hire people they need.
When compulsive force permeates a society, equality of opportunity is swiftly and inevitably lost. Opportunity becomes something the State allocates and re-distributes. A past injustice you had nothing to do with is cited as the reason for taking your opportunity away, and giving it to another. Those who would hire you to embark upon a profitable venture are told their ambitions are unacceptable. You are not allowed to negotiate the price of your own labor in the pursuit of opportunity.
As our economy crumbles beneath the weight of government spending, and the follies of central planning, we should have learned the painful lesson that opportunity is not something the government can distribute… or create. All of its efforts to manufacture “opportunities” have ended in catastrophic failure, with hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars wasted. Even the most advanced information processing technology ever developed, and more funding than the human race has ever seen a single government wield, could not create or manage opportunities as efficiently as millions of private citizens, exercising their freedom, can discover and exploit them.
This outcome is not mysterious. As Frederick Douglass noted, ability and circumstance are not distributed evenly by nature. Only poverty results when the government classifies fortune as a crime, and subjects it to the force of law. There are a lot of clever, resourceful, bold, and innovative people scattered across the United States. The best way for society to benefit from their unpredictable talent is to leave us free to seek them out… and leave their enterprises free to draw us to the opportunities they have discovered.
The birthright of American children is a humble government that readily admits it has no idea what they’re capable of.