Tackling Fairness and Justice
The last year has been a tough one for conservatives. The hope that four years of failed policy would be enough to repudiate the liberal/progressive ideology of the Obama administration ended when the majority of the American public voted to maintain their entitlements – so long as someone else paid for them. And the conservative response to the debacle has been for the various factions within the movement to declare war on each other.
It’s time for conservatives to give serious thought to what they believe and how they can make a more persuasive case that conservative principles offer the best path for America. Conservatives have to do more than invoke small government, lower taxes and protection of the family. They have to explain the principles on which such policies are based and why those principles are more likely to fulfill the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on which the nation was founded.
Liberals always argue for their policies on the basis of fairness and justice. It’s only fair, they say, that those who have the most share what they have with those who have less. The whole basis of the progressive tax system rests on this principle – and it is at the heart of the Obama tax message even now.
Conservatives' arguments that this economic redistribution will harm the economy (it will) or that the taxes raised still won’t be enough to pay for ever-expanding entitlements (they won’t) never confront the false premise that the principle is just and fair in the first place. Here is where conservatives seem to have lost their footing, almost as if they no longer know why they believe what they do.
The idea that it is right and just for one group of persons to take from another the fruits of their labor simply because they have more political power would strike most people as unjust. Yet, the debate around raising tax rates on the rich ultimately boils down to that.
At least in the short run, we could raise more revenue to pay for government programs by raising taxes on everyone – rich and middle class alike (few people argue for making the poor pay taxes) – than we could by taxing only those who earn $250,000 or more. No politician argues for that because middle class Americans still make up the voting majority in this country and the middle class have no interest in redistributing their own hard-earned wealth. And why should they? Most people believe they’re entitled to what they’ve earned through their own efforts.
But this natural response actually stems from an understanding that it is a basic right for a man to enjoy the rewards of his own labor. If a man works twice as hard as his neighbor or is more skillful, is it really fair or just to say that that individual should be entitled to keep less of what he earns?
That is not to say that conservatives should forget about the poor and needy, but here again, their arguments should rest on principle not politics. There is no right to be taken care of (except among children, the severely disabled or very old). But there is a moral obligation – for the individual and community – to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. So, too, is there a moral obligation on the part of the individual not to take advantage of others' charity to avoid taking care of himself and his family – if at all possible. Conservatives too often act as if the problem with social welfare programs is that they cost too much, rather than to point out the way in which they breach both moral obligation and responsibility.
It’s not too late for conservatives to try to make these arguments – but first they have to understand them and believe them themselves. Conservatives shouldn’t concede the justice or fairness arguments of liberals; they should tackle them head on.
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